Cartoon by Roland Topor

Roland Topor was one of the most surreal and versatile artists of the second half of the 20th century. The French cartoonist gained notoriety in the pages of the subversive magazine Hara-Kiri (later Charlie-Hebdo). While his drawings were not as harsh or political as those of his colleagues, they were certainly disturbing and macabre. They are often surreal juxtapositions of people, animals, plants and objects. Topor seldom used words in his illustrations, leaving all power to the visual. His work is characterized by black, surreal and sometimes scatological comedy. It found its way in many different media. Topor both illustrated and wrote books. His most famous novel, 'Le Locataire Chimérique' ('The Tenant', 1964) has been adapted to film by Roman Polanski. Topor also wrote songs, theatrical plays, film and TV scripts, usually with himself as performer. The creative centipede was co-director and scriptwriter of the animated feature film 'Le Planète Sauvage' ('Fantastic Planet', 1973) and the puppet film 'Marquis' (1989), which both have become cult classics. His popular children's TV series 'Téléchat' (1983-1986) received many awards and also achieved cult status. Roland Topor's versatility has made him one of the most influential cartoonists. 

Early life and career
He was born in 1938 as the son of a Parisian painter and sculptor of Polish-Jewish descent. In 1941, Topor's father was arrested and sent to camp Pithiviers. Two years later, the family moved to Savoy, where they baptized their son to hide his real identity. After the war, Topor studied art at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (Institute of Fine Arts) in Paris. He discovered surrealism, Hieronymus Bosch, The Marx Brothers and the scatological plays of Alfred Jarry, which would influence his work and his attitude to life in general. In 1958, he published his first work in magazines such as Bizarre and later Elle.

Hara Kiri / Charlie Hebdo
In 1960 Topor joined the anarchic group of artists who created the controversial magazine Hara-Kiri (nowadays Charlie-Hebdo). The publication set out to break as many taboos as possible. Topor's work was published alongside talents like Jean-Marc Reiser, Fred, Wolinski, Cabu and Gébé, but he still stood out. Contrary to his colleagues Topor didn't drew real comics. He didn't even make use of speech balloons, or text for that matter. His drawings are usually one-panel illustrations. The graphic style mimicks engravings from previous centuries. Despite this old-fashioned look, the situations are always surreal and disturbing. 

Other publications
Topor's cartoons also appeared in Charlie Mensuel, Surprise, Vaillant/Pif, Merci Bernard, L'Écho des Savanes, (Á Suivre), Hop!, Zoo, Mormoil and Psikopat. In the Netherlands his work ran in God, Nederland en Oranje (1966-1968) and in Italy in Linus. From 1982 on, Topor published in Le Petit Psikopat Illustré (often shortened to Psikopat), an alternative review which also published work by Willem, Kamagurka, Édika and Carali

Erik by Roland Topor

Theatre
In February 1962, Topor, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Olivier O. Olivier, Jacques Sternberg, Christian Zeimert, Abel Ogier and Fernando Arrabal founded the "Mouvement Panique" ("Panic Movement"). This collective focused on creating absurd and bewildering performances to reject the commercialization of surrealism. The founders created many provocative and surreal works in the next decade before Jodorowsky dissolved the movement in 1973. However, Topor continued making scandalous plays afterwards. In 'Le Bébé de Monsieur Laurent' ('Mr. Laurent's Baby', 1975) the protagonist nails a baby against the door of his house. Passers-by all wonder whether they should condemn him or admire his audacity. 'Vinci Avait raison' ('Vinci Was Right', 1976) was a parody of detective stories. A policeman and his wife invite some friends over to stay at their new house for the weekend. Unfortunately, all the lavatories are blocked, which causes shit to spurt out of every toilet. All inhabitants wonder who is responsible for this mess. Theater audiences in Brussels, Belgium and the Arts Theatre Club in London seemed less keen to see the mystery resolved and left home early.

Cartoon by Roland Topor

Novels and other books
In 1964 Topor published his debut novel 'Le Locataire Chimérique' ('The Tenant', 1964). The story revolves around a man who moves into a strange apartment. Right from the start the other inhabitants don't like him. They start bullying and tormenting him, all while the tenant himself grows increasingly paranoid and insane. This psychological horror story was in 1976 adapted into film by Roman Polanski. Both Topor's original novel as well as the film are nowadays cult classics. Topor wrote several other novels and short stories. 'Memoires d'un vieux con' ('Memories of an Old Idiot', 1975) features a man who claims to have influenced countless historical characters, from Sigmund Freud over Al Capone to Jean-Paul Sartre. Topor's 1980s pamphlet '100 Bonnes Raisons Pour Me Suicider' ('100 Good Reasons To Commit Suicide') is another example of his taste for black comedy. Another story, 'Café Panique' (1982), was adapted to a comic book by Alfred (Lionel Papagelli)

The most unique and unusual book in Topor's oeuvre must be 'Souvenir' (1972). All sentences in this book are scratched out, making it unreadable. Topor was confident nobody would want to publish it, but much to his surprise the Dutch publisher Jaco Groot greenlighted the idea. The unusual book received some media attention at the time. In a Dutch talk show novelist Adriaan van Dis invited Topor for an interview. While they talked, van Dis asked him to read a few lines from his strange novel. Topor therefore took the book, held one hand in front of his mouth and started mumbling. He and his good friend Freddy De Vree made another unusual book, titled 'Cons De Fées' ('The Fairies' Vulvas', Camomille, 1987). It features a number of erotic poems by De Vree, which Topor livened up with photo collages. The book is notable for its odd triangular shape, which mimicks a female vulva. 

Bizarre by Toland Topor

Musical career
In 1975 Topor recorded an album, 'Panic (The Golden Years)' (1975). It features his Belgian friend Freddy De Vree interviewing Topor on the Flemish public radio channel BRT 3 (nowadays Klara). In between conversations, the cartoonist recites some nonsensical songs, as well as the Dutch nursery rhyme 'Iene Miene Mutte' and the tongue twister 'De kat krabt de krullen van de trap'. In 2007 the album was re-released on CD.  Topor also wrote two songs, 'Je M' Aime' ('I Love Myself') and 'Monte Dans Mon Ambulance' ('Climb In My Ambulance'), set to music by François d'Aime and in 1980 recorded by Japanese singer Megumi Satsu.

Photocomic by Roland Topor
Photo comic by Roland Topor (1968-1969). Translation: "Left of me: nothing. Right of me: nothing. Behind me: nothing. In front of me: an idiot!"

Film: poster design, acting career and screenwriting
Topor also had an interest in film. He was interviewed in Benoît Lamy's documentary 'Cartoon Circus' (1972), a Belgian documentary about cartoons and comics, in which he appeared alongside Siné, Picha, Cabu, Jean-Marc Reiser, François Cavanna, Professeur Choron, Gal, Georges Wolinski, Willem, Joke and Jules Feiffer. He designed the posters of movies such as 'L'Ibis Rouge' (1975), 'Ai no borei' ('The Empire of Passion', 1978) and 'Die Blechtrommel' ('The Tin Drum', 1979). His drawings can also be seen during the opening titles of Fernando Arrabal's experimental film 'Viva La Muerte' (1971) and during the magic lantern sequence in Federico Fellini's 'Il Casanova di Fellini' (1976). Topor also worked as an actor, appearing in Dusan Makavejev's 'Sweet Movie' (1974) and as Dracula's assistant Renfield in Werner Herzog's horror remake of 'Nosferatu' (1979). The latter film also immortalized his notorious hysterical and chilling laugh. Topor was additionally the (co-)scriptwriter of the comedy films 'Les Malheurs d'Alfred' (1972) by Pierre Richard, 'L'Autoportrait d'un Pornographe' (1972) by Bob Swaim, 'La Fille du Garde-Barrière' (1975) by Jérôme Savary, 'Die Hamburger Krankheit' (1979) by Peter Fleischmann, Gilles Chevalier's 'Le Spectacle' (1984) and Rainer Kaufmann's 'Der schönste Busen der Welt' (1990). 

Film career: 'La Planète Sauvage'
Together with René Laloux, Topor created the animated shorts 'Les Temps Morts' (1964) and 'Les Escargots' ('The Snails', 1965) and the full length animated feature 'La Planète Sauvage' ('Fantastic Planet', 1973). The latter work was based on Stefan Wul's science fiction novel 'Oms en Série' and takes place on a surreal planet where gigantic blue aliens treat humans as pets. 'La Planète Sauvage' won the Special Jury Prize at the Festival of Cannes and has achieved cult status over the years. Its psychedelic imagery and bizarre soundtrack are still used in music videos and samples by various bands.

Film career: 'Marquis'
In 1989 Topor and Xhonneux joined forces again to create the film 'Marquis', loosely based on the life and work of the notorious Marquis de Sade. The story is set in 18th-century France and features De Sade as a prisoner in the Bastille. However, it's no conventional adaptation. All actors perform in animal masks. Cartoonist Willem plays the fish-headed character Willem Van Mandarine (a pun on William of Orange). De Sade's penis is also anthropomorphized. It's not only extraordinarily long, but the glans penis also has a face! De Sade (and other characters) are able to conversate with it. Thanks to this highly unique approach, 'Marquis' easily became a cult favorite. 

Artwork by Roland Topor

Radio career
Topor was a frequent guest in the philosophical radio show 'Des Papous dans la tête' (1984) at France Culture. Together with his good friend and playwright Jean-Michel Ribes, he wrote scripts for the satirical TV sketch series 'Merci Bernard' (1982-1984) on France 3 and 'Palace' (1988-1989) on Canal +. They wrote the theatrical play 'Batailles' (1983) about people of different social classes stranded on a raft, which was a satirical allegory of capitalism. Another collaborative project was the comedy film 'La Galette du Roi' (1985).

Strips Panique by Roland Topor

Television career
Topor additionally wrote scripts for the sketch comedy series 'Merci Bernard' (1982) and 'Palace' (1988). 

Téléchat
In 1983 Topor teamed up with Belgian film director Henri Xhonneux to create the cult children's TV series 'Téléchat' (1983-1986) for the French TV channel Antenne 2. The program was a parody of a news show, with all the characters being anthropomorphic animals or objects. The two hosts are marionets, with Lola being an ostrich and Groucha (named after Groucho Marx) being a cat. 'Téléchat' gained a cult following among children and adults, because of its pointed media satire. The program won various awards, including a 1984 award for 'Best French-Language Show for Children and Adolescents' at the Festival of Cannes. 

Cartoon by Roland Topor

Graphic and written contributions
Topor wrote the foreword for Ronald Searle's comic book 'Homage à Henri Toulouse-Lautrec' (1969). In 1966 he illustrated 'Topographie Anécdotée du Hasard' by Swiss assemblage artist Daniel Spoerri. The pamphlet featured a detailed map showing 80 objects that were lying on Spoerri's table on October 17, 1961 at exactly 3:47 p.m. He numbered each object and wrote a brief description of what each thing was and the memories he had about them. Topor added sketches of each object. In 1969 Topor was also one of many artists to make a graphic contribution to Alan Aldridge's 'The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics' (1969). In 1992 Topor, Giacomo Carioti and Jean-Louis Colas founded the association ROMALIASONPARIS, which favored a collaboration between French and Italian artists. In 1996 Topor made a special drawing, 'Pinocchio Qui Se Fait Marameo', still used as the symbol on the annual Roland Topor Awards. 

Recognition
In 1961 Topor won the Grand Prix de l'Humour Noir for his black comedy. His novel 'Joko fête son anniversaire' received the Prix des Deux-Magots (1970), while 'La Planète Sauvage' received a Special Award (1973) at the Festival of Cannes and Prix Saint-Michel (1974). In 1981 Topor was honoured with the Grand Prix National des Arts Graphiques by the French Ministry of Culture, while the Grand Prix de la Ville de Paris (1990) was given to him nine years later. 

Final years and death
After the death of his father in 1992 and tax troubles, Roland Topor succombed into depression. He died in 1997 at age 59 of a cardio-vascular accident. He was posthumously named satrape of the pataphysical college in 2001.

Legacy, celebrity fans and influence
By being active in so many different artistic disciplines, Roland Topor is still rediscovered by many modern artists.  Among his celebrity fans are/ have been composer György Ligeti, film director Guillermo del Toro, actress Sylvia Kristel (who made the documentary 'Topor et Moi' after his death), columnist and novelist Arnon Grunberg (who financed a republication of Topor's work in Dutch) and Kamagurka, who was a close friend of Topor and considers him his main graphic influence. Other artists influenced by Topor are Gal, WillemOPS, Jean-Louis LejeuneOscar de WitErik MeynenPhilippe Geluck, Philippe MoinsKim Duchateau and Brecht Vandenbroucke

In 2012 the psychological thriller 'L'Orpheline avec en plus un bras en moins' was released by Jacques Richard, based on a script he co-wrote with Topor in 1996. In Paris, the road Passage Roland-Topor in the tenth arrondissement in the Hôpital-Saint-Louis is named after him. 

Books about Roland Topor
Frantz Vaillant's biography 'Roland Topor ou le Rire Étranglé'' (Buchet-Chastel, 2007) is highly recommended. 

Cartoon by Roland Topor
Famous cartoon by Topor, also used on Amnesty International posters. 

Series and books by Roland Topor in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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