Diego Bianki

I met Diego Bianki in the mid-nineties. I cannot remember what led me to Buenos Aires, but the point is that I had a few days ahead of me and time to wander around. One night I headed towards a gallery in the neighbourhood of Recoleta, where an exhibition of the Comuna del Lápiz Japonés (Commune of the Japanese Pencil) was opening, and luckily I managed to find the place in spite of the heavy rain. Lápiz Japonés was much more than a comics magazine: it was an ‘Art + Qomix’ magazine. It had borrowed the format from Raw magazine, directed by Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman in New York, and was an excellent publication that most likely surpassed its model in more ways than one. It was obvious there was a very skilled team behind it, thinking, organising, and designing. Despite being a genuine product of the city of Buenos Aires —a large metropolis located in the outskirts of the cultural centres—, Lápiz Japonés was an independent project with the ambition to compete in a world without borders. Diego Bianki mainly took on the roles of editor and coordinator, alongside Sergio Langer,  and also signed various collaborations.

Diego told me his father had worked in a typographer. From an early age, he was familiar with the world of print and its particular vocabulary. Interestingly enough, this circumstance was shared by other members of the Commune of the Japanese Pencil, which, in addition to taking care of this publication, multiplied their activities cooperatively through organised groups, always around art and graphics, in different places around the city. To satisfy a personal wish, and perhaps as an implicit homage to his father, Diego designed a newspaper that only appeared one day and which, like any newspaper, was distributed and displayed in newsstands all over the city. However, unlike any other newspaper, Bianki’s paper was not the product of a journalist, or even a publicist, but of a visual artist. Those who saw it from afar, hanging from the kiosk’s wire, could easily mistake it for a normal newspaper, but on getting closer they would discover that the columns were nothing more than fake writing; and the illustrations, stains and ink strokes that represented some friendly ‘cronopios’, happy to be part of that game. The newspaper’s only real —and readable— advertisement was that of a plumbing shop, although I could not swear on my life that a human would answer on the other side of the phone.

I especially remember this work by Bianki because at the time I was planning the possibility of creating a publishing house dedicated to children’s books and connected this ‘graphic experience’ (as Diego had called it) to some projects by artists of the historical avant-garde of the early 20th century which I was fascinated with: poster artists, muralists, painters, press illustrators, who, with the same standard and thought process with which they had approached their ‘serious’ work, had also made books, furniture, design objects, and even children’s toys. After studying these authors’ works (Lébedev, El Lissitzky, Munari, Torres-García, among others), my idea was to make book in complicity with a series of illustrators who were not pigeonholed as illustrators for children’s books, that is, who would not implicitly accept the countless didactic, educational, and psychological assumptions, nor the commercial imprints that are so common in those kinds of books. Diego shared this same concern, as one can tell by reviewing the catalogue of the publishing house Pequeño Editor, founded by him and Ruth Kaufman in 2003. Pequeño Editor has opened its doors to graphic artists from diverse backgrounds, from comics to artist books, with a freer and more unprejudiced view of works aimed at a younger audience.

If an editor of children’s books must be an informed person, with an opinion on authors and artistic trends, and someone receptive to novelties, what qualities should an illustrator of children’s books exude? There are probably more, but today — I have just decided— they are going to be five. They correspond exactly with the five points I have chosen to refer to Diego Bianki’s work as an illustrator.

ONE. First of all, and just like editors, illustrators should possess information and documentation on classic and contemporary authors, and particularly on those who have projected their creations upon these curious objects we call books. When the illustrator and artist Saul Steinberg was asked about his influences, he replied that his influences encompassed the entire history of art; that is, all Egyptian art and, also, the artistic sweet wrappers of the 19th century. After so many centuries of creations, some could say the space for originality is limited, but the achievements of good authors of any era, whether anonymous or well-known, can and should be picked up and extended by those who have succeeded them in time. It is clear that Kurt Schwitters’ collages, made with humble subway tickets and stickers picked up from the ground, are not foreign to Diego Bianki. Nor are the toys by Joaquín Torres-García, which are, for example, behind his book Rompecabezas (Puzzles).

TWO. Illustrators of children’s works should have a taste for experimentation. According to the writer Bernardo Atxaga, illustrators of children’s books are a paradigm of the free artist, devoted to play. As authors, they are among those who enjoy the most freedom when carrying our their work. Neither writers, who are often pressured by a circle of critics and editors (and their club of readers), nor editors themselves, who are subjected to the rules of an excessively rigid market, have such a margin for action. This freedom to invent senseless and beautiful worlds from a blank paper, must be taken advantage of by illustrators. However, not all illustrators feel comfortable experimenting: consciously or unconsciously, many reduce their activity to imitating and repeating successful formulas. Among those who experiment, not many achieve outstanding results. In my opinion, Bianki is one of those who have. Candombe is the result of research into Afro-American folklore Río de la Plata; Con la cabeza en las nubes (With my head in the clouds) is a ludic project about those ghostly figures that roam the skies, where we play at looking for their likeness.

THREE. To be able to develop the capabilities of the medium, it is necessary for illustrators to be familiar with the technical procedures that allow the production of the illustrated book. Illustrators are not artists who sell their works in a gallery: the object of their art is a printed book. They must be well aware of industrial processes: only in this way will they solve the problems that arise, and in turn establish new problems that others will have to solve. When one faces Diego Bianki’s work, one can recognise that he has worked among printers and that he masters the arts of the trade.

FOUR. It is essential to cultivate a relationship with young people, and with those not-so-young who still maintain what we call a young spirit (and which, precisely, many young people do not have). Bianki can not only construct devices efficiently, but also knows how to disassemble them; and runs workshops where lively books are made, books made by everyone. The illustrator who makes unreadable newspapers, teaches to read images. He carries out an intense activity as a workshop facilitator, and often works with children —also from rural areas— in the making of books. Through these workshops, the illustrator makes books that are toys and creates collages that mix all art forms; he learns to know his readers, who are not only children and who are not even readers (that is, they do not know they are), he introduces them to the to manual techniques and teaches them, for example, about the importance of recycling.

FIVE. Experiments, research and study of past and current authors, understanding the limitations of technical means (or the vertigo before their infinite possibilities), and contact with readers and specialists from different parts of the world will be of little use to illustrators of children’s works if they cannot show coherence and loyalty to their own interests, and not know how to bring out their own and recognisable world in their work. Only illustrators who fulfill this last condition can call themselves ‘authors’. Diego Bianki is an author, as the fact that all his books are gathered in the same spot in my library clearly demonstrates. They are all at an accessible height, which must also say something.

After following his work for quite some time and meeting on numerous occasions, I commissioned him a book. The commission materialised around 2001, just before Pequeño Editor began its successful run. At this time, Diego was living in Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay, and travelled on a weekly basis to Buenos Aires, where he collaborated with the cultural supplement of the newspaper Clarín. He showed me some small but voluminous booklets, in which he sketched, stuck papers, and handled a great variety of printed materials. These booklets, which he made exclusively for himself, for the pleasure of experimenting, were the starting point for the project that has kept us both occupied for a long time: a book which, after undergoing successive transformations, has seen the light in 2014, after more than ten years. It began as an illustrated version of specific passages from The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, and ended up becoming a very personal diary about the city of Buenos Aires. According to Diego, it is also a book about rubbish, and which will also serve to explain to younger readers the meaning of the concept ‘zero waste’. It is also, of course, a book of poetry. During all this time, while the book was brewing in the author’s mind and its contents were gaining ground in his study (and soon in each of the rooms of his house), the author and the editor have aged, like little Zazie, the heroine of Raymond Queneau’s novel; Pequeño Editor has grown to form a catalogue that surpasses that of Media Vaca (which was not hard to do), and Diego Bianki has managed to keep us readers waiting in anticipation for his latest graphic project.

Vicente Ferrer

Editor of Media Vaca

[Text written to accompany Diego Bianki’s nomination for the 2016 Hans Christian Andersen Award.]