Costume designer, concept artist, greeting card maker–The side of Orson Welles you’ve never seen before

Review by C.J. Bunce

You’re first thoughts of Orson Welles probably reflect him addressing a crowd as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (long hailed as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, film of all time), or from his astonishing use of radio in his live performance adapting H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds.  Beyond that, he’s well known as the ultimate Renaissance man and artiste of the 20th century, as a screenwriter, playwright, director, producer, and actor.  As unearthed in a new hardcover exhibition of artwork released by his estate, Orson Welles’ artistry didn’t end with the visions he left on film.  Orson Welles Portfolio: Sketches and Drawings from the Welles Estate, compiled by Simon Braund, shows Welles as a professional, hands-on, art designer by any definition, integral to the detailed look of his many plays and films.  His work demonstrates an early understanding of set design and storyboarding, and a career-spanning prowess for illustrating costume designs rendered as deftly as the best Hollywood costumer designers.

Now eighty years after his famous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, Welles’ fans and a new generation of film enthusiasts can learn more about the mind of the man through 300 images.  Through interviews and reprints of an extensive library of everything from a stunning, museum worthy rendering of Don Quixote to mere scribbles that come to life, evincing an artist well ahead of his time.  His youngest daughter, Beatrice, tells of her relationship with her father, and discusses a vast collection of original personalized Christmas cards featuring Santa Claus, a favorite, recurring creative pursuit for a man who might be the most talked about auteur of his day.  And his caricatures show his hand and eye could convey a complex feeling with only a few strokes.

Orson Welles Portfolio arrives in advance of a new documentary on the subject, The Eyes of Orson Welles, an Irish production slated to open in limited release in the U.S. today, but not currently listed in theaters or via streaming platforms outside the UK.  I’ve included the trailer for the documentary below.  The film uses many of the same pieces of artwork from the book and searches for meaning and understanding through the efforts of filmmaker Mark Cousins.

Welles’ artwork has a certain magnificence early in his career, when he pursued a desire to become an artist following a summer at the Art Institute of Chicago.  His costume designs, some designed for characters he would portray, include his selected fabric swatches affixed to his designs, many on par with the drawing style of Edith Head, perhaps the greatest costume designer of all time.  Readers will find images tied to Welles projects including his early theater years, his Mercury Theater and BBC radio days, self-portraits, travel images, Christmas cards, television shows King Lear and The Orson Welles Show, and films Macbeth, Othello, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, It’s All True, The Muppet Movie, and his unfinished Don Quixote.

Here is the trailer for the documentary on Welles’ art that is being released today–those with Region 2 DVD players can buy the DVD (not for most U.S. players) now here at Amazon:

Orson Welles Portfolio: Sketches and Drawings from the Welles Estate is tailor-made for the legion of Welles’ fans.  Welles’ creations continue to amaze and enlighten viewers even 34 years after his death.  Available in a large, full-color hardcover edition with 192 pages, the book is available now from Titan Books and can be ordered here at Amazon.

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