Artist Profiles

Artist Profile: Roland Topor

image from Topor e moi

Roland Topor once asked us to “imagine an ancient typewriter in which all the keys have disappeared, save for three tiny letters: f, i, n.”

The end in French, as in fin du monde (the end of the world).

Topor’s mind worked this way, looking for the unexpected possibility of living nightmare in the ordinary. His art was often fantastical, but never distant from serious questions inhabiting our everyday reality.

Topor’s work took him across many media. He was a prolific illustrator, designer, novelist, screenwriter, painter, and song writer. Well-known in Europe but hardly heard of in the U.S., Topor was active in the Panic movement, which included Alejandro Jodorowsky, in the 1960s and worked in film and television in the 70s and 80s. He died in 1997.

Topor’s style seems to prefigure much of today’s “pop surrealism” or “lowbrow art.” Like the earlier French surrealists, he displays human bodies and other forms within the visual conventions of realism, but in bizarre contortions and physically impossible situations. And similar to current lowbrow art, he was engaged with pop culture and was more interested in direct satire and allegory than his surrealist forebears.

The paranoid and hallucinogenic feeling of Topor’s art may have something to do with his early experience in life. A Polish Jew, Topor was hid by his family from the Nazis as a child. After coming to Paris, he wrote “The Tenant,” a novel of social alienation and loss of identity. The novel was later made into a film by Roman Polanski.

Topor’s visual art included posters, magazine covers, and illustrations, and he widely published his artwork in popular journals and in books, not confining his work to a gallery setting.

It is Topor’s work in animation, though, that brought him to my attention. The short animated film Les Escargot and the full-length animated feature Fantastic Planet are two of the most disturbing and visionary animated works I have ever seen. You can view Les Escargot here on YouTube in its entirety, though the low resolution isn’t so great.

Les Escargot, like Fantastic Planet after it, were collaborations of director Renee Laloux with Roland Topor, but it is Topor’s distinctive visual sensibility that dominates both. Les Escargot is apocalyptic, teeming with allegory of self-perpetuated human destruction. Like in other works by Topor, the ordinary is blown up to monstrous and absurd proportions. Fed by plants stimulated by human tears, enormous garden snails run amok, destroying the cities.

Fantastic Planet is a sci-fi epic like none you’ve ever seen. A 70’s euro-funk soundtrack backs the eerie psychedelic visuals of an alien world. On the fantastic planet, humans are kept as pets by the gigantic Oms, a blue-skinned humanoid species who live for thousands of years and have a highly evolved culture and technology. Nonetheless, they are discompassionate towards the humans. The humans revolt after one clever pet hacks some of the Om technology. Revolutionary metaphors abound, and like much science fiction literature, but unlike most science fiction movies, the film is really about our contemporary situation despite the fantastical setting.

Words by Justin Allen


Fantastic Planet is available from Netflix and other fine video rental services.
For more info, visit Topor e Moi

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