Istvan Banyai at Large

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday March 20, 2013

The Norman Rockwell Museum's Distinguished Illustrator Series opened the winter season with Istvan Banyai: Stranger in a Strange Land, running through May 5, 2013, in Stockbridge, Mass. This weekend Istvan will give a talk about his life and work.

To mark the exhibition's opening, Steve Heller wrote, Istvan Banyai is mad. Not angry or despondent, but mad in the transcendent sense—in a perpetual state of creative lunacy that only a gifted artist can achieve. Madness is also a state of grace that enables this artist’s eye to see what the average person cannot, and enables him to say what the non-artist is incapable of articulating.

Ist-one, as he calls himself, is possessed by what he calls “an organic combination of turn-of-the-century Viennese Retro, interjected with American pop, some European absurdity added for flavor, served on a cartoon-style color palette.” He inspires other artists through the translation of these disparate influences into a personal visual language manifest through exquisite illustrations that are vessels for complex narratives aimed at adults and children. His signature sinuous linearity is at once beguiling and hypnotic, lulling his viewers into a moment of wonderment, while inviting them to take part in his madness(es). [More]

I contacted Istvan in his studio last week, and he kindly agreed to do this Q&A for DART readers:

Q: Did the propaganda art of your youth, in Hungary, have anything to do with your rather subversive way of articulating a narrative?

A: Yes, I lost faith in authority early in life. The Peter Pan syndrome applies. My trust was compromised in all father figures, leaders of any kind, in any uniform, be it a policeman or airport security guard. I have a hard time obeying rules that make no sense to me. I think I have a reasonable moral compass. I grew up, I am an adult, not a child. I take responsibility for my actions. I do not need a guardian, a priest or a prison-guard next to me, just a friend.

Q: What was your first assignment after you arrived in New York?

A:The New York Magazine “Gotham” page. I suddenly landed next to every New Yorker’s toilet every week. Pure luck.


Above and below: L.A. Noire, from Tails of the City, for the Los Angeles Times Magazine, April 2012. Art Director: Rip Georges. Courtesy: Istvan Banyai.

Q: What was there about The New York Times Op Ed page that made it such a great home for your art when you arrived here—and what year was that?

A: 1984 (almost Orwell). In Hungary, I learned how to suggest, without saying anything straight, anything about the Communist block. The New York Times Op Ed requested the same thing. Strange. It was not an effort. I was rather surprised. i was hoping for the opposite!

Q: When/why did you decide to create wordless narratives? Do you make more than one tight sketch before going to ink?

A: Let me say this: I am not a storyteller. Stories are mostly boring to me. The hero's fate drifts up and down, then he dies. Hamlet or Darth Vader, it’s the same. What is behind the story is more interesting to me. The scheme of things; the rest is decoration.

Accidents help; you just have to see value in it. I keep refining things to get to the point I am trying to aim at. Whatever it takes, sometimes one take, sometimes many; sometimes I give up and a year later it comes—or not.

Q: Your drawings are characterized by incredibly sharp perspective and unusual points of view. Do you remember what inspired you to “draw different”?

A: Perspective is a must, since I studied architecture before graphic design and animation. I kept drawing as an architect, with line and shadow, a minimalist tool to indicate space. Later I stumbled upon ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints), then comics (Winsor McCay) were added to the pseudo Victorian Viennese retro of what had been the Austro-Hungarian era: Freud, Klimt, Kafka, Ignaz Semmelweis, Sacher torte, caffe-house culture, all those influences from before the Soviets liberated us had an appeal for us kids growing up there, desperately looking for flavor from the past. Old super-well illustrated children’s books like Lazy Peter, Jules Verne, Robinson Caruso, Munchhausen, Winnie the Pooh, or Eric Kästner, and so on; whatever my parents had on their bookshelf.

Q: How did Zoom (your 1995 children’s book, which was inspired by the classic Charles and Ray Eames film, Power of Ten) come about? Did the concept come in a flash, or was it something that materialized over a long period of time? 

A: I was never inspired by the film Power of Ten, per se. It’s interesting that people associate Zoom with it. I tried using an image that becomes a detail in the next and the two again encapsulated in the following one—it’s like Russian Dolls. It has nothing to do with scale in that sense, it shows that everything is the same, related or not, no fringe or one single center; it is all overall. My émigré mind—a man without a country but at home everywhere—is what Zoom is about. Looking for identity. Small or big, what is the difference. That dot at the end has everything in it. Is it small really? Where am I? Where are you?

Power of Ten is about something else; it has no conclusion; but it marvels on gliding by the scale, up and down, with an open end on either side. But in my case the up is down simultaneously. In my case the scale is irrelevant; that's the point; it is all one.


Q: You’ve covered just about every aspect of pop culture and contemporary life in your illustrations. Is there a subject you’ve never taken on that intrigues you? 

A: Not really. Things change; a new take is needed to reevaluate it. It is a constant flux. We bake a different loaf of bread every day.

Q: Do you think that Pope Francis has enough interesting quirks to become a great subject for illustrators? (Barry Blitt had some fun with Pope Benedict.)

A: You said it. I could even draw Bishop Barry Blitt as the happy smoke comes out of his chimney just to see what Pope Francis Mouly will announce: Maybe a lady Pope for a change!? ;o)

Q: What advice would you offer a young illustrator who is just beginning to get noticed?

A: Trust your instinct, love what you do, sharpen your skills and mind; and do good. The market will find you sooner or later if you have something unique and different to offer. And be diligent! Enjoy and play, if not in print, do it digitally, drawing will be around since it is a basic human activity. Every child does it, some never stop even by growing up! Map your mind along the way with images, as I prefer to think of it.

An Evening with Istvan Banyai Saturday, March 23, 5:30 p.m. Join Istvan Banyai for a personal look at the artist’s creative and professional journey. Refreshments and a book signing will follows. Tickets $10/$5.
Istvan Banyai: Stranger in a Strange Land, Distinguished Illustrator Series, continues at the Norman Rockwell Museum through May 5, 2013. 9 Mass Route 183, Stockbridge, MA. Directions.


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