As a body of work, Cor Blok's Tolkien Tapestry, gathered together here for the first time, in its most complete (120 of the 140 works Blok created) and well-printed manifestation ever, is intriguing, perplexing, sometimes dissatisfying, and occasionally brilliant. I'm really glad Harper Collins put this book out, allowing us to really get to grips with this until now elusive interpreter of Tolkien's bestselling masterpiece. Can I recommend it? Well, not without circumspection, and a few provisos. So, here goes.
If I'm completely candid, I was a little disappointed: the book is beautifully printed, and Blok's introductory essay is well written and illuminating, but the art is not of a consistent standard, as Blok himself admits. Tolkien and Blok corresponded, even meeting at one point, and Tolkien liked Blok's work enough to consider him for a mooted illustrated edition of LOTR, even buying a couple of his pieces. Like Tolkien, one of my favourites, and amongst those he bought, is the 'Battle Of The Hornburg'. And, again like Tolkien, I wish that more of Blok's other work were of this type and standard.
One of Blok's main artistic ploys is to leave out as much as detail as he can, both in terms of character and context. The idea - that this leaves more room for the viewer's imagination - is good, but it doesn't always work. It's true that the great beauty of the written word is that it does leave such an imaginative space, but pictures step boldly into that very gap. Blok seems to want to avoid that somehow.
Personally I think some of his best works are those in which he throws out this minimalist concept, such as 'Frodo's Vision On Amon Hen', or 'The Battle Of The Hornburg'. These paintings are full of detail and action, the settings figuring in a role at least as dramatic as those of the tiny figures themselves. This approach fits the grand narrative sweep of Tolkien's world. And in fact Blok himself observes that "landscape with Tolkien serves not merely as a backdrop to the action: it contributes greatly to the atmosphere". Whereas some of his art more consistent with his minimalist concepts, for example 'The Game Of Riddles', or 'The Cow Jumped Over The Moon', are less successful.
I'm not always overly keen on how he handles figures either. Again, the idea of 'less is more' is great in theory, but I just don't always like how he's actually done it (his beaky Gollum being a case in point). This said, there are occasions where his stripped down approach does work remarkably well, for instance in 'Gandalf Relates His Adventures'. In fact there are even instances where it works better the more abstract his figures are: such as his final LOTR piece, 'The King Of The Nazgul', which is like a hyper minimalist de Kooning, far better and more sinister than his earlier painting, 'The Sorcerer King', which looks more ridiculous than ominous. But, whether you like Blok's stylistic ideas or not, undoubtedly one of his strengths is how he differs from more conventional fantasy artists.
Occasionally he departs from Tolkien's narrative 'facts', as in 'Slaying Of The Nazgul', where he depicts Eowyn with a spear rather than a sword. This seems like an instance of justifiable artistic license, as it creates compositional drama. But when, in his second version of 'The Hobbits Sacking Bilbo's House', he has stairs to a second floor... Sorry, but that's just wrong! Remember the description of Bilbo's home in The Hobbit: "no going upstairs for the hobbit"!
Despite the above criticisms and a degree of disappointment, this is still a handsome book, reproducing very finely some interesting and occasionally highly successful art, and Blok's work remains unique as an interpretation of Tolkien's monumental act of creation. There are many delightfully atmospheric pieces here, such as the favourites I already knew of, like 'Amon Hen' and the 'Hornburg', but there are also the previously unpublished 'Weathertop', 'The Last Bridge', 'Country Of The Trolls', 'The Petrified Trolls', and the darkly moody 'Legolas Shoots The Nazgul Down', all of which depict larger scenes including more landscape and context.
Even some of the more minimalist figure based paintings work very well, for example 'The Firework Dragon II', 'Gandalf Persuades Bilbo', 'Caradhras', and the very evocative and highly stylized 'The Crebain'. And there are a significant number of more satisfying artworks where Blok mixes his minimal figure-centred style with the larger landscape inclusive approach, as in 'The Company Attacked By Wolves', 'Descent of Emyn Muil', 'Journey On The Anduin', 'Gollum's Promise', and 'Stewed Rabbit'.
So, is it worth buying? In my view, if you're a Tolkien nut, and open-minded and eclectic in relation to art, then yes, I think it is, and I would recommend it.