Illustrated Journals: 8 Artists Who Made the Personal Public

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Attention was showered on the illustrated journal this week, a generally lesser-discussed artistic genre, when the Victoria and Albert Museum in London announced the winners of its annual illustration awards. Olivier Kugler took top prize for his pictorial account of his journey across Iran, Un Thé en Iran. The 30-page journal was described by judges as a “stunning work” which was “hard to fault.” “This is where drawing can top photography and copy,” said judge and contemporary artist Rob Ryan.

The use of photography to document political issues and events is a hotbed of debate — perhaps made most famous by Susan Sontag and her unforgettable declaration that photography is a “political weapon” — igniting questions like: Does the photograph objectify its subject? Does the photograph manipulate reality by depicting a second in time, which, when blown up on the front page of a newspaper or website, can easily become representative of an entire issue? If these claims are true, the following question is inevitable: Can photography adequately depict political circumstances?

The illustrated journal, especially the political illustrated journal, is interesting to consider in light of these questions. Subjectivity is inherent in drawing: We know that drawing is an interpretation and thus an innately biased depiction of reality. This provides a sort of freedom for the viewer — we are not looking for facts, we are looking to see an account of the world. Further, because the illustrated journal seeks to imagine the inner workings of a particular time and space –rather than just depict reality — it naturally contextualizes its subject within the greater socio-political landscape. When these factors successfully converge the result is an emotionally explosive work packed with political punch.

But who’s making illustrated journals these days that hold sway over the greater zeitgeist? Here are a few artists who have created illustrated journals to make sense of out their experiences and navigate their social worlds. Some speak vociferously to political and social issues while others ponder the personal, but in all cases, the synthesis of rigorous self-reflection and imagination in each journal simulates a world that looks and feels like our own. If, as Hannah Arendt famously said, imagination is the key to understanding, “the only moral compass we have,” the illustrated journal, by opening up a deeply personal account of the world to an audience of strangers, can do much to build shared consciousness.

Julie Doucet

Image courtesy of Julie Doucet

Former underground cartoon artist Doucet makes comic book-like diaries that deal, rather explicitly, with issues of sex, menstruation, and violence. Looking at Doucet’s work, one is plunged into shadowy, dreamlike version of daily life that is, unfortunately, all too real. See more images from her books on her website — they are not to be missed.

Olivier Kugler

Image courtesy of Olivier Kugler

Kugler houses his rather epic collection of illustrated journals on his website, in a section called “Drawn From Real Life.” Each book features intricate, lightly colored drawings dotted with spare descriptions. Together they create a visual poetry that takes “poignant” to another level entirely.

Keith Haring

Keith Haring, Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks, 1978 Graphite on paper; 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches. Image courtesy of Gladstone Gallery

Though he’s no longer alive, Keith Haring’s journals are currently on view at the Gladstone Gallery. Made famous by his chalk drawings in the subways in the 1980s, the pop-graffiti artist kept illustrated journals throughout his career, some of which are now referred to as the “Manhattan Penis Drawings.” While Haring might be best remembered for taking up AIDS in his art, his work also explored apartheid and the crack cocaine epidemic. Before he died of AIDS in 1989 he established the Keith Haring Foundation as a way to provide funding and imagery to AIDS organizations and children’s programs. His early journals provide insight into the causes that would come to dominate his artistic career.

Phoebe Gloeckner

Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures chronicles the life of Minnie, a precocious 15-year-old who wanders through a number of shattering sexual experiences and is routinely abandoned and abused by all who enter her life. This coming-of-age diary alternates between vivid drawings and raw text.

Peter Beard

Peter Beard, perhaps most famous for his photographs of rockstars like Mick Jagger and David Bowie, supermodels like Iman and Veruschka, and endangered African elephants (and for being once married to Cheryl Tiegs) got his start creating illustrated diaries, which he still makes today. His opulent diaries are available for purchase — that is, if you’d like to spend nearly $4000.

Jean Cocteau

The artistic and literary legend documents his addiction to opium in Opium: The Illustrated Diary of His Cure . The book is filled with evocative pen-and-ink illustrations, documenting the artist’s addiction and withdrawal.

Janice Lowry

Image courtesy of Janice Lowry

Best known for her dreamy, surrealist-like assemblages of found objects, artist Janice Lowry kept illustrated diaries through since age 11. The journals were acquired into the Smithsonian’s Archive of American Art after her death in 2009. Selections can (and should!) be seen on the artist’s website.

Luis Mendo

Image via Luis Mendo’s Flickr

Art director Luis Mendo kept this diary, which can be found on Flickr, throughout his trip to Tokyo. His sinuous watercolors and drawings are matched by text featuring deer-in-headlights moments common to tourists, which make for a surprisingly comic reading experience. The journal will resonate with anyone who has found himself baffled and lost within a foreign country.