André François Biography

AN INEXHAUSTIBLE creator of unforgettable visual puns, André François excelled as an illustrator, poster designer, stage designer, painter and sculptor. Through his uncompromising independence he made a lasting contribution to the standing of artists in the field of graphic arts and communications. His inventive, playful work — for the theatre and ballet, in satirical magazines and advertising, and in a steady flow of posters — his taste for irony, paradox and sly satire, his offbeat eroticism and his darkly Kafkaesque humour had a vast international influence.
His British fans followed his work in the covers and pages of such magazines as Lilliput and Punch and the albums of cartoons published by Penguin, André Deutsch, and Ronald Searle. His style was instantly recognisable to the readers of The New Yorker for which he created many covers, and it came to inspire a new generation of US illustrators such as Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast and the illustrators who worked in Pushpin Studios, for whom irony was a principal weapon of communication.

François helped to break down the barrier between the aesthetic freedoms of fine art and the conventional literalism of what was called “commercial design”. Many younger designers and illustrators acknowledged their debt to him over the years. The book André François (1986) attracted several prominent tributes: “Among so much cliché and convention,” said Quentin Blake, “he seized a freedom that we all envied.”

Gerald Scarfe called him an “absolute original. He was the first artist to open my eyes to the possibilities of witty and expressive drawing outside the usual conventions.”

André Farkas was born in 1915 in Timisoara (then Temesvar), in the Austro-Hungarian empire. His mother was Viennese and the family spoke German and Hungarian at home. He became a Romanian citizen as a result of the postwar border changes in 1920.

He grew up in Timisoara, which he recalled as a fair-sized town with two cinemas and colour-coded trams for the benefit of those who could not read the route number or destination. He looked forward to the arrival of the circus with special excitement because one of his father’s 12 brothers, Armand, had run off to join the circus when he was 14. He worked as a sword eater and juggler, and eventually married into the Salomonskis, one of the great Russian circus families. This story stimulated André’s imagination, and circus motifs would later figure among his favourite themes — as did animals, in which he took a close interest during summer holidays on an uncle’s farm in Romania.

François said that he became an artist because he was poor at school. A cousin was studying medicine in Budapest, and François stayed with him while himself studying painting at the Academy of Fine Arts. He found the teaching stuffy, however. Seeing posters by the designer and typographer Adolphe Cassandre kindled a desire to study in Paris. In 1934, at the age of 19, François had his wish and joined Cassandre’s school in Paris. Unfortunately, Cassandre insisted that his pupils match his own high standards and threw out those who lacked talent and motivation, so his school soon became unviable. François, however, did work in his mentor’s studio for a while.

By the late 1930s François had become a French citizen, adopted an unobtrusively French name and was finding work as a freelance cartoonist for Parisian newspapers and magazines. He also met and soon married Margaret Edmunds, an Englishwoman. During the war he and “Marguérite” moved to Marseilles where he could work for newspapers that had moved out of occupied Paris. But French citizenship notwithstanding, a sinister threat hung over him as the Vichy security forces rounded up Jews. He obtained false papers and moved his family to the mountainous region of Haute-Savoie.

After the war they returned to Paris, settling at Grisy-les-Plâtres, in the Val d’Oise northwest of the city, where François branched out in new directions, including children’s books. His first, Little Boy Brown, was written by Isobel Harris, an American, and published in New York in 1949. It tells the story of a child in New York who learns about the joys of the countryside. François displayed his inventiveness with ingenious visual solutions to his complex theme.

His next book was a collaboration with Jacques Prévert. Since the text was not written, François and Prévert would meet in a café every few weeks; Prévert would outline part of the story and François would make the drawings. The result, Lettres des îles Baladar (1952), was both an entertaining story for children and an allegory of the German occupation of France. François satirised the grandiosity of the officials sent to exploit the islands’ natural resources with elaborate uniforms and regalia, even inventing a general whose cap has two peaks, so that even in retreat he is not thought to be running away. For the nightmares of the hero, François drew creatures such as occur in the fantasies of Hieronymus Bosch. The book was a turning point for François: it allowed him to explore his instinctive dislike of authority, and enabled him to abandon an over-elaborate way of drawing.

In partnership with John Symonds, whom he met through working for Lilliput, he now produced some of his finest books for children: The Magic Currant Bun (1953), Tom & Tabby (1963), Grodge Cat & The Window Cleaner (1965). Larmes de Crocodile (1956), which François wrote and illustrated, was translated into 14 languages. His darker, more ragged side was emerged in a commission to illustrate Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1957) which first displayed his characteristic scratchy pen line, honed for scorn and satire.

The steady growth of his reputation in Britain and the US, thanks to regular commissions from such magazines as Punch, Lilliput and The New Yorker, prompted publishers to collect his work in a series of books which included The Double Bedside Book (1952), The Tattooed Sailor (1953), The Half Naked Knight (1958) and The Penguin André François (1964). His friend Ronald Searle published André François: The Biting Eye through his own company, Perpetua, in 1960. In his introduction Searle wrote: “It might be argued that François deliberately places himself at a disadvantage by eschewing the sensitive line in favour of the harsh scratch; that he brushes aside popular sympathy by erecting round his work a barrier of barbs. But this crude line conceals a delicate lance which can be either lethal or deflating. . . . I remember a time in Fran çois’ search for that ‘rough’ line when he systematically robbed every post office pen, over a wide area of Paris, of its traditionally unusable nib.”

Editorial work increasingly led to commissions for François’ dashing and informal illustrations in advertising. He created the famous knight in armour for Mazda lightbulbs, and his drawings were used to advertise products from Gillette, Olivetti, Shell, Kodak, Citroën — for the Citroën 2CV he drew a horse with two heads — Pirelli and Perrier, among others.

His work, bubbling with animals, circus performers, ringmasters, clowns, strong men, acrobats, tattooed sailors and seductive women, was eagerly commissioned in the theatrical world too. His work with Roland Petit for the Ballets de Paris in 1957 led to commissions to design costumes and sets for Royal Shakespeare Company productions, including The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1956.

François liked his clients to give him his head — “I work best with a loose rein and less fixed concept at the outset,” he once said. “All my work for The New Yorker, for instance, was done within an easy, informal arrangement that laid down no guidelines. I once had a rather similar arrangement for book covers with Penguin Books — the art editor, Germano Facetti, allowed me to choose from the list of forthcoming titles.”

Perhaps because of this freedom — which few illustrators would have dared demand — he created memorable covers for books by writers such as Nigel Dennis, William Faulkner, William Golding, Franz Kafka, James Joyce and others.

He also evolved his own working practices. For example, he never submitted a selection of roughs from which a client could choose — instead, he would send his best idea and win the commission or be rejected. “I lost a few jobs that way,” he said, “but I preferred that to the alternative.”

Commercial success brought him the freedom to paint in a more experimental manner and to produce his painted assemblages of found objects.

On the night of December 7-8, 2002, his studio and almost all its contents, including most of his sculptures, were destroyed by fire. Fortunately for posterity, the photographer Sarah Moon had made a short film of the artist in his studio not long before the fire. What little of his work that did survive the conflagration was shown the following year at the Bibliothèque Forney, Paris; the exhibition catalogue, André François, Affiches et Graphisme 2003, listed all his printed works and a handful of his painted constructions. A further exhibition of his work, assembled after an appeal for contributions was launched on the internet, was held at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, in 2004, under the title L’épreuve du feu (trial by fire).

His wife, their daughter and their son survive him.