6 March 2017
When it comes down to it, the world is divided between those who can draw and those who can’t. Emiliano Ponzi, obviously, belongs to the first category. Ponzi was born in Reggio Emilia in 1978, but his adopted home is Ferrara and after high school he attended the IED [Istituto Europeo di Design, translator’s note] in Milan. He began almost straightaway to work for newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, associations and companies, and now has under his belt a long list of covers, artwork and animations for La Repubblica, The New York Times, Le Monde, The New Yorker, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Feltrinelli, Mondadori, Corraini, Lavazza, Louis Vuitton, Hyundai, Amnesty International, Armani and the Triennale Design Museum. In the face of such across-the-board success it is inevitable to begin by asking him for his secret: “It’s not enough to be able to draw, talent is not sufficient,” he explains, adjusting the thick frames of his glasses. “It’s important to be able to use drawing to put across your vision of the world. Technique goes hand in hand with communication.” Emiliano Ponzi divides his time and work between Milan, where he has a studio not far from the Navigli, and New York, where he spends whole months at a time drawing. His line is simple, harmonious and metaphysical, the atmosphere is that of a magic spell: “The farther you move away from realistic drawing, the more you communicate. This does not mean, however, lapsing into abstraction. For me it is important to maintain a connection with reality, as it appears to us, with its light and shade. But then reality has to be transfigured, purified, brought back to my vision.” A poetics that has earned him an enviable series of prizes: the Young Guns Award and a Gold Cube from the Art Directors Club of New York, medals of honor from the Society of Illustrators of New York and Los Angeles, the How International Design Award and marks of recognition from Communication Arts Illustration Annuals and American Illustration Annuals. All within a short space of time. Emiliano Ponzi is not yet forty.
What training did you receive?
Before the IED I went to what was called a socio-pedagogical high school, a fairly traditional institution that gave me a rigorous education. It taught me to think, and that is what makes the difference. There are a lot of people who draw better than I do, but it’s not just beautiful forms that count. You need to have clear ideas and be able to communicate them with intensity.
How would you define your style?
Up until a short time ago I would have said conceptual. I took elements away to arrive at the essence of things. Now I think that the essence as such is no longer sufficient. The world has exhausted the potential of less is more. Less has become vacuous, and has ended up representing nothing, superficiality.
All of you are against superficiality. Let’s try swimming against the tide: long live superficiality!
I’m at war with superficiality. You need to know life inside out. We have to understand things, get to know them, study them in depth. You find the best experiences, the most gratifying ones, deeper down, beyond appearances.
But if you think about it Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more” began as a revolt against superficiality.
Yes, but in many fields of visual communication this slogan has become a mere pretext for doing less, drawing less. I see a lot of people who call themselves illustrators, but don’t really know what they want to say. Without a story and a vision of the world images are mere lines that do not stand the test of time. The banality of some of the illustrations I see around seems to me almost pornographic.
When did the decline set in?
I don’t know if I’d call it a decline, but it all started with Andy Warhol, when people began to expect illustration to provoke and scandalize. And in some ways contemporary art has undergone the same evolution, losing its democratic character over the years and becoming increasingly obscure. It is no longer the artist who goes to meet the public in order to communicate his or her vision of the world, but it is the public that has to bend over backwards to understand the artist’s vision. Without a caption or some reference to the life of their creator, many works of art are now incomprehensible to 90 percent of people.
Speaking of illustration, what is the difference between Italy and the United States?
The differences are growing less and less, although the United States is still a special market, filled with opportunities, where the level of professionalism is very high: there the aim is not to waste time and not to let people waste your time. They tell you at once the rate, the deadline, the conditions. And the professional immediately has all the information that’s needed to take a decision.
In Italy we aren’t able to recognize talent, it’s said.
It all depends. But Italians are xenophiles, and even more Americanophiles. We’re not the only ones in Europe though.
In France they are less so, especially in illustration.
It’s true, in France they’re more nationalist, but even there they see the United States as the main market. A lot of French illustrators try to work in the US.
Let’s return to your background. After high school, you went to the IED, a private school.
At the end of the nineties everyone wanted to do Media Studies, the school that was going to revolutionize the world of work with new figures and professions. I sat the entrance exam in Padua and in Bologna, without preparing for it, and they didn’t take me, so I fell back on the IED. Today I believe that my refusal to study for the entrance exam for the more “traditional” schools was meant to bring me to Milan, to take up more artistic studies.
I know that you approached the world of the drawing through the comic strip.
At first, as a child, I didn’t even know what illustration was. We’re talking about the early nineties, in other words a pre-internet age in which knowledge of the world was very limited compared with today. I lived in a small provincial town, and while I was at high school I stated to attend courses in comic-strip art. I could draw, but I wasn’t yet capable of translating that kind of aptitude into a project.
Do you feel lucky?
I don’t believe in luck. When I finished at the IED I simply realized that it was all up to me. Then there was a moment in which I took a conscious decision that I would do this work to the best of my abilities, and that it would take priority over everything else. It was a rational choice. Speaking of which, I’m rereading Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist in which he talks about the concept of personal legend, the idea that if someone understands what their personal legend is the whole universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.
Having achieved it, how do you keep it alive?
The personal legend is a process of evolution, it changes. Sometimes it fades away and perhaps you never fully achieve it. And it is just this tension between us and our goals that keeps us alive.
How do you tackle the blank page?
I always start out from an intuition that seems valid, develop it and see if it is stands up.
Does the process have a beginning and an end?
The initial intuition is rapid and unpredictable, while the second stage requires more discipline, since the idea has to be turned into a project. In general, though, illustration is fairly methodical work.
What projects are you working on?
I’m collaborating on a series of books for the MoMA, somewhere between the educational and biography. I’ve written something on Massimo Vignelli and now I’m doing the illustrations. Vignelli, over the course of his prolific and brilliant career, designed the map of the New York subway. I had gone to MoMA for another project, but they weren’t interested. I couldn’t go away empty handed and so during the meeting I came out with this idea, which was greeted with great enthusiasm. I began to send in samples and we got going. I’m also working for Unibanca and Ferrarelle, and I’ve just finished Bulgari Bridal’s window displays for the Asian market and the covers of Elena Ferrante’s novels for the German market.
Do you ever say no?
Yes, often. I turn down more or less one job a day.
Earlier you referred to the methodical nature of illustration.
Being methodical is indispensable. You have to know how to master creativity, to keep it under control and adapt it to the communicative requirements that you need to satisfy on each occasion.
Let’s talk about the book covers. You did the covers of Bukowski’s books for Feltrinelli. If you could speak to the teenager you once were, and tell him: “one day I am going to illustrate the cover of Pulp or The Most Beautiful Woman in Town.”
At that age Bukowski was a legendary figure: you’re still a child but you want to be grown up. You feel unsettled, and this discord generates a certain amount of anger, a feeling of rebellion. You want to break the rules that your parents have set you, you discover your desire for the opposite sex, booze, dope. In his works Bukowski indulges in all the vices imaginable, abandoning himself to his sexual urges, to the anarchy of his unbridled spirit. It’s all very fascinating, but then you realize that that path in life can lead you astray. Doing the cover of his books has been interesting, because I was able to represent the whole of his world, from his nonconformity to his most extreme sexuality.
Have you reconciled yourself with that part?
Absolutely. I can also add that for a methodical person like me it has been a bit like trying to be a cowboy who has lassoed something uncontrollable, a raging buffalo. With Bukowski I’ve had the opportunity to give vent to all the wild part of me and tame it.
Have you read Bukowski again?
I’ve reread some bits. In the United States I’ve been given important awards for that illustrated riot of nudity, something fairly unusual given their puritanism.
Is there a book which you’d like to do the cover of?
None in particular.
On the subject of covers, Manuja Waldia has made new covers for the historic Pelican editions published by Penguin Random House of Shakespeare.
Beautiful, very minimalist.
Are there other colleagues you admire?
Lorenzo Mattotti is one of my great spiritual masters, as is the American illustrator Brad Holland. Exhibitions of their work make me want to rush home and start drawing, but it’s a very rare reaction. It only happens with Mattotti, Holland and a very few others.
Are you happy?
What a question! I think you arrive at a certain point and you stay there. You remain, it’s like Chinese water torture, but you go on constructing. I don’t believe either in great encounters that disrupt your life, or in great opportunities. Happiness is a fleeting condition that lasts a few moments. Then it comes back of course, but it’s not a state of mind that lasts for long periods.
Nicholas Blechman, creative director of The New Yorker, has said that the works in one of your exhibitions “know how to be universal without being generic.”
It was in the introduction to the catalogue of the 10×10 exhibition published by Corraini. It’s really great when people are able to identify with your drawings, because they are universal and speak to everyone without being superficial.
The ability to speak to everyone, the force of the classic.
It’s important to arrive at a synthesis, to strip away the elements that are a bit precious and keep the most relevant. But the real point is the process of assimilation of the world. That’s what takes the most effort. Let’s go back to what we were saying about superficiality. You can’t encapsulate things if you don’t pass through the comprehension of reality. Without this understanding, essentiality becomes banality.
An article that came out in The New Yorker last year spoke of loneliness as an integral part of the work of some photographers and artists: Robert Adams, Nicholas Nixon, Alec Soth, Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz. I would add your name to the list too. Do you feel lonely?
Yes, and I think it is the normal state of anyone who needs a lot of space to devote to their vocation. The creative effort takes up a lot of time and mental energy. The people you have in mind are many, while the ones with whom you’re able to have close ties or spend time with are reduced enormously. In any case, we are alone in the world, each with our own battles to fight, and only someone who is conscious of this can form genuine relationships.
Of all the awards you’ve received, which is the one you care about most?
Perhaps the one that has given me most satisfaction is the Gold Cube of the Art Directors Club of New York for the Bukowski covers. I didn’t go to pick it up because the ceremony was in Miami and they didn’t tell me about it until the last minute. A pity. Other awards I value particularly are the gold medals of the Society of Illustrators in New York.
What did you do to celebrate these marks of recognition?
Nothing special, I was in an abstemious phase of my life.
Bukowski, I’m sure, would not have approved.