The Burgo Calendar: 20 Years of Illustration Brilliance

[This essay was written as the introduction to Collezione Burgo 1997/2017, a 20-year retrospective of the artwork and illustrations created for the Burgo Group’s annual calendar. The Italian-based Burgo Group is a paper production company that has been commissioning illustrators for the past 20 years to create images for their calendar with the theme of “paper.” For the first time all the illustrations have been collected in a book, and are on exhibit during the summer of 2017 in Venice. You can see a short video of the exhibit here. For this essay I was asked to comment on the images and also the way that illustration has changed over the past 20 years.]

This is the golden age of illustration. Right now: 2017. Not the 1920s. Not the 1940s. Not the 1960s, although that was the decade when I was growing up and the illustrators of that time were most important in my visual development. The time is now, and especially since the turn of the century we’ve been seeing a moment of great and very high artfulness. This is indeed a moment of great creativity and excitement with a sense of unlimited potential. Never in my experience have I seen so many great illustrators working at such a sophisticated level of creativity, and never do I remember there being such a sense of excitement around the art of making illustrations.

Want proof? Look at this collection of images created for the Burgo Group calendar, an annual graphic delight that is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Since 1997, the Burgo Group, a paper production and distribution company, has been publishing a yearly calendar that showcases the best illustration talent from Europe and the United States. The artists are given a simple mandate: tell a story about paper, its many uses, and how people interact with it, particular with the written word.

[Above: Illustration left by Altan, right by Paul Davis]

This collection of over 100 images is the result of that project; a celebration of 20 years of graphic brilliance. The results are smart, elegant, and beautifully executed. This is simply one of the most magnificent collections of illustrated work that you will ever have the pleasure and joy of viewing. The talent represented here features illustrators whose careers stretch back to the 1950s, and others who have only been working a few years in the present. Yet whether the pieces were created by legends such as Folon or new young stars like Shout, there’s a connective thread of creativity and brilliance that unites them all.

To be sure, this collection is dominated by Italian artists. The large majority of the illustrators represented here were born and work in Italy, and several others moved to Italy from their original homelands or have strong creative connections there. You certainly could make the case that any exhibit that features Emanuele Luzzati, Lorenzo Mattotti, Altan, Roberto Perini, Giorgio Maria Griffa, Tullio Pericoli, Cecco Mariniello, Alessandro Sanna, Luca Caimmi and Shout is a fairly convincing argument for the primacy of Italian art and design (and Milan in particular). But then there are Americans (Paul Davis and Milton Glaser) and French (Folon, who came by way of Belgium, and Moebius and Loustal) and two Argentinians, Negrin and Munoz (although both moved to Milan to continue their work). And of course the latest contributor, Brooklyn-based Ping Zhu, who became the first woman illustrator for the Burgo collection.

[Above: Illustration by Ping Zhu]

Why do I say this is the golden age of illustration? It seems odd statement to make in this very digital age. Print is dead, right? And illustration has always been, with the exception of animation, a very print-specific form. And yet with all the talk of magazines and books disappearing, the lack of album covers, the dearth of illustrated advertising…illustration has never been more vital or more omnipresent in our consciousness. It’s seemingly everywhere these days, in large part due to the passionate engagement by illustrators on social media and the easy accessibility of seeing work on the internet. And that engagement and sense of awareness has fed the building of a giant extended global community of illustrators. From New York to London to Barcelona to Milan to Tokyo to Sydney, illustrators are sharing work, sharing ideas, connecting and generally exploding with creative energy.

The illustrator Ping Zhu says, “To me, illustration is a way of communicating to make the world more connected and cultured. And it colors the world.” This collection from the Burgo Group speaks directly to illustrators and art directors and designers and fans of art around the world, and definitely adds a healthy dose of color.

[Above: Illustration left by Moebius, right by Roberto Perini]

Some words of background on me: I am an art director. I’m not an art critic. I never went to art school and I don’t spend a lot of time in museums or galleries (not that I have any particular bias against them). I tend to experience illustration in its native form: in magazines and newspapers, on book covers and posters, as part of advertising campaigns, animation, and these days, as sparkling little squares of creativity that float by my consciousness on social media. Illustration is also a very important part of my work. I’ve been an art director for almost 30 years (I started young!) at a wide range of consumer magazines, and at most of them illustration has been an integral part of the design and the storytelling process. But at heart, I’m a fan. I love illustration and I love looking at it. When I wake up in the morning I see a Ben Shahn poster illustration hanging over my bed (his 1968 PEACE poster for the U.S. Presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy). My daughters’ mother is a well-known illustration art director and they grew up surrounded by the most brilliant and beautiful illustrated children’s books and wall posters.

I’m an illustration nerd, and my appreciation (and fascination) is based on that fan-styled response rather than a detached, intellectual aesthetic admiration. In other words, I love illustration in all its forms! And that’s why I love this Burgo Group collection. There are others who could (and have) write at length about the thoughts and process that went into the creation of each of these very singular pieces. All I can say is that this is a collection by 18 masterful visual storytellers, who each have created rich, beautiful, deeply moving graphic tales that are failed by superlatives. Amazing? Astounding? Astronomical? Awesome? Yes, all of these and more!

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The illustration world has changed a lot in the 20 years since the Burgo Group calendar debuted. First, obviously, is the technology. Most of the illustrators represented here used classic tools and materials to create their work: oils, watercolors, acrylics, ink, pens, brushes. Even the type of paper and its texture was a creative decision that impacted the final product. There was a sense of total attention to technical process and detail, and illustrators reveled in their craft. As Moebius once said, “A precise, beautifully executed line is like an orgasm.”

[Above: Illustration by Shout]

The illustrator Shout, aka Alessandro Gottardo, may be the first contributor to this collection to create his work entirely by digital process. He certainly won’t be the last. In fact I think it’s safe to say that when Burgo Group celebrates its 30th anniversary the huge bulk of their illustrations will have been created digitally (and who knows, maybe some by robots as well!). This is the major change in illustration over the past 20 years, and while this was bemoaned initially by many—and there certainly was a technical learning curve—from my fan perspective it has only increased the breadth and range of possible styles and techniques. And in a very democratic way, it has given many more people access to the tools and skills needed to create great illustration.

Twenty years ago many illustrators still had meetings with art directors, and delivered their work in person. The nature of that work has changed as well. As an art director, I miss the in-person collaboration, the dynamic part of graphic design, and of course, the thrill and community of looking at work and discussing ideas, technique, and the struggle for success. But again, technology has changed the nature of work and work delivery, so that illustrators can sit in the studios and send you their work in a matter of seconds (and that’s certainly better than stressing about all those missing FedEx deliveries!). However, the downside for illustrators is that the nature of deadlines has also changed, and now everyone wants everything delivered “immediately.” In many ways illustration is seen from the point of view of the client as an assembly line, with the demand being for faster and faster production. Of course this is actually not much different from the days when illustrators toiled in agencies and studios and stayed up all night under the task-master eyes of creative directors who wanted it “faster, faster!”

[Above: Illustration left by Negrin, right by Alessandro Sanna]

I also miss the big, fat budgets, when you could throw money at illustrators for their work (at least it seemed that way to me as an art director…I’m sure the illustrators saw it simply as money well-earned). Budgets have disappeared or at best flatlined. But illustrators have responded with their usual creativity and resourcefulness. In other words, the struggle continues. I am constantly amazed at the ability of illustrators to hustle themselves into new venues of work. I do a regular series of interviews with illustrators for American Illustration, and the most common connective personality trait for all of those who are successful (and I think by successful, I mean that they can actually make a living and have at least some occasional creative fulfillment), is that they are continually working and developing new outlets for their work. And these days, if there’s no paying gig, they create art anyway, and post it online, hoping to find a buyer or a new client.

[Above: Illustration by Lorenzo Mattotti]

I don’t think this is a particularly new development. Look at the background of the artists represented in this show. As a group they have done work on children’s books, animation, directed movies, stage and film design, posters, LP covers, gallery exhibits, comic strips, graphic novels, and of course, lots of editorial illustration. Part of this is the need to keep working and make money, but I’d suggest that a larger, more imperative for them is the endless desire of creative people to express themselves in creative endeavors. They keep working and finding new ways to work because that’s what they do (and what they love to do). Like sharks that have to keep swimming to stay alive, illustrators have to keep illustrating to stay vital (and to stay alive).

Social media is really the dominating factor in illustration today, and that’s something that just didn’t exist 20 years ago. The advent of social media has created an entirely new, and very global venue for illustrators, one that creates a worldwide awareness of trends and styles and ideas. As budgets shrink and some formats disappear, it’s social media that has opened a whole new world for illustrators and artists and given them much more control over their creative products.

Edel Rodriguez is a very talented illustrator (and former art director) who lives in New Jersey, in the United States. Rodriguez recently created a highly provocative political cover illustration for Der Spiegel, a weekly German magazine published in Hamburg. Der Spiegel has a large circulation, but I think it’s safe to say that there are very few people outside of Germany who can see an actual hard copy of the magazine. However, the day the magazine was published Rodriguez’s image was broadcast around the world, first on social media and then on television. The next day, and for weeks afterwards, demonstrators appeared in front of the White House and in other cities around the world carrying posters emblazoned with Rodriguez’s illustration. It was posted and reposted tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of times on a wide variety of digital platforms. Rodriguez was interviewed by newspapers, television, radio and much more, and he received commissions to do similar work in multiple venues. All of this happened in the space of just a couple days.

[Above: Illustration left by Cecco Mariniello, right by Luca Caimmi]

Now illustrators have always been active in social and political movements—just ask Milton Glaser and Paul Davis, who created iconic images in the 1960s against the war in Vietnam—but thanks to social media they have the ability to react and connect much faster and on a much larger scale. And this is true for all the work they create, whether it’s political in nature or just a great piece of art.

Ping Zhu is part of a whole new era of illustrators, that part that is no longer exclusively a European or European-American male preserve. There’s a whole new generation of men and women illustrators across the globe who are bringing a ton of energy and excitement to the field. Burgo Group has smartly recognized this change by recognizing young new talent like Zhu, as well as last year’s Italian illustrator Shout, who is very digital in his technique but very classic in his conceptual execution.

Do you see how the nature of illustration has changed? It’s a global force, expressing ideas to people (which was always its essence, of course) in ways deeper, wider, faster, and with much more diversity than we ever imagined 20 years ago.

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Let’s take a look at the wonderful artists who are represented in this exhibit. Each of these series of six images tell a compelling visual story, an imaginative graphic journey through time and place that offers a fascinating insight into each artist’s creative mind. [Each artist’s work appears directly above their name.]

Jean-Michel Folon: Known simply as Folon, this Belgian-born illustrator lived and worked in Paris and later Monaco (he passed in 2005). He was an editorial illustrator, especially for American magazines, and created noted posters for Greenpeace and Amnesty International and numerous book covers. Folon was honored with a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1990. Author Ray Bradbury wrote in that show’s catalog: “Some have intimated that he is merely an illustrator. Merely! As if illustration were mere.”

For the 1998 Burgo calendar, Folon created one original image and contributed a series of existing artwork, all of it beautiful and surreal, simple in imagery but powerful in their visual storytelling.

Emanuele Luzzati: This Italian painter, film director (two Oscar nominations for short films!), animator, stage designer, and illustrator created masterful and fanciful imagery. “To visit an exhibition of Luzzati’s work…was like entering a fairyland park,” wrote The Guardian in his 2007 obituary.

For the 2000 Burgo calendar, Luzzati brought to life fictional characters from children’s stories with bright, graphic collage and mixed media.

Milton Glaser: Art director, poster designer, illustrator, typographer, interior designer, brand creator…Glaser changed the face of graphic design with his iconic work in New York City. As the founding art director of New York magazine, he changed the face of publishing as well. “I am so thrilled by making something that didn’t exist before,” Glaser said to The New York Times. “It’s like magic.”

For the 2001 Burgo calendar, Glaser selected a series of posters he designed and illustrated for a variety of New York City cultural events and institutions, including Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Opera, and Juilliard music school. He also created a smart and elegant paper sculpture that he cut and illustrated from the pages of a book. The work is pretty, delicate, and subdued, with—appropriately for the venue—an emphasis on Glaser’s illustration skills.

Emanuele Luzzati: For his second appearance, in the 2002 Burgo calendar, Luzzati produced a series of collages and mixed media pieces documenting the history of paper and writing, beginning with the ancient Egyptians. The pieces are dynamic and bold, but also very lyrical, bringing to mind a comment from The Guardian which praised his “magical and mysterious visual territories.”

Lorenzo Mattotti: Described as “Italy’s grand architect of dreams” by noted comics editor and writer Paul Gravett, Mattotti made his mark in comics, children’s books, posters, paintings, fashion drawings, and editorial illustration, including notable covers for The New Yorker. He’s so cool that he collaborated with Lou Reed on a reimagination of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven.

For the 2003 Burgo calendar, Mattotti conceived beautiful studies of couples reading—while skating, walking, dancing, and being in love. The eye (and brain, and heart) marvels at the grace, color and lovely textures of these illustrations.

Altan: Milan-based Francesco Tullio Altan has been called “One of the most incisive poison pens ever to be seen in Italy.” In addition to many books, children’s books, short cartoons and comic strips, Altan is a wicked political satirist. His work has been animated for Italian TV; most notably the puppy Pimpa.

For the 2004 Burgo calendar, Altan painted and drew a brilliant and vivid set of women reading, writing, and creating with paper.

Roberto Perini: Born in Italy, this newspaper cartoonist, illustrator, book cover designer, and stage designer has split his time between Cuba and Rome. In 1986 he co-founded the Frou-frou anti-futurist movement with Roland Topor.

For the 2005 Burgo calendar, Perini’s sweet, surreal watercolors of penguins, salmon, whales, and other animals imagine their interaction with paper and text.

Paul Davis: Davis is a legend among American illustrators and art directors for his stunningly iconic book and album covers, editorial illustrations, and theater posters. He collaborated with Milton Glaser and the crew at Push Pin Studios, and continues to make his mark as both illustrator and designer. Steven Heller says that Davis “brought a fresh new American look to illustration,” and the Art Directors Club says that he “paved the wave for an entire generation of illustrators.” His work is a part of the visual fabric of New York City, so much so that Kurt Vonnegut described Davis as “the face of the city at its best.”

For the 2006 Burgo calendar, Davis painted a glorious set of images, collaged with bits of paper and type: words flowing down a waterfall, beaming out of a lighthouse, winding on a road through trees, and most impactively to me, falling like snow on a beautiful mountain top.

Moebius: French cartoonist Jean Giraud aka Moebius was one of the most influential comic artists of recent times. His cinematic approach to cartooning transformed the field, and his impact can be felt on the many science fiction movies he contributed story boards to, including Alien and The Fifth Element. Film director Federico Fellini said that Moebius “has the ability to transport us into unknown worlds.”

For the 2007 Burgo calendar, Moebius created a series of six images that comprise an entire wordless story, with layers and layers of meaning. The pieces are beautifully drawn and executed. It’s no surprise that Moebius once said “A precise, beautifully executed line is like an orgasm.” Let’s just say that if that’s the case he must have had a lot of fun creating these illustrations!

Giorgio Maria Griffa: This Italian painter and illustrator makes complex mixes of watercolor and collage.

For the 2008 Burgo calendar, Griffa compiled a magical collection of torn paper, postcards, old travel baggage stickers, and worn travel documents to create a beautiful, mysterious tale of travel to far-off lands.

Jose Munoz: Munoz is a comic strip artist who with collaborator Carlos Sampayo, created the character Alack Sinner, a New York detective. Born and raised in Argentina, he later moved to Spain and then to Milan. Munoz is known for his hard-hitting black and white artwork; his style was described by graphic artist Oscar Zarate as “Every visual element, even the smallest one, is a protagonist that fights to be listened to.”

For the 2009 Burgo calendar, Munoz worked against type, making lyrical and lovely, almost abstract color pieces that tell a quiet story.

Jacques de Loustal: This French artist has done extensive comics work, editorial illustration, graphic novels, and numerous books of his travel sketches. He has also been featured on a number of memorable New Yorker covers. “An illustration is better with The New Yorker logo on top” he explained to the magazine’s cover art director, Francoise Mouly.

For the 2010 Burgo calendar, Loustal six images follow a painter through the creative process. Smart, colorful, poignant, with as one critic described his work “a taste for silent characters and evocative landscape”; any of these would make a great New Yorker cover!

Tullio Pericoli: Based in Milan, Pericoli is a painter and illustrator who also designed costumes and sets and created many illustrated books. He is known for him many portraits, especially of authors. “Pericoli teaches us that behind every stroke of the pen or brush, there are a thousand stories,” said professor Simona Corso of Roma Tre University. He “opens the gates of his art and invites the curious viewer to stroll between the lines of his paintings.”

For the 2011 Burgo calendar, Pericoli’s delicate, gentle dreamscapes are quiet and subdued compared to some previous years’ pieces. But don’t be fooled by their quiet reserve; these are illustrations of great power and impact, rich, layered, with countless places to look and explore.

Secco Mariniello: Mariniello is one of Italy’s best-known children’s book illustrators, with a giant stack of work to his credit.

For the 2012 Burgo calendar, Mariniello painted a haunting series of women reading, all of them surrounded by, or near water.

Fabian Negrin: This Argentinian transplanted to Milan is an amazing children’s book illustrator, creating what he describes as “my magical, dreamlike paintings” for a series of delightful editions.

For the 2013 Burgo calendar, Negrin painted what Fernando Bandini described as “the images for a book that has not been written yet, the book of the time that will come next year.” These fantastic, predictive paintings are diverse and imaginative, with the connecting thread being Negrin’s wonderful technique.

Alessandro Sanna: Italian artist Sanna has illustrated over 70 books for adults and children. The website Brainpickings called his stunning 2013 book, The River, “easily the most breathtaking book to come out so far this year,” and said that “Through his soft watercolors shines the immutable light of existence.”

For the 2014 Burgo calendar, Sanna deserves equal praise. Giant swatches of color and small, barely-defined figures create what Sanna calls “soothing moments in time.” These are among the most impressionistic and colorful (and beautiful) images in the entire series.

Luca Caimmi: A review of young adult and children’s books via Books in Italy said, “Caimmi’s illustrations are magnetizing, and the reader does not quickly pull away.” A painter and illustrator, Caimmi’s simple, bold, childlike images harken back to the folklike qualities of Paul Davis.

For the 2015 Burgo calendar, Caimmi employs master storyteller skills. The theme is creation: painting, conducting music, putting up a mural. Caimmi describes these works as “images with small, carefully balanced actions between stillness and motion.” They are also beautiful.

Shout: Alessandro Gottardo, aka Shout, may not be the first illustrator to use digital tools in the Burgo calendar, but he certainly is the first to fully embrace the modern digital illustration aesthetic. “I stopped thinking about the style of my images and focused on their message,” said Shout in a recent interview with American Illustration. He is a prolific editorial illustrator who has taken the magazine and newspaper world by storm with his brilliantly perceptive conceptual work. “The life you live is the art you will produce,” says Shout, and apparently he’s living a great life, because he is producing great art!

For the 2016 Burgo calendar, Shout created imagery that represents the new wave of Italian illustration. His pieces are quiet, minimal in imagery, but rich in depth of meaning and artfulness.

Ping Zhu: Ping Zhu represents a break from tradition for Burgo. She is the first woman, the first non-European or European-American (her parents are from China), and the first new, younger artist from the United States. It’s Nice That says that “Ping manages to encapsulate a real sense of energy and atmosphere in her works.” Relatively young and new to the business, she has managed to land editorial assignments from many of the top newspapers and magazines. “To me, illustration is a way of communicating to make the world more connected and cultured,” she says, “and it colors the world.”

For the 2017 Burgo calendar, Ping Zhu painted a brilliant series of seashore images, bright and modern, but fully in the tradition of the masters who have appeared before her.

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Enjoy this marvelous and inspiring collection of illustration work, the best of the past 20 years. These images have brought great joy and insight to many people already, and I hope they do the same for those who are seeing them for the first time. And 30 years from now, when my daughter Ivy (who is 13 but already knows she wants to be an art director) writes the essay for the 50th anniversary calendar collection, she’ll probably say the same thing about her era. Because truthfully, it seems that it’s always the golden age of illustration! ♦