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Artist Barry Moser takes on the challenge of illustrating the Bible



The worthy book illustrator uses images not to usurp the power of the word but to act as a hinge between the imagined world of the author and the reader's reflected imaginings of that world. The illustrator is the priest in this marriage. Barry Moser, now at the ripe age of 69, has for some time been the American master of this ancient craft, emerging from the shadow of his teacher Leonard Baskin many years ago. He's taken on the big books: The Divine Comedy, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (which received the American Book Award for typographic design), Moby-Dick, Frankenstein, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Odyssey.

He's recently completed the biggest book of all -- the biggest, at least, in the Western tradition. Moser is the only artist of the 20th century to illustrate and design the Bible, the first artist to illustrate both the Old and New Testaments since Gustave Doré in 1865. Three editions of The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible have been printed (the name combines the names of Moser's own Pennyroyal Press and the investment management firm Caxton Corp. -- itself named after the first major English printer -- which belongs to the "angel, patron" Bruce Kovner, who funded the project). There's a $65 edition from Viking Studio (a subsidiary of Penguin); a $10,000 edition, of which there are 400 copies in print; and an extremely limited edition (30 copies; 10 have been sold), which includes a deluxe presentation of five volumes with original engraving blocks, photographs of models taken by Moser and assistants as part of the composition process, and original drawings -- all for $30,000. "People will gobble those up because they're so rare," Moser explains, but then admits, "Selling a $10,000 book is not an easy sale.

"It's never been an issue," he adds. Moser's as gregarious a sort as anyone would hope to meet. Round, balding, white-bearded, he greets with a firm handshake and an open smile, attracting amity with a homey Tennessee accent and a loquacious spirit. Nothing is off-limits in conversation, even that most taboo subject (especially when talking about the Bible): money.

"If we make money, it will be wonderful. The biggest issue is putting money back where it came from so my angel, my friend Bruce Kovner, who funded the thing, isn't out of pocket."

Patronage has gone the way of the Medicis, and Moser realizes the unique position he is in. Kovner put up $2 million for the project and gave Moser artistic autonomy. If the 400 books are sold, there's a $2 million profit. If not, nobody's going bankrupt.

However, Moser confesses that when publishers were bidding for the rights to the popular edition, the absurdity of the book business stung his pride. "Here you got Little, Brown giving Paula Barbieri a $3 million advance for her tell-all about doing the nasty with O.J. I think this book might be of somewhat more value; maybe we could legitimately think that we could get one-sixth of that advance.

"The amount of money that was offered in the first round of bids -- I laughed. I called (friend and publisher) David Godine, who wasn't one of the bidders. I said, "I'm insulted.' He said, "Give me the figures.' And he thought about it for a while, and he said, "Actually, it's a very generous offer.'

"I went away from that thinking, "My nose has been rubbed in this again.' I was being avaricious. I was looking for some big bucks here. They didn't come, and when they didn't come I got my nose out of joint and here is God slapping me alongside the head and saying, "You're forgettin'.'"

Moser's experience includes a brief stint as a Methodist preacher, so such talk fits his manner -- as does a worldly sophistication, with brief verbal flights into French and Italian that are even more becoming from a native Tennessean's mouth. Moser conveys a demeanor appropriate for the harnessing of a project as vast as the Bible -- a combination of self-effacement and self-confidence.

"My desire to do this project started about 30 years ago when I first learned how to set type by hand," he says. "I was teaching myself how to do this, and in teaching oneself how to do something you're always going to the history books to find out how it was done before you, and that's the way you learn your lessons.

"As I'm doing my studies on great examples of typography and design, I find they're all Bibles, or most of them are. A lot of the great monuments of printing are Bibles -- at least in the English tradition, and I even probably would be correct to say in the European tradition and the Euro-American traditions. I thought, "That's what I want to do one of these days. I want to do a Bible.' Now, that I had been a boy preacher when I was in college didn't make that any less a desirable avenue; in fact it made it more interesting, because while I fell away from the church I never really fell away from this text, from this language more than anything."

The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, printed at the end of the 20th century, retains the 17th-century language of the King James Bible -- "the monument of our language," says Moser. "Our language owes more to this text than any other but Shakespeare, but Shakespeare owes his to this. And Whitman and Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor -- you can name a whole bunch of them.

"If one is going to try to be as good as you can be in a particular field -- and I'm just tenacious enough and dumb enough to bite off something this big and try to do it. It takes the chutzpah to bite it off. It takes self-confidence to think that you can pull it off. And it just takes a hell of a lot of work to actually pull it off -- I think work more than anything."

On a schedule of 12-hour days over three years to compose the 231 engravings contained in The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, Moser also enlisted himself as a model for those poses he felt he couldn't ask someone else to do. (There are various "celebrity" models in the book: the poet Donald Hall as Ecclesiastes; poet, biographer Paul Mariani as Appolos; playwright Athol Fugard as the face of Job. "I was at Princeton with him in 1995. We were teaching there together, and when we were introduced I said, "Would you be my Job?' He said, "I'd love to be your Job.'") The head of Goliath is a self-portrait, for which Moser wore a wig and dripped Hershey's syrup from his mouth to represent blood. He also had himself tied, cruciform, to a wall for 15 minutes as assistants took photographs. "This part of my hand turned blue from circulation being cut off for that long," he chuckles at the folly of his obsession. "I don't ask anybody else to do that. And I didn't even use the image."

The images he has chosen reflect Moser's love of portraiture, as well as his idea of the Bible's major theme: the individual's singular confrontation with God. "I think all of us have at some time or another in our life confronted the idea of God. When -- in my opinion and in my experience -- the confrontation with God happens alone. It can also happen in what is called the communion of saints and going into a church situation with the loveliness of numbers. But the real confrontation, the real meaning, is what's in our own individual heads -- that's where the confrontation is.

"That's the primary reason for my emphasis on the single figure. It's not so much the portrait as it is the single figure, the solitary voyager. It's like Alice. Alice is a solitary voyager. It's like Odysseus. It's like Dante. These are my favorite characters in literature anyway. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz -- she's on the voyage solitaire. It has to do with that more than anything.

"And to a lesser degree, and certainly as important, is that these figures are not only portraits but they're looking at you. In most instances they will engage you with their eyes.

"You've just turned to Ruth and Naomi," he observes as pages of the text are slowly turned. "Ruth has sat down, I presume -- either that, or Naomi is walking on a wall. They're arranged simply because that's the way the lights and the darks fall. It's a formal thing. But it doesn't stop you and say, "Hey, what are they doing?' We see human figures in this relationship all the time. Ruth is not looking at you. She's looking back toward Bethlehem, looking back toward that to which she is not going to return. Naomi could be looking at us -- there's no eye, just darkness -- she's in shadow; she has her hand to her mouth. To me it's saying, "You sweet darling, you should go back. You shouldn't take care of an old woman. You shouldn't go with me.' But is she going to say that, because she really wants it? She needs her to go with her. It's that moment of pause.

"It comes from art-history class way back when, and studying the "Discobolus,' the great Myron figure of the guy throwing the discus. It was pointed out that Myron chose to show the discus thrower in the moment before throwing it -- not throwing it, not in the middle of the action and not at the end of the action, but the moment before. That stuck in my mind like white on rice. I play with that all the time, the moment before. Look at the image of Samson in the temple of David; it's the same thing. He's got one hand on one of the columns; he's got one hand searching for the other. Now he's going to turn, find this one downstage and everybody's going to die, himself included -- an act of self-sacrifice. It's in that moment before things happen that so much tension is built.

"If I show my reader what is happening or what has happened, which I do a couple times but for the most part I don't, because if I do I rob you of the experience of you doing what you want to do with it. Basically what I try to do is to set the stage. That's the reason for the portraiture; you do the rest of it. I give you a suggestion of what her face is, but now you're going to take her and flesh her out. You're going to put her into three dimensions and let her walk through the oasis or the little town.

"Making good pictures is not a whole lot different from making good fiction. Mistakes are made from telling too much, too many adjectives. People come to my work and go, "Wow, you can count every hair on Eli's face!' Well, horse breath. There are probably no more than 300 or 400 white lines there. It's just that the way they go together, the way they play together, it creates the impression in the viewer's mind that there are thousands of hairs there. Of course, there aren't hairs there anyway; it's ink on paper. Everything's an illusion."

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