'The Iron Parachute'.

Cor Blok was a Dutch art critic, art history professor and illustrator. He gained notability with his paintings and illustrations based on J.R.R. Tolkien's epic saga 'Lord of the Rings'. Some of his prints were used as covers for Dutch-language editions of these books. Tolkien himself liked his work and bought two of his paintings. Blok is additionally notable as the second-oldest man and third-oldest person (known) in comic history to debut as a comic author. He was 80-81 when he published his first and only graphic novel: 'The Iron Parachute' (2015). This consequently also makes him the oldest Dutch person to debut as a comic artist.

Early life
Born in 1934, Cornelis Blok studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in The Hague, and graduated in 1956. In his professional life, he worked as an art history teacher at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rotterdam and at the University of Leiden. In the period 1953-1958, Blok invented his own fantasy world, Barbarusia. He thought up a centuries-long history for this fictional country, complete with its own art history. Many of his Barbarusia drawings parodied certain historical art periods, such as ancient Roman wall frescos, medieval miniatures and Baroque furniture. In April 1960, this "Barbarusian project" was exhibited at the Municipal Museum ("Gemeentemuseum") of The Hague, with three dimensional objects to complete the two dimensional artworks.

Blok was fascinated by the ancient Chinese, ancient Middle Eastern and pre-Columbian American art periods, and ranked among his graphic influences Giorgio De Chirico, Max Ernst, Öyvind Fahlström, David Hockney, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and R.B. Kitaj. His favorite artist was the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, whom he admired for the way he circumscribed entire figures with a clear and simple closed outline. Comics only started to interest Blok when Roy Lichtenstein adapted them into his paintings. He named Jean-Claude Forest's 'Barbarella', George Herriman's 'Krazy Kat' and René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo's 'Astérix' as his favorites.

Throughout his career, Blok was also a noted art critic. In 1974, he compiled a catalogue of Piet Mondriaan's oeuvre. He wrote about the history of abstract art (DuMont Schauberg, 1975) and the interpretation of images ('Beeldspraak' [1967], 'Beeldvertalen' [2003]). Blok additionally translated art books from German to Dutch, including 'Ottonian Art' by Hans Jantzen.


Tolkien art by Cor Blok: "Boromir demands the Ring".

Tolkien
Blok was however mostly noted for his Tolkien-related artwork. J.R.R. Tolkien was a South African-born British author who rose to fame with his fantasy novels 'The Hobbit' (1937) and the three-part saga 'Lord of the Rings' (1954-1955). Set in an ancient world called Middle-Earth, it follows the epic adventures of dwarf people - the Hobbits - and Gandalf the wizard. Tolkien took direct inspiration from real-life myths, legends, saga and other epic tales. His characters were influenced by familiar ancient narrative archetypes. He built an impressive lore around them, complete with calligraphy, poetry, songs and geographical maps. Most had no direct relevance to his main narrative, but gave the impression that his stories were part of some ancient civilization with its own history and culture. Tolkien captured the imagination of countless readers. During the 1960s and 1970s, his books gained a cult following among teenagers, college students and fantasy fans. In 1965-1966, Jiri Trnka and Gene Deitch adapted 'The Hobbit' into an animated short. Ralph Bakshi attempted an animated film adaptation of 'Lord of the Rings' in 1978, but only got as far as the first part. In 2001-2003, Peter Jackson topped him by adapting the entire saga into a live-action film trilogy. It was both a critical success and a global blockbuster, making 'Lord Of The Rings' and Tolkien household names even among non-readers. Between 2012 and 2014, Jackson also adapted 'The Hobbit', extending the narrative into three feature length live-action films. Today, Tolkien's books still rank among the best-selling and most beloved works of literature. 'The Hobbit' has been illustrated by artists like Bart van Erkel and Livia Rusz, while Mike DringenbergHeinz Edelmann, Greg & Tim Hildebrandt, Tove Jansson, Erik Kriek and Vladimir Vesovic livened up the pages of 'Lord Of The Rings'. 'Lord Of The Rings' was additionally adapted into comics by creators like Luis Bermejo and Sotir Gelev.

Cor Blok read 'Lord Of The Rings' as early as 1958, long before Tolkien was truly world famous. In the subsequent four years, he made about 140 paintings inspired by Tolkien's Middle-Earth characters. He deliberately used a minimalistic style, leaving enough room for readers to use their own imagination. His work caught the attention of the Dutch publisher of Tolkien's work – Het Spectrum - who brought him in contact with the English publishing house, George Allen & Unwin. Five of Blok's illustrations were sent to Tolkien, who praised his work. In a letter to Rayner Unwin he wrote: "I think they are really fascinating (...) I'd love to see more, in the hope that a few are as beautiful as 'The Battle of the Trumpeter'. The other four were great as paintings, but ugly as illustrations." In August 1961, Blok met Tolkien at the novelist's home on Sanfield Road in Oxford to discuss his illustrations. The author bought two of Blok's illustrations, namely 'The Battle of Hornburg' and 'The Dead Marshes', and had them framed. As a present, Blok gave another painting 'Dunhov', for free.

Since Tolkien already had Pauline Baynes as his official book illustrator, there were no plans to use Blok's illustrations in an upcoming international edition. But in 1962-1963, Blok's illustrations were exhibited in the Netherlands. In 1965, three paintings were used as covers for the Dutch paperback editions of 'Lord of the Rings', published by Prisma. They were also included in the compilation book 'Realms of Tolkien: Images of Middle-Earth' (HarperCollins, 1996), the 1998 and 2011 official Tolkien calendar editions and the monograph 'A Tolkien Tapestry: Pictures To Accompany The Lord of the Rings' (HarperCollins, 2011). The latter work was edited by Pieter Collier, and had a foreword by Cor Blok.

In 1992, during the centenary anniversary of Tolkien's birth, Blok's paintings and illustrations were exhibited in The Hague. In 2001-2003, around the time of Peter Jackson 'Lord of the Rings' film releases, the original novels were reprinted, including editions with Blok's illustrations. At this occasion, his drawings were once again exhibited in The Hague, followed in the summer of 2005 with another show during the Lustrum celebrations of the Dutch Tolkien Society Unquendor, where Blok was guest of honor. Blok's paper, 'Pictures to Accompany a Great Story' (2008) was included in the Society's article and poetry collection 'Lembas Extra: Proceedings of the 5th Unquendor Lustrum'.

The Iron Parachute
Since 1967, Blok was additionally working on a graphic novel. Interviewed by Pieter Collier on 9 March 2010, he reflected: "(...) In my contacts with other artists I could not help noticing how many of them ended up repeating themselves or varying a single theme to the point of complete exhaustion." He remarked that after the student protests of May 1968 the role of art critics came under sharper criticism and scrutiny. It made him reconsider his own art: "(...) I continued to produce 'autonomous' work during the early 1970s, but also started on a new 'project': a kind of comic strip (except that it was not particularly comic - 'graphic novel' is the up-to-date designation) in black and white, combining drawings, collage and text in various manners. This enabled me to get away from the isolated picture which no longer seemed to make sufficient sense to me, while retaining the possibility of producing variations on a single theme or motif. The latter fits naturally in the context of making a book because of the required formal continuity between pages and chapters. The graphic novel format also enabled me to use language as a means of expression alongside with the visual medium."

From 1973 on, this graphic novel was Blok's prime graphic project. Contrary to most graphic novelists, he had no real story in his mind. The artist was mostly driven by the various ways in which mankind tried to communicate through picture stories in the past, of which he had a thorough knowledge. It took almost half a century before he finally felt satisfied with his book and saw it published as 'The Iron Parachute' (Oloris Publishing, Toronto, 2015). The book features 25 dreamlike scenes, with no real plot, but only a loosely connected narrative. An experimental work, each chapter has a different lay-out. Some pages are very visual - with no dialogue - others have a strong correlation between text and image. The artist worked in black-and-white and used, besides pen and ink, collage techniques.

By the time his book was published, Cor Blok was 80-81 years old. This makes him the second oldest man (known) in history to debut as a comic author, after Rao Pingru who was 90-91 when he published 'Our Story' (2013). The third oldest is Klaus Voormann, famous for designing the cover of The Beatles' record 'Revolver' (1966). Voormann was 79 when his graphic novel 'Revolver 50. Birth of an Icon' (2016) was published. The fourth oldest man to debut with a graphic novel is the Dutchman Martin Ruijters, who brought out 'Toestanden in Suriname' (2011) at age 75. The oldest person ever to debut as a comic author is Geneviève Gautier from France. She was 95 years old when she published 'Les Aventures du Pingouin Alfred' (2017) and remains the global record holder.

Final years and death
On 22 February 2019, Blok launched an Instagram account. He planned a follow-up graphic novel, while his work would be subject of a huge exhibition during the 15th edition of the Dutch comics festival Stripdagen Haarlem in 2020. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic postponed these plans. In 2021, Cor Blok passed away at age 87, leaving his new graphic novel unfinished. If everything goes well, the planned exhibition will be held during the 2022 edition of the Stripdagen Haarlem Festival.

www.corblok.com

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