Interpretation: The Redheaded Man
The Redheaded Man is an accelerating journey downhill, where the main character is removed from all his features, until there is nothing left of him – or the story. Written by Soviet absurdist Danil Kharms, Minna Alanko’s study breaks down the tale into three visual/creative entrypoint elements to the story. The piece is a rich, methodical study of interpretation that begins with her carefully defining the parameters, then investigating and extending them in her picture-making. Alanko’s paper is published as part of the content around the VaroomLab Interpretation symposium.
Minna Alanko Illustrator / Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
2 The Poet on the Drawing Table
3 First, second, third – Three illustrated responses to the story of The Redheaded Man
3.1 “I speak in order to be”
3.2 The Poet in a Tree
3.3 The Risk Society
The Redheaded Man
Keywords: illustration, absurdist fiction, authorship, ideation, Russian avant-garde, 1920’s -1930’s
“There lived a redheaded man who had no eyes or ears. He didn’t have hair either, so he was called a redhead arbitrarily. He couldn’t talk because he had no mouth. He had no nose either. He didn’t even have arms or legs. He had no stomach, he had no back, he had no spine, and he had no innards at all. He didn’t have anything. So we don’t even know who we’re talking about. It’s better that we don’t talk about him any more.” Daniil Kharms, 1937
The story by Daniil Kharms (1937) is fully cited from the edition: Kharms, Daniil (2009): Today I wrote nothing –The selected writings of Daniil Kharms. Translated from the Russian by Matvei Yankelevich. Ardis Publishers. New York.
In this article I am introducing three different illustration processes all responding to the story of The Redheaded Man1 written by Daniil Kharms in 1937, as well as the reflections and categorization of the content and ideas behind each illustration project.
Illustrating the same story in three different ways demonstrates the impact of illustration on the interpretation of the story. By enhancing the transparency of creative processes the concept places an illustrator into the highlighted position as a producer of visual content and ideas.
The Redheaded Man is an accelerating journey downhill, where the main character is removed from all his features, until there is nothing left of him – or the story. Although the anti-narrative features of the story almost reject illustration, its multifaceted nature opens up variety of approaches in visualization of the text.
Due to the anti-narrative features of The Redheaded Man, the background information about the writer’s thinking, other works and life events rose to an important role in illustrating this story.
2. The Poet on the Drawing Table
(Image 1 / The Poet on the Drawing Table)
Daniil Kharms (1905–1942, pseudonym for Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachev) was the front man of Russian absurdist literature and one of the last representatives of the Russian avant-garde. He was also a founding member of OBERIU (The Union of Real Art), which gathered together avant-garde artists of Leningrad2 from 1928 until the beginning of the 1930’s. The collective organized experimental events – performing theatre plays and poetry – which appeared provocative against the strict cultural policy of the Soviet Union. Eventually OBERIU was forced to withdraw from public performances.
Outside the circles of Leningrad Daniil Kharms was known as a children’s book author. During his lifetime his absurd prose for adults remained mostly unpublished and was only known within small literary circles due to extreme circumstances under Stalin’s regime.
Kharms’s story of The Redheaded Man is an experimental piece that combines several key elements of his literary style – the form, the questions of existence and the absurd, dark humour – in a sharp and accessible way.
The English translation of the story of The Redheaded Man is fully cited below.
“There lived a redheaded man who had no eyes or ears. He didn’t have hair either, so he was called a redhead arbitrarily. He couldn’t talk because he had no mouth. He had no nose either. He didn’t even have arms or legs. He had no stomach, he had no back, he had no spine, and he had no innards at all. He didn’t have anything. So we don’t even know who we’re talking about. It’s better that we don’t talk about him any more. ” (Kharms 1937; translated by Yankelevich 2009:117)
The story of The Redheaded Man is quite easy to grasp on a first reading as a funny story, but has deeper levels that guide the reader towards new more complex existential questions. Kharms presents seemingly logical series of events where the character is drifting in an absurd world, while in the end, after several rounds of reduction, the reader and the narrator are left puzzling about the existence, or the nonexistence, of the redheaded man. How to visualize that nonbeing and its strong symbolic meaning, is one of the challenges in illustrating this story.
The cover illustration of the project titled as The Poet on the Drawing Table (Image 1) portrays the process of ideation of The Redheaded Man reflecting the experience of the writer, Daniil Kharms, “seeking” to be intertwined into the composition as an artist with a history of classic works in literature and distinct life events. The three arrays of paper and three matching pens around the portrait depict the process of illustrating the story of The Redheaded Man in three different ways.
3. First, Second, Third – Three illustrated responses to The Redheaded Man
An illustrator produces content to images through the process of ideation, which involves several cycles of developing, evaluating, changing and trying out different solutions. Finding and evaluating the essence of the story initially functioned as a starting point for this project, later forming the theoretical grounds for the three illustration processes.
The three essential aspects of the story (Figure 1) that I chose to work with are: form – referring to storytelling and writing, absurd – pointing towards the fun and absurd side of the story, and existential – addressing the questions about meaning and lack of meaning.
Figure 1 The essential aspects of the story of The Redheaded Man
The list of essential aspects of the story was used first to categorize the initial sketches and ideas, then to evaluate and select the ideas to work forward with. The framework is not strict, as the nature of the project supports overlapping between the categories, for example the existential dimensions are clearly present in all illustrations.
The further categorization of the three illustrated responses to the story of The Redheaded Man (Figure 2) was based directly on the essential aspects of the story and developed simultaneously with the working process.
1 Form / Abstraction / “I speak in order to be”
2 Absurd / Parallel story / The Poet in a Tree
3 Existential / Allegorical story / The Risk Society
Figure 2 The categorization of the three illustrated responses to the story of The Redheaded Man
The three characterizations (Figure 2) – abstraction, parallel story, and allegorical story – describe the nature of the ideas used in each illustration process. Accordingly the titles given to each illustration projects (“ I speak in order to be”, The Poet in a Tree and The Risk Society) describe the content of the ideas. These features reflect the critical points of the three illustration processes from interpretation of the text, through ideation to the final illustration.
The three illustrated responses to the story of The Redheaded Man are introduced in the next chapters, with the focus on the differences in ideation processes of the projects.
3.1 “I speak in order to be”
(Image 2 / “I speak in order to be”)
The first illustrated response to the story of The Redheaded Man is the abstract illustration, titled after the quote from Daniil Kharms: “I speak in order to be” (Image 2).
Daniil Kharms was arrested twice. First, in 1931, he was sent to exile from Leningrad to Kursk for almost a year. Kharms was imprisoned again in 1941, which lead to his death – presumably from hunger – in the psychiatric ward of the prison hospital in 1942 during the siege of Leningrad.
After his first arrest Daniil Kharms was marked as an anti-Soviet writer, which limited his opportunities to work as a children’s book author. Things started to escalate for worse, when the most intense period of terror and repression of the Great Purge started. Kharms’ children’s books were confiscated in 1937 – as a consequence Kharms lost his job and income, which led to increasing hunger and poverty.
In 1937 Kharms also wrote the story of The Redheaded Man.
It is not clear how much the story might rise from the writer’s own experiences of persecution, but it is clear that the life of Daniil Kharms came to represent the importance of the freedom of speech.
The illustration “I speak in order to be” (Image 2) evolved through an experiment of literally illustrating the story of The Redheaded Man almost word by word. The initial sketching process started as a sequential illustration (Image 3), which visually approaches the essence of the text by reducing the features of the man picture by picture, until reaching the last image, which reveals that what is left of the man in the end – instead of “nothing” – is an oval face-shaped form marking the trace of a man.
(Image 3 / The sequential sketch precursing the illustration “I speak in order to be”)
(Image 4 / The final sketch precursing the illustration “I speak in order to be”)
The resulting abstract shape (Image 4) makes the structure of the text visible, revealing Kharms’s ambition towards the form of the text strongly linking him to Russian avant-garde.
Interestingly, a similar motif – an “empty” oval form replacing the face – appears in several of the Russian avant-garde paintings, for example from Kazimir Malevich, who was known to be one of Kharms’s favourite artists, whom he also knew personally.
The final illustration for the story, “I speak in order to be” (Image 2), is based on the oval form of the final sketch (Image 4). Instead of working with flat surfaces, I wanted to explore the contrast between the existence and nonexistence, addressing the differences between the freedom of speech and the silence and emptiness caused by its restrictions. Illustration depicts the vibrant border and shift in spatial qualities between these two existential states. The movement transmits the feeling that something is happening, while the direction of the movement cannot be predicted or controlled.
3.2 The Poet in a Tree
Daniil Kharms was known to be an eccentric character and a self-made aristocratic dandy, who seemed to live his life as an art performance. He might walk on the streets of Leningrad, smoking calabash pipe, stop the traffic and gather an audience for no reason at all and then walk away as if nothing had happened. Or paint the walls of his apartment with avant-garde patterns with his friends to impress the girls standing in the yard.
Like his whole existence Kharms linked writing with a performance. And he was not alone – it was common for the poets in Leningrad at the time to have a direct connection with the audience. The poet was a performance artist. Linking that to Kharms’s words: “I speak in order to be”, places them into a completely different context than in the previous chapter, 3.1.
The paradoxicality of speaking, of performing poetry, lies in the notion that when the words have been read and the performance is over, the story starts to disappear – leaving only traces into the minds of the audience.
The series of four illustrations titled as The Poet in a Tree (Images 5–8) refer to Daniil Kharms’s character as a young artist in 1920’s Leningrad. The visual story is based on the anecdote of one of Kharms’s performances at Nevsky Prospect (the main street of Saint Petersburg), where Kharms climbs into a tree to read poems to people walking on a street. The illustrations for this series, The Poet in a Tree, add a parallel visual story to The Redheaded Man, which is in line with the historical context of the writer’s life events. The illustrations highlight the absurd and positive side of the text presenting the story as a timeless classic, which is also suitable for children.
In the initial sketching phase of The Poet in a Tree (Images 5–8) I intended to bring Daniil Kharms to the illustrations as a main character, which felt convenient as Kharms was a redhead himself and the visualization of the story was based on his character, but soon I noticed that the protagonist of the story was too anonymous for successfully carrying through the idea. The eyes of the main character are covered already starting from the first sentence of the story, which creates a distance between him and the reader.
Image 5 The Poet in a Tree
The first illustration of the series (Image 5) shows the redheaded man reading the poem in a tree with his eyes covered with the hat. In the second illustration (Image 6) perspective changes and the man starts to disappear into the foliage of the tree. He is reading a poem to the people passing by.
Image 6 The Poet in a Tree
(Images 5–8 / The Poet in a Tree 1–4/4)
In the third illustration (Image 7) people have gathered around the tree to listen to the story. Only the hat, peeking out of the tree, and the sound of the man’s voice indicate his presence. Finally, on the last illustration (Image 8), people are standing under the tree looking up. The man is no longer visible, and his words too are soon about to disappear.
Image 7 The Poet in a Tree
Due to the distant main character, the audience rises to an important role in the illustrations of The Poet in a Tree (Images 5–8). While the man disappears, the audience appears and draws a reader closer to the text by providing the possibility to identify with the characters in the audience, which makes the story easier to approach for children.
Image 8 The Poet in a Tree
Because the story is quite circular, it is possible to change the order of, for instance, the first and the last image, which would provide the story with more “air” between the images and the text, and the illustrations would not be so direct. Directness of illustrations in this case, however, seemed to work very well with the experimental story line, enhancing the sharpness and clarity of the text.
3.3 The Risk Society
The starting point of the third illustrated response to the story of The Redheaded Man titled as The Risk Society (Image 9) was to illustrate the story by focusing on the existential aspects of the story and to link it to the contemporary society with a hint of a dark humour.
Within the illustration process of The Risk Society, I took a longer step away from Daniil Kharms as a writer and a person than with the previous two projects. Using the allegorical story as an additional reference material functioned as a tool in producing new content in an investigation on how far from the original text can an illustrator go without loosing a meaningful connection with its content.
Image 9 / The Risk Society
The story of The Redheaded Man reminded me of the sociological theories by Ulrich Beck describing the consequences of individualization in a post-modern society and the developments of the risk society. Based on these associations I decided to use Beck’s theories as a reference material, i.e. allegorical story, for the illustration.
When read through the Kharmsian lens, the developments of Beck’s sociological theories seem to engage the reader in a similar, almost apocalyptic cycle as the story of The Redheaded Man.
Inspired by the dark absurdity of the existence, created by the combination of these two stories, the illustration The Risk Society (Image 9) presents everyone as a redheaded man individually balancing on their different positions in the society filled with existential uncertainties. The illustration can also be interpreted as a question – who or where is the redheaded man?
The lack of firm ground on the illustration depicts the fundamental nature of the risk society, where the erosion rises from beneath the structures. The top layer of the illustration is heavier than the space beneath it to emphasize the fragility of the constructions and the inescapable risk positions of the people.
Some visual elements of the illustration The Risk Society can be seen as reflections of my visit to Saint Petersburg, grounded by the fact that Daniil Kharms often placed his stories into the real locations of his hometown. The river in the illustration bends like Neva and the eroding buildings were inspired by the decadent atmosphere of the city.
The allegorical story is not meant to be obviously visible on the illustration and not necessary for the viewer to be aware of. This approach, however, places the illustrator into a leading role in producing visual content – making the process personal, free and intuitive. The approach is not concerned about the classic status of the story, but makes use of illustration’s capacity to introduce the text to new audiences, as well as to create new interpretations and discussion around the piece.
The concept of illustrating the same story in three different ways functioned as a clear framework for the project, which supports critical evaluation of the choices made during the ideation processes by creating a working space with an increased transparency.
The choice of the text was essential for this project in order to sufficiently challenge illustrator’s previous thinking about illustration. The story of The Redheaded Man seems to reject illustration in its anti-narrativity. It is therefore demanding to illustrate – it does not seem to need it to begin with, which immediately triggers fundamental questions about illustration. Could an illustration add something to the reading experience of this story? What value would an illustration hold for it? How does an illustration influence the interpretation of the story?
The questions about illustration generated by the concept of illustrating the same story in several different ways, leads towards the ways of further utilizing the concept as a tool for constructing thinking about illustration. The process brings up several subjects to follow in relation to the interpretation of the context, ideation and illustrator’s role in a process. Due to the pedagogical qualities, the concept can well be used as a basis for workshops in the fields of illustration and graphic design.
1 The title The Redheaded Man is used in this project to illustrate the concept of the three illustration processes, as well as to simplify referring to the story, although The Redheaded Man is not the original title of the story given by Daniil Kharms. The original text was written by Kharms on two notebooks. The first version of the story – which is used in this project – has no title. The second version of the story is titled Blue Notebook #10.
2 Leningrad is a former name of the city of Saint Petersburg in Russia.
References in literature
Carrick, Neil (1998): Daniil Kharms – Theologian of the Absurd. Birmingham Slavonic Monographs. The University of Birmingham. Department of the Russian language and literature.
Cornwell, Neil (2006): The Absurd in Literature – Daniil Kharms as minimalist absurdist. Manchester University Press. Read 20 March 2013. http://manchester.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.7228/manchester/9780719074097.001.0001/upso-9780719074097-chapter-6
Free from social realism. (12.12.2007). Book Review on Today I wrote nothing – The selected writings of Daniil Kharms. Guardian. London. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/dec/12/fiction
Harms, Daniil (2002): Ensiksikin ja toiseksi. (Engl. transl. First, Second ). Edited and translated from the Russian to Finnish by Katja Losowitch. Desura. Helsinki.
Harms, Daniil (2008): Perinpohjainen tutkimus. (Engl. Throughout investigation). Edited and translated from the Russian to Finnish by Mika Rassi. Savukeidas kustannus. Turku.
Harms, Daniil (2010): Sattumia. (Engl. transl. Incidences). Edited and translated from the Russian to Finnish by Katja Losowitch. WSOY. Helsinki.
Kharms, Daniil (2009): Today I wrote nothing – The selected writings of Daniil Kharms. Edited and translated from the Russian by Matvei Yankelevich. Ardis Publishers. New York.
Nakhimovsky, Alice S. (1982): Laughter in the void – an introduction to the writings of Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedenskii. Wiener slawistischer almanach. Wien.
Rowell, Margit; Wye, Deborah (2002): The Russian avant-garde book 1910-1934. The Museum of Modern Art. New York.
Saunders, George (09.12.2007): Soviet Deadpan. Essay. The New York Times. Sunday Book Review. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/09/books/review/Saunders-t.html?pagewanted=all
Stelleman, Jenny (1992): Aspects of dramatic communication – action, non-action, interaction (A.P. Tšehov, A. Blok, D. Kharms). Edited by J.J. van Baak; R. Grübel; A.G.F. van Holk and W.G. Weststeijn. Studies in Slavic literature and poetics. Volume XVI. Editions Rodopi B.V. Amsterdam – Atlanta.
Saint Petersburg Museum of Avant-garde (Matyushin’s house): Permanent exhibition on the main stages of avant-garde art of the 1920’s–1930’s Saint Petersburg, including the collection of avant-garde and futurist books. State Museum of the history of Saint Petersburg. Russia. Visited 10.02.2013.
The State Russian Museum: Permanent exhibition e.g. from the collections of Russian avant-garde and folk art. Saint Petersburg. Russia. Visited 13.02.2013.
Tutorial discussions with Joanna Rubin Dranger, The Professor of Illustration, Konstfack – University College of Arts, Crafts and Design. Stockholm. Spring 2013.
The article The Redheaded Man is based on Minna Alanko’s MFA Degree Work (2013) for the Master’s Programme of Storytelling (Graphic Design and IIlustration) at:
Konstfack, University College of Arts, Crafts and Design
LM Ericssons vag 14, Stockholm, Sweden