Today, one of my favorite books turns 200: Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s brilliant novel of wit, manners, and love. The anniversary got me thinking broadly about the — genre? category? medium? — that seems to be forever expanding these days, book art, and more specifically, about the work of Jennie Ottinger. I first saw Ottinger’s book-inspired artworks at the Miami Project fair this past December, and I was totally charmed by them. For her pieces, Ottinger transforms literary classics into beautiful, funny, and seriously abridged versions of their former selves: she re-creates their covers as gouache paintings that seem to distill the plots down to their essence; she strips bare the insides of the books and inserts handwritten plot summaries; and she often creates other gouaches to represent key scenes.
Though I hadn’t seen it in Miami, this morning I wondered if Ottinger had ever done Pride and Prejudice; it seemed like too seminal a work to miss. And indeed, it turns out she has, with a hilarious cover that conveys the long, sometimes torturous road Austen takes to get Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy together. In all of Ottinger’s Pride and Prejudice works, the characters spring to life in a new way — they seem to look out at the viewer, raise their eyebrows, and ask, “Really? These are the scenes and circumstances I must live out again and again for your benefit?”
While I can’t, in good conscience, recommend Ottinger’s art as a substitute for the real thing, her loose, painterly gouaches are a wonderful kind of tribute art, encapsulations of a book that’s been adapted so many times it’s impossible to keep track and of characters that “by now [are] nearly mythological,” in the words of critic William Deresiewicz. Enjoy them, and then get to reading.