Cartoon by Roland Topor

Roland Topor was one of the most surreal and versatile artists of the second half of the 20th century. He gained notoriety as one of the home cartoonists of the subversive French 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. Apart from being a cartoonist Topor was also an illustrator, novelist, actor, playwright, film and TV scriptwriter, singer-songwriter, animator and film director. His most famous novel, 'Le Locataire Chimérique' ('The Tenant', 1964) has been adapted to film by Roman Polanski. Topor 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. His entire body of work is characterized by madness and both black as well as scatological comedy.

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 baptised their son to hide his real identity. After the war, he studied art at the Institute of Beautiful Arts in Paris. He discovered surrealism, Hieronymus Bosch 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. Three years later, he joined the anarchic group of artists who created the controversial magazine Hara-Kiri, where his cartoons were published alongside people like Jean-Marc Reiser, Fred, Wolinski, Cabu and Gébé.

Erik by Roland Topor

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' (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' (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

In 1964 Topor published his debut novel 'Le Locataire Chimérique' ('The Tenant', 1964), a psychological horror story about a man moving in an apartment where he is gradually pestered into madness by the other inhabitants. The work was adapted to film in 1976 by Roman Polanski and both the book as well as the picture are cult classics to this day. Topor wrote several other novels and short stories. 'Memoires d'un vieux con' (1975) is a story about a man who claims to have influenced countless historical people, from Sigmund Freud over Al Capone to Jean-Paul Sartre. His 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). Topor also wrote the foreword for Ronald Searle's comic book 'Homage à Henri Toulouse-Lautrec' (1969).

Bizarre by Toland Topor

The most unique and unusual book in Topor's oeuvre must be 'Souvenir' (1972). It features a text with all the sentences scratched out to the point of being unreadable. The idea to publish it came from Dutch publicist Jaco Groot, much to Topor's own surprise. When the artist was interviewed on Dutch television by Adriaan van Dis to read some extracts from it Topor accepted the request by holding his hand in front of his mouth and mumble through it.

In 1966 Topor 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).

Photocomic by Roland Topor
Photo comic by Roland Topor (1968-1969)

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). He 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 has also immortalized his notorious hysterical and chilling laugh.

Together with René Laloux, he 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.

Artwork by Roland Topor

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).

In 1975 he recorded an album with his Belgian friend Freddy De Vree called 'Panic (The Golden Years)'. It features Topor being interviewed by De Vree on the Flemish public radio channel BRT 3. Apart from talking he also recites some nonsensical songs, including the Dutch nursery rhyme 'Iene miene mutte' and the tongue twister 'De kat krabt de krullen van de trap.' The record was re-released on CD in 2007. Topor also wrote two songs, 'Je m'aime' and 'Monte dans mon ambulance', which were set to music by François d'Aime and recorded by Japanese singer Megumi Satsu in 1980.

Strips Panique by Roland Topor

In the 1980s, Topor published in Le Petit Psikopat Illustré, an alternative review which also published work by Willem, Kamagurka, Édika and Carali. He also teamed up with Belgian film director Henri Xhonneux to create the cult children's series 'Téléchat' (1983-1986) for the French TV channel Antenne 2. It featured two marionets, Lola the ostrich and Groucha the cat, who host a news show. They are accompanied by various anthropomorphic animals and objects. The program received various awards, including the 1984 award for best French broadcast for children and adolescents at the Festival of Cannes. It was also nominated for an Emmy in 1985.

Topor and Xhonneux joined forces again in 1989 to create the film 'Marquis', which was loosely based on the life and work of the notorious Marquis de Sade. The actors performed in animal masks and De Sade's penis was made into a separate puppet with a human face and the ability to talk. Due to the unusualness of its execution it became a cult favorite.

Cartoon by Roland Topor

In 1992 Topor, Giacomo Carioti and Jean-Louis Colas founded the association ROMALIASONPARIS, which favored a collaboration between French and Italian artists. The drawing he made in 1996 for this friendship, 'Pinnochio qui se fait Marameo' is still the symbol seen on the annual Roland Topor Award.

After the death of his father in 1992 and tax troubles, Topor succombed into depression. He died in 1997 of a cardio-vascular accident. He was posthumously named satrape of the pataphysical college in 2001. Among his fans are 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, OPS, Philippe Geluck 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.

Cartoon by Roland Topor
Famous cartoon by Topor, that has also appeared on Amnesty posters

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

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