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Lost & Found: Robert Gray on Tom Phillips
In celebration of the spirit of occupation, today’s Lost & Found features Robert Gray on A Humument, Tom Phillips’s repossession of a forsaken Victorian novel. Since this piece was originally published in 2004, A Humument has continued to evolve. For the latest on the project (there’s a Humument app in the works!) and images of the text, check out Phillips’s website here.
Imagine an artist’s book that is also a reader’s book. A Humument lures its readers into an intoxicating world of color and form, wit and intellect, love and lust. The art delights. The words intrigue. The combination astonishes. Since 1966, British artist Tom Phillips has been creating, and recreating, twentieth-century art and poetry out of nineteenth century fiction. In A Humument, he has become the consummate and all-consuming reader of an all-but-forgotten Victorian romance novel, The Human Document by W. H. Mallock.
The genesis of the Humument project occurred in 1965, when Phillips read an interview with William Burroughs in the Paris Review and became intrigued with cut-up poetry techniques. He experimented with a variation he called “columnedge poems,” found in copies of the New Statesmen, but soon decided to take the notion a step further. Inspired by composer John Cage’s prepared piano pieces, Phillips believed he could treat the pages of a novel, crafting new work on top of old while still retaining echoes of the source.
In 1966, he found and purchased a worn copy of A Human Document, published in 1892. The story Mallock tells is a familiar one, concerning the scandalous affair between Lord Robert Grenville, a handsome young Victorian gentleman, and Irma Schilizzi, the beautiful, lonely young wife of an older businessman. Though Mallock’s prose is overripe and uninspiring on the surface, it was never surface alone that intrigued Phillips. He has said that the novel appealed to him because it seemed to have “a kind of predictive nostalgia, sounding weary and in the past even at the time of its writing—a dusty kind of quality, and a peculiarly rich vocabulary.”
Under the spell of Phillip’s mischievous imagination and deft hand, a new story gradually emerged. Page by page, Phillips “treated” A Human Document with his art, leaving selected words and letters from the original text exposed to create an illustrated narrative in verse about Bill Toge, an amoebalike figure who wallows hopelessly in love and lust as he pursues the ever-elusive Irma, reprising her temptress role from the original novel.
Although the Humument pages exist as individual works, they have also been collected into book form several times, with significant revisions to each one. The 1997 Thames and Hudson second revised edition contains more than a hundred new pages. “The ambitious target,” Phillips has written, “is to have the work eventually replace itself in its entirety.” He is currently working on a new edition that will feature fifty new pages.
The early page treatments often involved little more than the drawing of lines through the text to eliminate all but a few words. Over time, the artwork became more complex, colorful, and diverse as Phillips altered pages with acrylic gouache, pen and ink, typing, and collaged fragments.
In the 1980 edition of A Humument, for example, page 105 is partly masked by paper scraps forming geometric designs and leaving a found poem exposed on the left side. When he revised page 105, Phillips painted a gallery room with three columns in the foreground, topped by bits of text (“in / her room / sat abstract / art / O / art / which / made / time penniless.”), and on the back wall he placed a framed, abstract collage fashioned from fragments of the original treatment of that same page.
Romantic obsession—by turns erotic, poignant, and goofy—is rife throughout A Humument, but Phillips also layers his work with references to literature, music, and art. On one of my favorite pages, he pays tribute to both Rimbaud and Cézanne by creating a room with Phillips’s version of a Cézanne self-portrait in the background, and extracting from Mallock the celebratory phrase “O cezanne / O châteaux,” a deliberate echo from a line from Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell: “O saison, o chateaux!”
On another page, Phillips acknowledges modern music’s influence upon him with the initials of several composers, including Morton Feldman and Terry Riley, and the line: “the sound / in my life / enlarges / my / prison.”
In observing the art world, he can’t help but turn the brush upon himself: “He brought / last words / in covered / lines / full of / broken / suggestions / to the British Museum, / my dear”
If this annexation of pages from a century-old novel and their transformation into art with clever text fragments were all that A Humument consisted of, it would be noteworthy enough, an artist’s book of the highest order, but Phillips’s literary aspirations make the work truly innovative. He has derived a deeply personal narrative thread (“redeem / a dream : and / dream / this diary / for / telling myself my own story”) from Mallock, whom Phillips describes as “the old, suffering companion of my artistic life.”
For the rest of us, it is simply, and not so simply, a beautiful read.
Robert Gray is a Contributing Editor at Shelf Awareness, the daily online newsletter for the book trade. He worked as a frontline bookseller and buyer at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, VT, from 1992-2006 and was named the store’s first Master Bookseller in 2000. His work has appeared in Agni Online, Words Without Borders, Publishers Weekly, Cimarron Review, and more. Visit his website at http://www.fresheyesnow.com/.