MoMA Announces Quay Brothers Retrospective
Returning to the United States in 1973, the Quay Brothers spent six years creating illustration work, including art for the Philadelphia Inquirer and filler for The New York Times' music review; book covers for American suspense and science-fiction novels; and gothic drawings of surgery and cattle mutilation for Hugh Hefner’s men’s magazines. Their most prestigious assignment during this period was for the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Testament or Enderby’s End (1975), which featured a dozen black-and-white drawings of the title character in stages of disintegration. Their most sustained projects of this period were a series of covers for the Dutch and British editions of the works of authors Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Italo Calvino, featuring variations on the figurative “extinct anatomies” and noir graphics that would surface most expressively in their films.
Throughout this period of sporadic work and frustrated ambition, the twins experimented with graphics and nurtured their growing enthusiasm for avant-garde drama and music through hypothetical designs for posters, books, and record albums that they admired. Notable among these were gymnastic autoerotica for Mishima (1971); tortured anatomy studies for Ul Abnormalna (c. 1981); several Enzyklopedie der Modernen Kriminalistik credited to obscure 19th-century criminologists; and faux theater posters for the work of German language playwrights, such as Thomas Bernard’s Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige (c. 1981), Peter Handke’s Kaspar (c. 1980), Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Die Physiker (c. 1981), and Hartmut Lange’s Hundprozess (c. 1980).
In the 1970s the Quay Brothers created their most important work on paper with a series of more than a dozen pieces in pencil called The Black Drawings, through which they created an ur-text that served to define the visual palette of their future moving image work. Titled with obscure references to French wines, electroshock, sports, Holocaust history, Franz Kafka, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and their own travels in Europe, the drawings are noir set pieces, each with the requisite blend of angst, sex, and violence. The twins’ earliest puppet films, Nocturna Artificialia: Those Who Desire Without End (1979) and the Kafka adaptation Ein Brudermord (1980), came directly from these works. The Black Drawings mark the point at which the twins were ready to step away from illustration to film and begin to establish themselves as the poets of gesture and alienation they have remained, in every medium they have touched, in subsequent years.
In the 1980s graphic art became a sidebar for the Quays, as they gradually turned to filmmaking full time—though they brought to the moving image visual motifs they initially explored on paper. The elegant line and lettering of calligraphy is an enduring element in their work in all mediums. On film, it is celebrated in The Calligrapher (1991), memorialized in In Absentia, and figures significantly in their set design for The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer (1984), This Unnameable Little Broom (1985), Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987), and the music video Long Way Down (1992). The practice of calligraphy extends to movement in their films as well, where it translates to the choreographic quality of the camera and mise-en-scène for dancers in the ballet films Duet (1999) and The Sandman (2000), to the choreographed decapitation of the hero in their film Street of Crocodiles (1986), to the uncanny pas de deux of mannequin and rabbit in Stile Nacht II: Are We Still Married? (1992), and to the dance-like direction of their actors in the features Institute Benjamenta and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005).
Their signature style, a mix of stop-motion, live-action, and graphic effects combined with sensual emotional content and intellectually stimulating subjects, has found expression in diverse genres: arts programming for British television (Igor, the Paris Years Chez Pleyel, 1982; Leos Janáček: Intimate Excursions, 1983); museum documentaries (The Phantom Museum, 2003; Through the Weeping Glass, 2011); adaptations of Swiss writer Robert Walser (Institute Benjamenta) and Jewish author Bruno Schulz (Street of Crocodiles); expressionistic melodrama (In Absentia; The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes); dance films; horror-themed pieces (Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies, 1987) and science fiction (Maska, 2010).