Kurt Vonnegut’s weapon was a pen. This is one of the many memorable quotations from the man himself, dotted throughout Kurt Vonnegut: Drawings, a book made up of lines, shapes and colours documenting when America’s greatest dystopian writer used his pen to draw instead. Every time you turn the page, a new world greets you, bursting with the life that Vonnegut could always create effortlessly. He was a born writer, and, evidently, a born artist.
The book opens with an introduction by Nanette Vonnegut, playfully titled “My Father the Doodler”. It is a tender memoir to her late father; her little anecdotes and stories about him are told with warmth and nostalgia. She doesn’t mention much about the drawings, apart from openly telling us that she paid no attention to them whatsoever when they first arrived through the post. Rather, she unveils untold memories and influences. It feels like an introduction to an artist’s book, and more like an intimate conversation: you are sitting with Nanette as she smiles, sighs, and reminisces.
In such a short introduction, through the eyes and mouths of people closest to Vonnegut, Nanette also manages to shine a lot of philosophical light on life. Although very personal, there is a certain amount of conservatism too; she seems to hit the perfect balance between sharing her memories and storytelling, resulting in a heartwarming tale about not just the impact her father’s life had on his creativity, but the impact he had on everybody else.
In Kurt Vonnegut: Drawings, we are also treated to Peter Reed’s essay, “The Remarkable Artwork of Kurt Vonnegut”, which is an unpretentious but very detailed analysis of his drawings. While Nanette succeeds in gracefully introducing them, Reed carries us through them, always commenting critically but in a very fond way. The most valuable elements are his little anecdotes about Vonnegut; he recounts their philosophical conversations walking around New York together, and he has even sat and watched him draw.
The drawings themselves, as Reed says,“frequently emphasize the ludicrous disparities that often exist between words as signifiers and what they signify”. The link between Vonnegut’s descriptive language and his evocative style is tangible. Like his characters, you immediately take to them. There is an immense weight behind the caricatures; Vonnegut could capture a personality as concisely in his drawings as he could convey with words.
Vonnegut only began to fully embrace his graphic hand in 1973, when illustrating Breakfast of Champions, but the standard of his drawings exceed the occasional work of somebody who only ever doodled on the edges of manuscripts. The thick, flowing lines, made mostly with felt tip pens and magic marker, are confident and fun and, coupled with vibrant colours, have the charm of a stained glass window. The influence of language is always in the background, even though the collection of abstract and disintegrated letters seems more like he is trying to subvert it. Although leaning a little towards Cubism, the introduction eludes to a stronger connection to fun instead of theory, in the influence of his “angels”, Laurel and Hardy, and fellow scribblers, Paul Klee and Al Hirschfield.
Nanette coined it right; Vonnegut is a master doodler. People tend to lose the ability to let their mind wander creatively and doodle at leisure as soon as they hit high school age. Or, rather, it gets knocked out of them. Vonnegut managed to just pick it up 50 years later in such an untainted, unabashed way, armed with childlike tools of felt tip pens and magic markers, his imagination obviously only kept growing.