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Anne Bachelier

"Anne Bachelier Rescues
the Phantom of the Opera from Andrew Lloyd Weber"

by Ed McCormack

One reviewer called Andrew Lloyd Webber’s staging of The Phantom of the Opera “a victory of pseudo-populist grandiosity over taste –– an act of cultural butchery akin to turning an aviary of graceful swans and brilliant peacocks into an order of Chicken McNuggets.”

Those of us who grew up on the old black and white film starring Lon Chaney and were not tempted by it to investigate any of the subsequent stage or film versions, much less the book, can only be grateful to Neil Zukerman, publisher and designer of CFM books, for returning Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel to the page in a deluxe format illustrated by the inimitable French painter Anne Bachelier.

In fact, since Zukerman is also the director of CFM Gallery, 112 Greene Street, in Soho, and Bachelier is his star artist, there are several copies priced by degree of deluxeness, the most unique being those that include original illustrations in ink or oil paper illustrations by the artist. However, the standard edition, hard bound in black silk with a pictorial dust jacket, is sufficiently elegant to qualify as an object of art unto itself.

For even if she had never exhibited her somewhat Surrealist, somewhat Symbolist, but ultimately unclassifiable oils on canvas in galleries, Bachelier would have become known as perhaps our greatest living illustrator. And the same must be said of Zukerman: Had he never opened a gallery pugnaciously championing figurative when abstract painting still ruled Soho, he could certainly have attained a reputation as perhaps the last great publisher of not “bookworks” but authentic livres d’artistes.

But what does it mean to be a great illustrator at a time when real illustration has all but been replaced by Photo Shop manipulation, or to be a great publisher in an era of Oprah’s Book Club and a bestseller list filled with diet books and celebrity biographies? That Zukerman and Bachelier have been too busy creating beautiful books to consider the full ramifications of this question seems to me a mercy. For the pair has given us superb volumes such as Princess of Wax, and Rose Daughter (A Retelling of Beauty and the Beast), as well as the only edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland really worth looking at since the 1865 edition illustrated by Sir John Tenniel. And their Phantom is arguably their most successful collaboration to date.

For one thing, Zukerman has contributed a synopsis that reads like a well-written libretto. Thus those of us who are still disinclined to slog through more of Leroux’s overburdened prose than can be sampled in the skillfully excerpted character introductions Zukerman has also thoughtfully provided, can connect Bachelier’s illustrations to the proper points in the text without suffering post-Victorian mind-clog. But even more important, he has designed a book that serves as a plush jewel-box for her peculiar imagistic genius.

Generous areas of white space set off the exquisiteness of Bachelier’s spare ink drawings, wherein she combines sinuous strokes of gray wash, laid down boldly with a broad brush in the manner of Asian calligraphy, to arrest the eye and direct it to the meticulous pen-work with which she delineates the main characters. Sumptuous full-page color spreads are devoted to her narrative illustrations in oil on gessoed paper.

The latter are as elaborately wrought as her fine art compositions in oil on canvas. However, what makes Bachelier a superb illustrator, rather than a mere slummer in a “lesser” area (a too common attitude when painters condescend to trample the life out of a narrative with their overbearing styles and egos) is how thoroughly she gives herself over to the text. Happily, this text reciprocates in kind, giving its atmospheric riches over to the illuminating ministrations of her brush like a lover grateful to have finally found its true mate.

Indeed, not once does Bachelier betray any knowledge of possessing greater mastery of her own art than Leroux had of his. Such is her innate modesty that she revels in his guttering candles, crystal chandeliers, shadowy corridors, relishing the opportunities they afford to indulge her love of chiaroscuro.

Every element in the story seems tailored to her talents: The dizzying heights of the Paris Opera House’s backstage rafters with their trapeze-like ropes and riggings, so like the theatrical settings of her paintings; the masks and opulent costumes, so like those of the characters born of her own imagination; the novel’s beautiful heroine, Christine, with her delicate features and ivory skin so like those of a classic Bachelier ingenue; the Phantom himself, perhaps the most formidable among the many male grotesques that have courted, stalked, and menaced many of the female protagonists of her painted tableaux over the years –– all reciprocate the artist’s humility by offering her an opportunity to crystalize, rather than subjugate, her singularly imaginative aesthetic vision.

If one had to choose a favorite illustration from among the many magnificent pictures it this book, it would probably be “The Phantom’s Masked Ball,’’ the image most like some of Bachelier’s most memorable oils on canvas. Such scenes of costumed revelry seem to have grown ever more prominent in Anne Bachelier’s oeuvre in the years since Neil Zukerman started coaxing the artist and her husband, Claude, out of their customary domestic seclusion in Grenoble, to join him and his partner, Tom, in an annual jaunt to Venice for Carnivale. Through this annual tradition, it would appear that the enterprising art dealer has provided his favorite artist with yet another avenue of inspiration that bears rich fruit in this their latest collaboration. –– Ed McCormack

From Gallery & Studio, Vol. 11, No. 4. April/May 2009

For more information visit www.galleryandstudiomagazine.com.

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