Dan Hillier’s Neo-Victorian Fever Dreams

'Towards Death', © Dan Hillier

‘These forgotten images and discarded memories re-write a gorgeously dark period of history, one full of elephant men and taxidermy, death and medicine. The resulting pieces are like postcards coming from Beardsley from a Victorian mansion – if the mansion was populated by circus freaks and Werner Herzog.’ (Dazed and Confused Magazine, April 2007)

A few weeks ago I posted about the artwork of Travis Louie, and its resemblance to Augustus F. Sherman’s Ellis Island portraits. This week I’m doing some research on a very different artist indeed, who I nevertheless hope to compare with Louie in the chapter I’m working on. This artist is Dan Hillier, born in Oxford (far from Louie’s hometown in Queens, NY), now living in Hackney, London. Like Louie, Hillier’s work appropriates Victorian aesthetics and narratives, and depicts fantastical beasts or monsters in this style. The ‘mystery, wonder and amazement’ that Hillier is trying to put into his work also resonates with what Louie communicates.

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Taking prints and pages from old issues of the Illustrated London News, magazines, anatomical textbooks, and ‘various bits and pieces from all over the place’, Hillier’s work is arguably much more deserving of the term ‘mashup’ than Louie’s is. Though much of his collage is done in Photoshop, however, Hillier also does extensive pen-and-ink work – sometimes on top of these collages, sometimes on its own, always in an impressive level of detail.

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If I had to compare Hillier’s work to something in terms of aesthetics, it might as well be the surrealist collages of Max Ernst. Hillier himself cites Une Semaine De Bonté (A Week of Kindness) as a particular source of inspiration. In addition, there are several contemporary artists who have drawn comparisons to Hillier, including Claudia Drake, George K. (alias olex oleole), and, my personal favourite, Mad Meg. Hillier also has a gif series devoted to his work. Naturally though, like all artists, Hillier’s work is ultimately unique.

BeautifulBizzare has some insightful comments on the way he transforms the familiar into the unfamiliar:

Some of Hillier’s most popular work is found in his hybrid figures, mixing ornate Victorian styled subjects with the cosmic and bestial imagery that he is so fond of, challenging our perception of identity and ego. Using images in his collage work from 19th century prints and medical dictionaries, Hillier presents us a discontented and uncomfortable realism that sits uneasy on the eye, but demands our attention to all the wonderful detail. With a third eye present in humans and beasts alike, Hillier takes the Victorian’s thirst for knowledge and strips it away, until all we have is the terror of knowing too much.

Rather than being photorealistic, these images approach reality from the perspective of the anatomical textbook – a Victorian staple almost as evocative as the photograph. Although the subject matter of Hillier’s work is often grotesque or macabre, and the finished image almost always a somber black-and-white, the scenes he presents always manage to make an oddly cheerful – even gleeful – impression.

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If you’re keen to have a closer look at Dan Hillier’s work, you can catch it at the 2016 summer ‘Wonder’ season at Shakespeare’s Globe, or at The Other Art Fair in London (7-10 April, Victoria House). Or you can just pop by his stall at the Sunday Upmarket one weekend.

[EDIT: Any (Neo-)Victorianists reading this post may be interested to know that Dan Hillier’s work was part of Sonia Solicari’s ‘Victoriana: The Art of Revival’ exhibition in 2013. I wasn’t lucky enough to attend, but I did manage to score an art book. You may also know Hillier’s work from this 2010 music video (Losers’ ‘Flush’, featuring Riz MC & Envy), or his cover art for Royal Blood’s debut album in 2014, which won the Best Art Vinyl award.]

Translating Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

The cover for the French pocket edition of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
The cover for the French pocket edition of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

This week I spent a good chunk of time trying to figure out which literary monster mashups had been translated into which languages, as well as how and by whom. This turned up all kinds of interesting information – for example that Quirk’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters are the most widely translated (which I sort of expected), and that other languages have their own original monster mashups (which I didn’t). Another interesting bit of data I turned up is that mashup translators often approach the comic mixing of styles and genres in a way similar to mashup artists like Seth Grahame-Smith, Ben H. Winters, or Sherri Browning Erwin: they turn to an older version of the canonical text in their own language.

Literary translation is challenging enough on its own. What happens when you’re not only dealing with an author’s style, but another translator’s as well? The following is an excerpt from a blog post by the Dutch translator of Pride en Prejudice en ZombiesMaarten van der Werf, who had previously translated work by Karen Armstrong and Edward Said. I’ve transposed it into English and reposted it here (modified with links and images), with the gracious permission of both the author and Amsterdam’s Athenaeum bookshop:

The Dutch translation of P&P&Z prefers to keep the English title largely intact.
The Dutch translation of P&P&Z prefers to keep the English title largely intact.

‘A lot of people thought it was a kind of sacrilege – that someone would dare to tackle a classic like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that way. That was the reason I got the job: the person who was originally asked didn’t think much of the project, and approached me instead. Since I’m not averse to iconoclasm, and also enjoy the odd brush with ninjas and swords, I decided to take the job.

In spirit, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is a parody: Austen’s narrative has been adjusted and bits have been added, though the storyline and text remain largely unaltered. Naturally this doesn’t hold true everywhere, starting with the book’s opening paragraph [Dutch translation here]:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. Never was this truth more plain than during the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which a household of eighteen was slaughtered and consumed by a horde of the living dead.

The Victorian [sic] setting has been changed slightly: England has been stricken by a zombie plague. The undead keep multiplying, immersing the country in an ongoing struggle for its very existence. The renowned Bennet sisters have also been recruited to the war, which they wage with flint muskets and Oriental combat techniques. The result is hilarious, because the fuss about whether or not Elizabeth will marry the mysterious Mr. Darcy remains largely intact. Emphasis on “largely”.

'Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went.'
‘Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went.’

As Seth Grahame-Smith – the evil genius behind this project – made changes and additions to the original story, I too worked in an older translation of Pride and Prejudice [Trots en Vooroordeel, published in 1980 by L.J. Veen and translated by H.E. van Praag-van Praag]. I changed what Grahame-Smith had changed, translated what he had added, and also made a passing sweep through the original translation, which needed some modernisation. I had to be careful not to get too enthusiastic with this last step, because the somewhat worn, old-fashioned language added to the book’s feel, and could even be turned up a notch in places. The parts I translated myself had to fit in with this language, so I could go to town with dowdy words and phrases. I enjoyed myself immensely – and as I worked I found myself appreciating the original work more and more.

Of course, reactions to a book like this are mixed. Some consider it a waste of every drop of ink used to print it, or are upset because they feel you can’t maim a classic like Pride and Prejudice this way. I think Asten’s story can take it: the Mona Lisa is no less beautiful for all the jokes made about it. I’m also sure a lot of people will find it incredibly fun. They can look forward to more fun as well, because Sense & Sensibility & Zeemonsters is already out, and Android Karenina and Jane Slayre may be up next for translation into Dutch.’ [Maarten van der Werf, 2010]

'“My dear girl," said her Ladyship, "I suggest you take this contest seriously. My ninjas will show you no mercy."'
‘“My dear girl,” said her Ladyship, “I suggest you take this contest seriously. My ninjas will show you no mercy.”’

Five years down the line, there is sadly still no Dutch translation of either of these texts, at least to my knowledge, though the trend has definitely continued in other languages. I would be particularly interested in seeing how a translation of Android Karenina would work in practice, given that the version of Anna Karenina used in the English mashup is already a translation: a highly influential (if controversial) 1901 version by Constance Garnett.

I’m guessing there’s a whole other post’s worth of material in why Jane Austen’s work is the most popular target of this kind of adaptation on a global scale, but I’ll leave that for another day – and possibly another blogger. In any case, I’m now definitely in the mood for some Austen indulgence. Anyone have any opinions on 2013’s Austenland, or that recent Matchmaker card game? If all else fails there’s always Bridget Jones’s Diary on Netflix.