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CULTURE A scratch to dissolve the darkness

hannesBy Guido Vitale*

He moves his first steps in the dark. The sheet he puts in front of him is intensely, impenetrably black. Then Hannes Binder starts to raise to the surface something that looks like light. And his work takes shape absorbing the sunrays that are flooding his spacious, glass-walled studio.
Underneath the dark patina lies a white layer – it is Hannes’s task to extract it and to let every white groove tell its own story once the first black coat has been scratched off. The blade scraping the black cardboard produces astonishingly powerful illustrations, resulting from an ancient technique and from the extraordinary handicrafts of an artist who knows he is not allowed to make mistakes. Today is going to be a hard day, even an awaited friend is only welcome if he doesn’t make him fall behind schedule.

Binder is one of the eminent Swiss artists representing the Confederation in Bologna. Right after finishing the breath-taking scenery honouring his fascinating, unique Zurich, along with Kurt Guggenheim’s masterpiece Alles in Allem, set in the 19th-century Jewish society, it is time to hand in the book on the Second Ark. At the Children’s Book Fair, it will sound as a mandatory call for awareness and commitment, a tribute to diversity, minorities and love for Creation. A man of few words, extremely reserved, Hannes opened the door of his enchanted house in the city centre, not far from the banks of the Limmat, and at the same time isolated from the rest of the world.

“Working for children is very demanding”, he explained. “The child audience needs a lot of light, and extracting light from the dark is a hard work”. He then accepted being photographed while he immersed himself in his work, giving us the exclusive privilege of observing him closely at a crucial moment – the scraping of the black cardboard. With a myriad of little marks, he engraves, scratches and brings out the great sceneries that made him famous. His illustrations, published in the pages of the respected daily newspaper Neue Zuercher Zeitung for several years, are now fixed as an indelible vision in the minds of hundreds of thousands of readers. But his art, along with his patient, stable, sure hand, are best rendered in the plates of many fascinating books.

Die Zweite Arche (The Second Ark) depicts the ultimate other, a man called Alef, and all mythical and fantastic animals. They are threatened by the extinction of imagination and culture, the worst of dangers. Book after book, Binder succeeded in bringing unforgettable moments out of the dark, and yet his technique assures that creativity is never hindered or infected by his illustrations. Try and leaf through his editions of Lisa Tetzner’s The Black Brothers, the memorable saga of chimney sweep children from the canton of Ticino who were taken to Lombardy, or Meinrad Lienert’s great collection Swiss Tales and Heroic Stories or even Kafka, Duerrenmatt, Boell, Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, Friedrich Glauser’s crime novels, the exceptional illustrated report edited with Hansjörg Quaderer to reconstruct the assassination of producers and German-Jewish society’s major figures Heinz and Friedrich Rotter, who were killed by Nazi emissaries in 1933, while they were hiding in Liechtenstein. His scratches are painful, the stories he tells sometimes lead to tumultuous dreams. Each story starts out from black and struggles to get rid of it. But his mark says that all you have to do is search for a ray of light waiting to overcome every darkness.

*The article was published in the special section Leggere per crescere (Reading to Grow) in the April issue of Pagine Ebraiche. Translated by Claudia Azzalini with the help of Sara Facelli, students at the Advanced School for Interpreters and Translators of Trieste University and interns at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities.