Cor Blok

Studies of the Art and Artists Inspired by the Writings of J.R.R.Tolkien
Iolanthe
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Cor Blok

Postby Iolanthe » Sat Dec 09, 2006 12:31 pm

Artist in Profile

Image

© Cor Blok


Cor Blok


‘Tolkien himself approved of Blok's paintings’. I read these words in an Amazon review with amazement. Cor Blok? Aren’t they those weird and childlike paintings that appeared on the covers of the 1965 Dutch editions of The Lord of the Rings? Mmmm. Time, I thought to take a closer look.

Then I hit a major stumbling block (or blok :lol: ). There is hardly any information about Cor Blok to be found. There is a Cor Blok who is Chief Curator of Contemporary Art at the Museum Boymans van Beuningen in Holland. Is it the same man? No idea. What I do know, from a passing reference, is that he once visited Tolkien who apparently liked his style, and that he produced some truly remarkable cover illustrations for a combined The Lord of the Rings Volume (Het Spectrum, 1965) and for subsequent individual volumes of the three books. The Dutch, of course, were far-sighted enough to be the first to translate The Lord of the Rings in 1956.

So – unless there are those of you who know more about Cor Blok (please let it be so) - I’m left with just taking a look at these rather strange paintings and telling you what I think of them. Maybe we can get past their initial childlike and cartoonish quality and see something of what Tolkien saw.

To start us off, let’s take a closer look at one that didn’t form a book cover, his rather astonishing picture of the Mûmak of Harad:


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The Mûmak of Harad

© Cor Blok


This appeared in the 1998 J.R.R. Tolkien Calendar and a reviewer, after declaring it the best illustration in the calendar, called it ‘A great painting’. So, why is it great? The only copies of it I could find show it as all wrinkly, probably because it was painted on thin paper in water colour (guessing here) and perhaps (guessing here again) pasted on a board. But this wrinkling gives the illusion of a centuries old parchment which has somehow been saved and been passed down to us. I’m supposing this is accidental, not deliberate, but it adds a certain something. It’s also one of the reasons why, to me, it has the feel of a Persian miniature about it. That and the stylised landscape and trees, and the movement of the figures. But have you ever seen a madder Oliphaunt? The raging red eyes, the beetling brow, the unlikely and very threatening clawed feet? And the way it’s galloping along with both its hind legs kicking high into the air! No wonder they are all running. It’s awesome and crazy in every sense and I admit that I love it. And then there is that little figure in red that can’t hold on and is falling off its back.

In the right foreground are two astonished figures which must be Frodo and Sam, as they look very like the hobbits in Blok’s other hobbit drawings. Right under the Mûmak’s belly is a brave soldier kneeling with a bow and what looks like the red shadow of a man lying flat on the ground. Is it my imagination or has he been completely flattened into a red smear…?

And now for some thing completely different. Riddles in the Dark:


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Riddles in the Dark

© Cor Blok


Riddles is very dark, almost monochromatic with no visible background - just what you’d expect from a cave deep, deep under the mountains. I've lightened the copy shown here just so you can make out the details in it. Gollum is totally unlike any depiction of Gollum I’ve ever seen, almost duck-like in shape, with his creepily long fingers and toes and his pale, glowing eye. He’s almost wringing his hands and I like to think it’s the moment when he’s trying to guess what Bilbo has in his pocket. But the part of the painting which really grabs your attention as soon as you look at it is Bilbo’s face, which is brightly lit and seems to hover like a full moon in an ink-black sky.

So let’s take a look at one of those book covers:


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Cover: The Fellowship of the Ring

© Cor Blok/Prisma Boeken


Here is the cover of Fellowship of the Ring which shows Frodo putting on the Ring in the Prancing Pony and disappearing, to the clear astonishment of everyone watching. Frodo is the qhostly form in the centre and we can see right through him to the table beyond, caught in transition between being visible and invisible. Behind him is a sinister figure, sitting alone with his cloak pulled right up to his nose so only his eyes can be seen. He isn’t the least bit surprised by what he’s seeing and to me this looks like Strider. Above is a lively depiction of a Friesian cow jumping over the moon. The crowd in the Prancing Pony is a really cosmopolitan crowd who look as thought they have come from the four corners of the earth. The man seated bottom right seems to be sporting a great-coat and sou’wester! All in all it’s a fun picture and an interesting choice of subject for the cover of the first book. It makes you want to read it to find out what on earth’s going on.

Although Cor Blok’s style appears simplistic on the surface he cleverly combines stylised figures reduced to the absolute basics with a strong sense of identity, drama and emotion. The more you look at them the more you get. He can also pull out all the stops and present the epic with all the force of the best of the more literal artists, as you can see in The Battle of the Hornburg:


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The Battle of the Hornburg

© Cor Blok


This is the moment where the whole battle changes from desperation to triumph. The cold light of dawn can be seen breaking through the clouds and lighting up a distant, snow-capped mountain. Gandalf rides to the rescue at the head of an army and below him he is mirrored by Theoden riding out of the Hornburg under the green and white flag of Rohan. The white galloping horse on the flag is another mirror of Gandalf riding snow-white Shadowfax, above (it's worth looking at the larger copy at Rolozo Tolkien here). Just below Theoden is a figure that looks like Gimli with his axe, while on top of the tower a soldier sounds the Horn of Helm Hammerhand. In the very centre of the picture, in a pool of bright green, are black trees that seem to be galloping down the hillside along with Gandalf. There are many more details to notice and enjoy. It’s a very well organised and dramatic representation of a very difficult and complex scene, and although the figures are stylised there is nothing cartoonish about the battle or the dark forces that the heroes are pitted against.

Unfortunately there are very few Cor Blok’s to share with you, just a badly preserved handful to show us his unique view of Tolkien’s World. I urge you to take a look at his other works, the other two LOTR covers and the dark and mysterious The vision of Frodo upon Amon Hen which needs to be seen at a large size to be appreciated. I’d be very interested in knowing what rest of you make of them. Blok is a unique artist and I’m glad that we get to see just a little of Middle-earth through his eyes.

For more of Cor Blok's paintings take a look at the wonderful Rolozo Tolkien website.

So.....everybody....what do you think?
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Postby Merry » Sat Dec 09, 2006 4:04 pm

I think they're wonderful! I haven't seen nor heard of this artist before, but I'm not surprised that Tolkien approved. The childish nature of the works would have been delightful to him.

Do we see Gollum cowering in the Mumak painting?

More than this, however, I would like to make sure that we all recognize the treasure we have here in Iolanthe. I know of no other collection of commentary on Tolkien art such as this anywhere, and your artistic insights leave me with a lot of deeper appreciation for the paintings and for you. Many thanks!
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Postby serinde » Sat Dec 09, 2006 4:57 pm

First of all, I do not make a habit of studying art, so forgive me my glaring mistakes!

I can see why Tolkien liked this artwork. It does seem to contain so much detail without losing its label of 'folkart'.

my observations:
The detail of the Haradian falling dead so close to Frodo & Sam ; and the flattened body beneath the Mumak -- both are priceless

The swarthy southerners watching Frodo disappear! Wish Strider had a pipe, tho.

Just a humble correction -- that would be Gimli on the right hand side of the Helm's Deep painting, leading a charge out of the Glittering Caves

I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of the art.
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Postby Iolanthe » Sun Dec 10, 2006 6:11 pm

I'm so glad you both like the Blok pictures. I love them :D . And I'm glad your enjoying this series too. Thanks Merry :hug:.

I think you're right, serinde, the 'folk-art' look must have captivated Tolkien!

I wondered if I could see Gollum in the Mumak painting, to the left of Frodo and Sam but wasn't sure. I'm still thinking the very short figure with the axe below Theoden is Gimli, the axe is much clearer in the larger versions of the painting, but it is hard to tell with so much going on! Do you mean the intriguing figures in white on the far right in the background, serinde? I keep wondering why they are white - they appear important and stand out as much as Gandalf.

And down in the bottom left there is an orc surrounded by flame, perhaps left over from blowing up the Deeping Wall? It almost looks like a little picture within the picture, showing what happened.
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Beren
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Postby Beren » Mon Dec 11, 2006 1:58 pm

I know Cor Blok... have talked with him on some occasions about Tolkien also. His work is wonderfull! It is funny of course that Cor himself is not really happy with them. I know a lot of people who actually own a Cor Blok and I know even where to buy the three originals which were used for the Dutch paperbacks.

Last summer there was also a Cor Blok exhibition at the Lustrum celebrations of Unquendor (the Dutch Tolkien Society) where Cor Blok was guest of honor. Also there i talked with Cor and had him sign my paperbacks.

Sadly the man is old now, and he does not really remember a lot about his visit to Tolkien. Only think he knows that he went there and gave him a painting and then Tolkien 'bought' two others. Tolkien was a hard critic and him 'buying' two paintings is very strange. He must have liked Blok's work a lot...

And yes (read first post) that is the same person... he is the Chief Curator of Contemporary Art at the Museum Boymans van Beuningen in Holland.

If you want i can write down what i recall of my conversations. He talk me about his technique and how he did these paintings. I also went to a lecture of his about his Tolkien work... this lecture will be published next year i think (in Lembas extra by Unquendor).
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Postby marbretherese » Mon Dec 11, 2006 2:01 pm

Thanks for posting these pictures, Iolanthe. I hadn't heard of Cor Blok either, but I too can see why Tolkien admired them. Tolkien's own drawings are a kind of folk art, albeit in an Art Nouveau fashion. Some of Blok's crowd scenes remind me of LS Lowry's paintings, and at the same time there are similarities with another (much older!) Dutch artist - Breughel. The one of Gollum and Bilbo is not so different in style to Tove Jannson's illustrations of her "Moomintroll" books!
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Postby marbretherese » Mon Dec 11, 2006 2:03 pm

My post crossed with Beren's. I for one would definitely like to know more, Beren, yes please! do tell us more about your conversations with him!!
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Postby Beren » Mon Dec 11, 2006 2:40 pm

About his technique... he was trying to find out a way to create paintings which had a patina, that resembled the old art he could see in old manuscripts. He made the paintings in a period where a lot of artists went for a lot of detail, color,... he wanted to oppose this and throw away all the unnecessary. He took a rice paper and painted on top and at the bottom then (while the paint was wet) took a paper and painted it in one color and then stuck the ricepaper on top. Then he went on blowing with straws to mix a little bit the paint up and under the ricepaper. The result is you get this patina look which has dept also.

The pictures are all very small, like minatures and they were all framed in a same sort of frame. Paintings which are not in this frame are bound to be fake. They were sold by René Rossenberg from Leiden (funny is that Cor Blok did not know about this). Cor Blok expected all the paintings to be sold to a musuem, yet the were sold to private buyers. Most of them are lost and no-one knows where the originals are, but i tracked down already ten of them. Hope one day to organize an exhibition and get them all back together. Just last month i found the three paintings which were used for the covers of the paperback and was even offered to buy them. 9000 euro is a bit over my budget (sadly, since they are so lovely)... but at least i know where they are! Even Cor Blok does not know yet that i found them. I think he is really sad that they were sold like this and hopes one day to create a little catalogue; sadly he is very old now and I do not suspect that his dream will come true (but i'm doing my best to help out).
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Postby Iolanthe » Mon Dec 11, 2006 8:29 pm

Beren, this is wonderful! I would love to hear more about your discussions with Blok. I was desperate to find out more about him but having most of the Google results coming up in Dutch was a stumbling block for me. The fact that you care so much about his work and are tracking his paintings down is very good news.

I'm pleased to hear that there are more original paintings than I thought. Are all the 10 you tracked down Tolkien paintings? How great it would be to hold an exhibition with all of them, he really deserves that attention.

I'm also glad that he intended the wrinkly, 'old miniature' look and that the impression of age is just what he wanted. He certainly succeeded, I was very struck by it!

Can you tell I'm excited :D .
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Postby Beren » Mon Dec 11, 2006 8:35 pm

The ones i track down are the Tolkien related paintings... he has other art also (even statues and paintings about imaginary creatures) but i'm most interested in his Tolkien related art (of course). And funny to tell I think he has made a lot. Probably 48 or so that were sold and then two months ago he told me he has about 15 he did not like so much back then. Then I went to see them and they look fantastic.

The one i liked best so far is a drawing of walking ents. It is really wonderfull. Will I mail the owner for a picture? He might want to send me one...
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Postby Beren » Mon Dec 11, 2006 8:36 pm

O by the way... my native language is Dutch so for me that is easy to understand!
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Iolanthe
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Postby Iolanthe » Mon Dec 11, 2006 8:45 pm

I'm thrilled there are so many Tolkien paintings - yet there are reproductions of so few of them! The only ones I've seen are the ones I mentioned above (all at Rolozo Tolkien) and I've tried searching for more on-line with no luck. What a shame they are so overlooked outside of Holland. If there was only a Cor Blok Tolkien calendar I would certainly buy it. Or even a book..... if only!

Beren wrote:The one i liked best so far is a drawing of walking ents. It is really wonderfull. Will I mail the owner for a picture? He might want to send me one...

That would be wonderful!!!
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Postby Philipa » Tue Dec 12, 2006 1:57 am

What a treasure. Iolanthe thank you for showing us Blok's work. Like the others I'd not seen nor heard of them before.

The technique Blok used was so simple and the originals you have shown us look so fragile too. I love them!

Beren have I told you how much I value your voice here at MeJ :hug:. You, my friend, are another treasure. :D
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Postby Merry » Tue Dec 12, 2006 3:10 am

Yes, this is really exciting! Beren, if you could show us digital copies of any more, we'd sure enjoy them.
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Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
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Postby Iolanthe » Sun Apr 01, 2007 7:05 pm

I've been dipping into Hammond and Scull's wonderful new Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader's Guide (worth every penny and it's rather a lot of pennies :lol: ) and there is an interesting entry on Tolkien and illustrators. This bit especially caught my eye:

Tolkien liked the work of a Dutch artist, Cor Blok, and even bought two of his illustrations of The Lord of the Rings: The Battle of the Hornburg and The Dead Marshes.


:D I didn't realise Tolkien bought any Bloks! I'm so glad he liked the Battle of the Hornburg as much as I do.
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