“On a March day in 1986,” reads a New York Times article from 1997, “a tall, brown-haired man walked into the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and repeatedly slashed Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III, a 1967 masterpiece by the American Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman.
“For this, the man, Gerard Jan van Bladeren, then 31, served five months in jail and three months on parole. He then faded into obscurity. Until last Friday.
“On a cool, clear morning Mr. van Bladeren entered the museum again, unrecognized, at its 11 A.M. opening. He walked up to a second-floor gallery and, with nobody else around, set his eyes on another large abstract painting. This one was by Newman, too, the majestic Cathedra, from 1951, which experts say is worth about $12 million.”
You can guess what happened next; van Bladeren, scourge of Abstract Expressionism, hacked that canvas to pieces. “He considered the act to be a work of art in its own right,” says Dutch illustrator Viktor Hachmang, “a violent statement against abstract painting. He felt he completed the work by adding his own mark, thus creating a masterpiece.”
In recent months Hachmang has become intimately familiar with the van Bladeren story, fascinated by what he suggests was a poetic action from the paranoid schizophrenic. In honor, or perhaps in critique, of the art vandal, he’s produced his first ever comic, a wordless narrative for Landfill Editions, called Book of Void.
The inspiration for Book of Void arrived before Hachmang had even heard about the unpleasantness at Stedelijk; “Discussing what to do on the last day on earth, the most dramatic thing my girlfriend and I came up with was to attack a modern masterpiece with an exquisite antique katana. Strangely, this resulted in a recurring dream with a similar theme, about wielding swords, reflections on blades…”
So Hachmang began mapping out a story to make sense of these visions, eventually settling on the idea to “remake Taxi Driver with objects only,” later weaving the philosophies of Japanese swordsmanship and van Bladeren’s misdemeanour into the mix.
Typically Hachmang’s work draws on mid-century aesthetics for inspiration, taking cues from Hergé and Ligne Claire to inform what he calls his “Baroque way of working.” This extends from the clarity of his draftsmanship right down to the objects with which he sets scenes. In this sense Book of Void is a huge departure stylistically—the landscape is immediately recognisable as the present day—as well as being a first foray into comics. Aware of what a break this is from his personal traditions, Hachmang has placed himself at the heart of the comic.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to view the work as autobiographical,” he says, “but it’s true that it’s a very personal story. It’s no coincidence that the protagonist resembles me physically: I was going through a phase where I was fed up with what I had done before, so I tried to make something that wasn’t connected to that, to liberate myself. To me Book of Void deals with killing your idols, your own inhibitions, fears, and doubts. It is a very positive story, albeit a violent one.”
It also serves to questions some of the modern branded landscape; logo marks and celebrated works of art serving as icons for the world the protagonist is trying to escape. “It was a conscious decision to deal with my own surroundings,” says Hachmang, “in many ways an anxiety-inducing psychological landscape for me. I made the decision to avoid my usual imaginative inner world and focus on the outside for a change, so it seemed most realistic to accept this constant bombardment of logotypes and commerce.
“Ironically, a big influence in the development of the Book of Void visuals was the age-old Japanese ukiyo-e tradition. I consider the traditional Japanese method of stylization to be the pinnacle of visual clarity. Even though nature is the subject of many a ukiyo-e print, I used a lot of the visual tropes found in Japanese prints from the Edo period to try to capture the current man-made landscape.”
To this end Book of Void, is defined by its limited color palette and repeat patterns, creating a nauseatingly clinical landscape that feels restrictive and mundane. As a result our anti-hero feels wild and exciting, inspired by some spiritual calling to cut loose from his day-to-day.
“I tended to read a lot of Eastern esoterica and philosophy while working on the book,” says Hachmang, “most importantly the Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. The title derives from its last chapter, the culmination of Musashi’s philosophy on sword mastery and life. I felt this added a new layer, however pompous it might be… ”