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Vladimir Nabokov enjoyed playing with words. He was renowned for placing riddles and deceptions throughout his narratives, encouraging a deeper exploration of the text and taking readers to dark places they wouldn’t have anticipated. In his introduction to a new edition of Nabokov’s Lolita, Michael Dirda urges the reader to ‘pay close attention … because true art is made of what, upon cursory inspection, may seem mere trifles.’
The first-ever illustrated edition of Lolita contains nine paintings by Chilean artist Federico Infante, and while many of us can picture James Mason and Sue Lyon on-screen in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, how might we imagine the characters brought to life in paint? How might an artist recreate the menace and scandal that permeates throughout the text, and add layers of detail that reveals itself on repeated inspection?
A challenging brief but as The Folio Society’s Art Director Sheri Gee explained in a recent article in the Independent, in Federico Infante she found someone equipped with the style and sympathy to match Nabokov’s words. In a short Q & A below we find out more about the challenge that faces an artist tasked with interpreting a novel that today, 60 years on, remains one of the most notorious works of fiction ever published.
As you’re well-known as a fine artist, how did you feel about being commissioned to work on an illustrated edition of Nabokov’s Lolita? Was it a challenge to transfer from fine artist to illustrator?
I didn’t think twice when The Folio Society asked me to work on this project – the quality of their books and the professionalism of their team were enough to convince me. But the challenge wasn’t about changing my perspective from that of a fine artist to an illustrator. It was about creating a series of images that would hold a balance between the amazing and elegant writing of Nabokov and the density of the content.
In my personal work I use my creative process to find stories that are hidden and waiting to come out from my imagination, so for this project I needed to adjust the origin, and use the story of Lolita as the source for the images.
As the subject matter is quite controversial did you have any concerns when creating the images?
The controversial content of the book is something that everyone knows, so yes, I was concerned. I didn’t want to fall into the mistake of getting the wrong perspective between the characters and the atmosphere of the story. The challenge was to capture the balance between the writing and the content which is, in my opinion, one of the things that makes this book a masterpiece.
Did you have a clear idea of how the images would look instantly?
During the research I did I have a few instant images in my head about what I wanted to do but after having read the book a few times and checked other artists’ perspectives on the story, I realized that the images needed to have a unity. And that was only going to happen if I kept the process closer to what I’ve been doing in my personal work.
The complexity and the density of the story is revealed in the abstract backgrounds of the work – the scratches and textures are trying to capture that atmosphere. The images that emerge from them are not only revealing the content of the story but are also fragile, elegant or mysterious depending on what the book was showing me.
Did you use any special/different methods with your images for Lolita?
I kept the process as close as possible to what I do but because the presentation of the work was going to be as a printed book, it needed to have some digital intervention at the end. Nothing dramatic, just a few detail and colour corrections.
Also what was different for me was the fact that I got to work with an art director and Sheri Gee (Art Director at The Folio Society) made that experience a great one. She helped me see what I wasn’t seeing and together we tried to keep the unity of the work.
Do you have a favourite piece of artwork from Lolita?
All of them have a personal connection to me because they all came from a reaction that I had to a particular part of the story. But I do believe that a few were able to symbolize the content of more than just their segment of the book. Lolita’s hand holding the apple turned out to be a beautiful piece and the landscape with the car and her shadow I think are my favorites.
Had you previously read Lolita?
Yes, when I was younger and also watched the movies but after this project I have a deeper admiration of Nabokov’s work.
To find out more about artist Federico Infante visit his website.