November 29, 2011

Nino Carbé's Frankenstein

Much like the first Frankenstein play, in 1823, had spurred a new edition of Mary Shelley’s out of print novel, James Whale’s Frankenstein of 1931 brought the title back to prominence. The first books published in direct reaction to the film’s success were Grosset & Dunlap’s Photoplay Edition, featuring scenes from the movie and, in 1932, the Illustration Editions’ Frankenstein, with art by Nino Carbé (1909-1993).

The Italian-born Carbé was three years old when his parents immigrated to America, settling in Brooklyn. The boy’s artistic inclinations were encouraged and he proved something of a prodigy, studying the violin, drawing and painting, finally settling on the visual arts, enrolling at New York’s Cooper Union when he was 16. For a time, Carbé was mentored by master illustrator Willy Pogany, whose influence is palpable in Carbé’s Frankenstein. Pogany, by the way, worked briefly at Universal in Hollywood, painting a splendid poster for The Mummy (1932). Boris Karloff owned a Pogany drawing of himself in The Mummy’s Ardath Bey makeup.

Only 22 when took on Frankenstein, Carbé had already illustrated Tales of the Arabian Nights and Cyrano de Bergerac. Though he was clearly coming into his own as an artist, his Frankenstein pen and ink drawings evoke the elegant, elongated figures of Erté, the dark aesthetics of Audrey Beardsley, and Pogany’s dramatic illustrations for Tannhauser and Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Striking operatic poses, Carbé’s emaciated Monster is very much the “deamon” of the book, with fangs, a droopy lip and pointy ears. A clear sign that the movies’ Monster had already made its mark, Carbé gave his Monster neck electrodes.

The superb jacket design, in black and green, features a curving title that may have inspired the logo used a decade later by Dick Briefer for his Frankenstein comic book.

Carbé would go on to a long career as a children’s book illustrator, punctuated by stints in animation. He worked for Walt Disney in the Forties, contributing designs and lavish background art to such titles as Fantasia, Bambi and Pinocchio. He returned to Hollywood in the Sixties for Disney’s The Jungle Book, eventually working for all the major cartoon studios. In 1982, Carbé returned to Frankenstein, adding new color art to his now classic black and white illustrations for a fiftieth anniversary Danish edition. He also produced a complex, limited-edition serigraph of the cover art.

A profile of Carbé and a large selection of his work are featured in a recent issue of Illustration, No. 34, that can be read online. See also Nino Carbé’s website.

Frankenstein 1931 Photoplay Edition


wich2 said...

Great stuff, Pierre - I'd never seen the "colorized" (SHAME! SHAME! Say the Purists!) Carbe art.

Happy holidays,

Pierre Fournier said...

No colorized art. Carbé made new original art, in color, to run alongside the original black and white art.