Illustrating Fear and Trembling

Paul Scheruebel's illustrations for our edition of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling are some of the most unconventional and arresting in our latest selection of books. Scheruebel has taken the central image of this work (the Voice of God commanding Abraham to kill Isaac) and re-imagined and reconstructed it seven times, mirroring Fear and Trembling's narrative structure in which Kierkegaard debates and questions this scene from the Bible from different angles. We interviewed Paul Scheruebel to find out more about this fascinating project.

How did you first get involved with this project?

Paul Scheruebel in his studio

I had been interested in The Folio Society for years and I was quite keen to illustrate one of their books. I was actually just working on some pieces for the ‘Brave New World’ competition when I received an E-Mail from Sheri Gee (Folio's Art Director), asking me whether I was interested in illustrating Fear and Trembling.  It was a pure coincidence but the timing was perfect to give me quite a surprise. Obviously I said yes. Sheri had already thought about a basic concept for the illustrations together with the editor and it sounded absolutely fascinating.

Had you read Kierkegaard before and what were your concerns (if any) in illustrating a work of theological philosophy?

No, I had not read him before. It was a good opportunity to do so.  I would not say that I was concerned. Luckily there is this scene of the binding of Isaac which he uses a lot in the book. That provides a very good visual theme for an illustrator to work with.

The initial painting is a striking image of the Voice of God, Isaac and Abraham - is this a re-imagining of another painting or an image you created yourself? What research did you carry out for this work and from what sources did you draw inspiration?

I looked at classical versions of the topic a lot. It has been done by Rembrandt, Titian, Caravaggio and so on. My first roughs and attempts at the painting were very much inspired by those. The classical composition and my attempts to execute the painting in a way that hinted at old master paintings did not quite work though and it was a difficult process getting my images to have the right feel for the book. So in the end there was not much of my initial efforts visible in the paintings except, perhaps, a certain sense of staged drama, which is an aspect of old master paintings that I find very intriguing.

Paul Scheruebel with one of the completed illustrations for Fear and Trembling

Throughout the series the initial painting is deconstructed until it is almost rectangular blocks of paint. How did you decide the stages of this deconstruction? Is there a thematic difference between each image relating directly to the text or is this a progression?

When I first started thinking about how the images would relate to the text and to each other I thought I would try to show the process of Abraham’s letting go of his most treasured worldly possession, so to speak. I thought I would first make the scene very brutal and bleak and then shift the focus from the sacrificed son to the redeeming power of god. In the end everything would be restored in light and glory. Conceptually that would have reflected Kierkegaard’s interpretation really well but when I started sketching out the images I found it seemed too calculated, too predictable. Also, each image had to be a strong image in its own right so the series would not be too repetitive. There had to be a reason for readers to be interested in what the next image would be like, so there had to be room for surprise. It became clear that the series would have to be more experimental and more fluid. Sheri was very helpful there. Working with her was wonderful; she is so art-minded and gave very profound and inspiring feedback. So it became an obsessive painterly treatment of the subject matter, just as Kierkegaard’s text is an obsessive intellectual treatment of it. I painted quite a few more pieces than those that went in the series. That way I could choose from a broad selection and edit together a set of paintings that made an interesting progression towards disintegration. The series now reflects a movement away from the physical reality of the event towards a less tangible, less dense spiritual idea.

A preliminary sketch for Fear and Trembling

Could you explain a little of the process of building a series like this? Did you begin each painting from scratch? Did you start from sketches and rough drafts before building towards the painting or did you go straight to the canvas?

Once the overall idea was formulated and the initial rough was confirmed it was a matter of painterly exploration. The beautiful thing about painting the same motif many times is that you really get to know the image. That gives you an ever greater sense of freedom. The variations in the images came from variations in the process. I did not do sketches for the individual pieces but rather tried to come up with as many different ways of executing it as possible without losing the sense that they belong to the same family. Some paintings that I was quite pleased with did not make it into the final selection simply because they would not fit in and break the continuity. It was a very playful and enjoyable challenge.

You paint your work on a large scale. What were your concerns about how large images would look when reduced for a book and how did you prepare for this in the work? What special considerations do you need to take into account when working on a book commission?

 Actually I paint on such a scale precisely because I think the images look good when they are reduced in size. The format allows me to be spontaneous and gestural and still achieve a certain degree of detail in the end format. I like the textures and the energetic strokes you get from painting in a larger format, they come out really nice when they are printed in a book.

If you could illustrate any book which would you choose?

It would be either ‘Blood Meridian’ by Cormac McCarthy or anything by H. P. Lovecraft.

 View a selection of beautiful illustrations for Fear and Trembling, or find out more about Paul Scherubel.