Love, Illustrated: The Unraveling of a Married Life

Award-winning illustrator Merav Salomon hopes her new book about the hardships of long partnerships can pave the way for adult picture books in Israel.

“I want to begin this event by [arriving only] in underpants and an undershirt and saying ‘Listen, it’s not me.’”

If we are to believe this statement, that’s what is about to happen on Friday at the launch of the new book by illustrator Merav Salomon, “The Pool.” The speaker is Amnon, Salomon’s partner of the past 26 years.

“He asked for the right to speak first at the launching. He wants to say that the man who appears in the book is not him,” she laughs.

And even if that won’t really happen, it’s enough to glance at Salomon’s illustrations and the short text she wrote to accompany them in order to understand the exposure that she demanded of her partner, and indirectly also of their two daughters, aged 14 and 18.

“The Pool” is an amusing allegory about the complexity, ambivalence and stressful daily tribulations of married life, says Salomon. Inside an envelope, 15 visual moments are captured in 15 postcards that describe typical situations in the couple’s life. The postcards are accompanied by nine short texts. All the pictures take place around and inside a pool, and in them we see a man and a woman who present, in a naïve, colorful and brutal style, the different roles and varied views of each of them in the context of their relationship.

“Work on the book began from my observation of life as a couple for such a long time, a kind of ‘Scenes from a marriage,’” says Salomon. “On the one hand it’s a very theatrical arena that is limited in space, but on the other hand it’s varied and keeps itself going all the time.”

The image of a pool originated during a period of couples therapy over 10 years ago. “The therapist said that marriage is like a pool: If you nurture it, make sure that the water is clean and is circulating properly, and continue to fill it, then it will flourish. If you parch it or don’t nurture it, it will rot and dry up.”

Do you have a very tolerant husband, or didn’t you ask him?

“I have a very tolerant husband − which doesn’t mean that it isn’t hard for him. It’s important to me to mention that there are also positive images in the book, and I didn’t have to work hard to find them. It was important to me not to speak in clichés. For example, the image of bloodletting, when the woman stands on the man’s shoulders and sprays blood from her veins. That’s a far less stereotypical image than the argument as to who is right. It’s a big circus performance with blood and victims, and the question is who is a bigger victim: the woman who is bleeding or the man who is carrying her on his shoulders and holding her?

“It was important to me to refer to the theatrical element – a tactic of defamiliarization through humor, color, style, in order to give a sense that this is not reality, to exaggerate the perspective and make a statement. When I was a child I worshiped the series ‘Tom and Jerry.’ I always thought they were like a married couple, with all the problems and the tremendous work they do within the theatricality of the comedy. Both are victims, both are victimizers, and they play the game of cat and mouse all the time, irritate each other all the time and enjoy it.”

Salomon, 46, is a graduate of the Graphic Design Department of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jersualem (1992). For the past six years she has been head of illustration in the Department of Visual Communications at Bezalel. After completing her studies she moved to New York, where she illustrated for the free alternative weekly New York Press, the Village Voice and more.

When she returned to Israel she illustrated children’s books and Gil Hovav’s restaurant reviews in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, among other things. She says that already then she preferred illustrating for adults.

“As child I liked the Addams Family comic books and ‘Struwwelpeter.’ Already as a student my visual language was not cute, and what interested me was illustrating for adults. At an early stage I realized that what gladdened my heart and incited great envy were illustrated books for adults, which make it possible to speak differently about more complex content.”

“The Pool” is her fifth book for adults. It was published in an edition of 100 copies in cooperation with the independent publisher Bookieman, which was established in 2009 in Stockholm and today operates in Toronto; that’s why it was published in English. It was preceded by “Frostbites,” which was published in 2012 in Germany; “A Family visit to Berlin” (2008) published by Haozen Hashlishit; and “Take Away,” written by Shoham Smith and published by Zmora-Bitan in 2002.

This year Salomon won the design prize awarded by the Culture and Sports Ministry. The judges wrote that their reason for granting her the prize was that “Salomon is one of the pillars of the Israeli illustration world today, and her contribution to this field and to visual culture in Israel is decisive and rare.” In addition, the illustrations for “Frostbites” were among the winners of the competition of the American Society of Illustrators as well as winning first prize in the book category in the British Association of Illustrators’ annual competition.

This respectable list of prizes raises the question as to why these books don’t have a place on the bookshelves in Israeli stores as well.

“It’s an alternative genre,” says Salomon. “Even in Europe and the United States, where they are on the shelf in the book stores, it’s a small and alternative shelf. It’s a self-perpetuating situation: I think that in Israel there’s no market for these books because the public is not sufficiently exposed to them, and when it isn’t exposed to them it won’t buy books of this type. But I’m happy to say that the culture of illustrated books for adults is infiltrating into Israel. There’s more understanding that this is a respectable form of art and literature, which can discuss serious subjects.”

When you write are you thinking about foreign audiences?

“I don’t write for a specific audience. The books that I make are an urge or a need, my tool of expression, my art. All my books were created before they had a publisher. They were created with an intention that they would be published. I don’t say that I don’t care − after all I make a living from it. But when I make the book, think about the idea, the illustration and the text, I don’t think of it as a commercial product, for whom it is meant or who will want it.

“As an illustrator I adapt the materials of my life by means of illustration. That’s the tool with which I decipher, capture and document my life. And the book format is my medium: The sculptor works with clay, the photographer works with a camera – my way of thinking is books. But it’s not narrative, it’s more like poetry. It’s associative, what people like to call unraveled, symbolic, stylized.”

That’s also reflected in the unraveled format.

“For me a book is a single entity that holds an idea inside it. In all my books I have always tried to challenge these hierarchies, to disassemble and sabotage the canonical format. Once I put text on the illustration, once I made a mute book without any words, once I connected texts and illustrations associatively. This time I took the book apart. I ask: What can you take away from a book and have it remain a book? What happens if you take out the binding? If you separate the illustrations from the text? To me the answer is that yes, it’s a book, not an envelope and not a folder. A book.

“So that my books are not books in the traditional sense. They are disassembled, lacking. One time they lack a text and another time the connection between the illustration and the text is slight. I’m trying to take apart the narrative and to create a place on the bookshelf for literature of this genre, which I call ‘visual poetics.’ Particularly in the heart of the digital revolution the printed book has to justify itself, and not only as a container for knowledge hidden among its pages, but as the possessor of an added value; as an object, as material, as a multisensory experience.”

Daniel Tchetchik