The Alchemist interviews Natasha Scharf, author of ‘The Art of Gothic’: Part 1.
Amongst many exceptionally original, talented and inspiring artists, Alchemy Studios are also featured in Natasha’s latest and lavishly illustrated book, ‘The Art Of Gothic’. And reading through the compelling and illuminating narrative provoked several questions, including one or two subjective, philosophical ones.
The Alchemist managed to nail-down Natasha when seen at a public event in London, and Natasha obligingly elucidated:
Q: What inspired you to believe that this subject needed a new book creating for it?
Well, there have been books on Gothic art (ie art relating to the historical Gothic period), books about individual gothic artists and general books on the goth subculture but no one had actually created a book on art that related to the goth subculture. I felt this needed rectifying because goth is one of the most creative modern movements and was just crying out to have a lavish book made that would acknowledge this. I loved the idea of compiling a proper coffee table volume that would really do justice to goth’s dark diversity with a combination of well-known pieces and works from underground artists.
Q: How much time did the research for this book take, in comparison to that of writing it, and did you need any assistance for this?
That’s a tough one because I didn’t start my research from the point of no knowledge – I drew on a lot of my own experiences and prior research within the goth scene over many years. For example, I knew I wanted to include pieces I’ve loved throughout the decades – artworks that I’ve been itching to share with a wider audience for years – as well as more contemporary discoveries that I only really found out about during the course of writing the book.
I guess I started plotting things back in 2011 and writing begin the following year, amid even more research – it truly was a massive task and I don’t think I realised just how big it was until the finished book came back from the printers. It’s really is heavy! I personally selected every piece that went in there although I did have some input from a few trusted contacts as well – I bounced ideas off them and asked for their opinions to make sure that I hadn’t missed anything important. That said, not every image I wanted to use made the final book because I either couldn’t find the original copyright holder or they didn’t want to be in the book for whatever reason. I also had a picture researcher who researched and contacted a lot of the copyright holders on my behalf, so I could concentrate on getting the book written!
Some people have this very strange misconception that goth doesn’t exist any more, let alone continue to create inspiring work. Of course, we know that just isn’t true and I was still selecting paintings, album covers and clothing designs right up until the final design!
Q: Did you meet many interesting characters during your researching, and if so who did you find the most fascinating and why?
Oh yes, I met a great number of interesting people – some of whom I’d known for years and others who I met for the first time during my research. It’s really tough to pick out the most fascinating because every one had a different tale to tell and a different slant on goth. It was certainly amazing speaking to artists who’d helped shape the imagery that we still consider goth – Nik Fiend from Alien Sex Fiend, Jon Klein from The Batcave, David J from Bauhaus, Carl McCoy from Fields Of The Nephilim, Steven R. Gilmore who designed a number of Skinny Puppy’s sleeves… and that’s just for starters. It was equally amazing to speak with the current generation of artists, who’ve redefined goth and taken it to the next level.
I adore Anne Sudworth and Emma Tooth’s paintings and really enjoyed interviewing them. It was also wonderful speaking with Alchemy’s directors and I thoroughly enjoyed interviewing designer The Wicked Lady, aka Olivia Barnard-Firth, whose motorised bat dress is quite possibly one of the most incredible thingsI’ve ever seen and inspired me to include fashion garments like hers in the section on what I termed ‘walking sculptures’.
So many wonderful people, my list could go on and on but my biggest disappointment was not getting the chance to speak to HR Giger in person before he died. From the interviews I’ve read before, he seems like he was a really fascinating person and I would have so loved to have met him.
Q: Hasn’t it all been done now? Can anything new come out of ’gothic art’ and, if so, from your research how do you see it developing?
Goth, and gothic art, is constantly evolving; there’s always a new take to be found, a new style to explore and new influences to be developed so it certainly hasn’t all been done. Academics talk about Gothic tropes evolving – usually within film and literature –as society finds new fears and goth has embraced many of these tropes. From medieval maidens to vampires, from zombies to mad scientists, they all pop up in gothic, as well as Gothic art, but there are also artists who aren’t afraid to break the rules and make up their own tropes. This is really the secret behind goth’s longevity; this mixing up of the old and new, without losing any essence of what it means to be a goth. I love the way there are so many different styles of gothic art out there now – you’ve got the traditional stuff, as well as the more futuristic cyberpunk/cybergoth styles, manga-inspired art, the more comicky deathrock styles that have been inspired by skate-deck art and even pieces aimed at a much younger audience. The possibilities are endless and I don’t think there’s any danger in the genre being exhausted!
More recently, there’s been a return to punk methods of creating uneasy atmospheres through techniques like photocopying, graphics filters, lighting and other experimental approaches. The British graphic designer Vaughan Oliver is a whizz at this and he’s still creating album art that’s as haunting ashis ‘80s covers for dark bands like Cocteau Twins, Clan Of Xymox and Xmal Deutschland. I’ve been seeing a lot more of this experimental side recently, especially with the really dramatic art nouveau-inspired illustrations that have been popping up on dark metal album covers.
Q: The ‘Goth’ scene was at its zenith in the ’80s & ’90s. Has this survived, and if so, in what form and how do you see it evolving from here?
It’s not just survived, it’s evolved! Nowadays, goth is more of an umbrella term for a number of dark alternative styles that range from what we might term as traditional goth through to Gothic Lolita and cybergoth. The music has changed as much as the fashion; there’s more crossover between goth and other genres, such as metal, and there’s more culture to consume too – from movies to comic books and computer games. Goth has gone from being a music scene to a subculture and now, it even influences the mainstream (although the mainstream usually misses the point!) Some might argue that goth has lost its identity but I think it’s more a case of it gaining a new one and metamorphosing – you only need to look through the history books to see how successfully Gothic has done that over the last few centuries!
There’s definitely a trad goth revival happening right now, which has spiked new interest in classic goth music from the ‘80s and ‘90s, as well as post-punk. There’s a whole new generation discovering goth for the first time and I find that so exciting. Every scene needs fresh blood to keep it going and goth is no exception. Fashion-wise, there’s a very marked return to black lace and velvet, which pleases me no end as it’s one of my favourite looks! In fact, the only real colour briefly came from Pastel Goth and the occasional jewel colour accents.
How goth will evolve in the future is impossible to say but it’s certainly not going to go away anytime soon! I don’t think anyone could have predicted the cybergoth explosion of the late ’90s/early ’00s or the deathrock revival that followed it. Even 10 years ago, no one could have imagined how popular steampunk or steamgoth would become – back then, it was just a literary genre but now there are festivals andconventions dedicated to it. Goth will continue evolve, in some shape or form, and it will continue to attract new followers who will reinterpret it and modernise it. And, no doubt, there will be elder goths who will maintain that this new reinterpretation isn’t proper goth because that’s what has happened all the way through history!
Q: If you could choose to nominate a ‘gothic artist’ hero, (as opposed to an ‘artiste’!), who would that be and what would be your favourite piece of theirs?
That’s probably one of the hardest questions I’ve ever had to answer! Just as I met so many wonderful artists while creating this book, I also discovered so many wonderful pieces of art. Giger’s work is incredible, I love Tim Burton’s magnificent storyboards and cinematography, I’m a massive fan of Alchemy’s exquisite jewellery and Kris Kuksi’s ‘Unveiled Obscurity’ sculpture is absolutely breath-taking – it’s got so much detail it in and I was so happy he gave us permission to include it. Matthew Coulam’s ‘Ryk Shrine’ is another piece that just mesmerised me when I first saw it – Matthew’s home flooded while I was researching the book and for one awful moment, I thought the original oil painting had been damaged but fortunately, he managed to rescue all his artwork in time althoughhe lost all his sketch books. Another of my current favourites is the Italian design team Malleus, who were behind the hypnotic ‘Dark Nouveau’ poster – I discovered this piece shortly after I’d returned from a trip to Prague and the incredible Mucha Museum. I think it’s fair to say that Malleus were just inspired by the Czech artist as I was. Basically, I love everything that went into the book and could happily wax lyrical about every single piece!
Also, although they didn’t make the final book, Edvard Munch’s ‘Madonna’ series and Richey Beckett’s ‘The Raven’ are also among my favourites – I love the haunting atmospheres in their work, which is still very gothic but sensual at the same time.
Some of the darker areas of Natasha’s mind are probed in Part 2, next week…
Natasha Scharf. The author of the books‘The Art of Gothic’ (Omnibus Press/Backbeat Books) and ‘Worldwide Gothic’ (Independent Music Press).