Unequivocally, The Collector of Moments is a work of art. It is a picture book yes, sold in the children’s section of a bookstore, but it defies categorization, like Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, or The Arrival by Shaun Tan. The illustrations are enigmatic, a sort of visual poetry caught mid-stanza before the swirl of imagery has settled. Not quite as obtuse as Magritte, or as twisted as Michael Sowa, but with the same weird juxtopositions of reality and fantasy. Or…I think it’s fantasy. I live in Canada and I’ve yet to see snow elephants, but perhaps my powers of observation are not as keen as Quint Buchholz, the German creator of this beguiling book. I’ll have to take a closer look.

Unlike Harris Burdick, or at least the original Harris Burdick, the illustrated panels in The Collector Moments are accompanied by a story, told from the point of view of a young boy who is remembering a renter in his father’s building many years ago. The tenant is an artist, and the day Max moves in with his bookshelves, a globe, and his easel, the boy is enthralled. They develop a friendship, and soon the boy is spending ‘whole afternoons’ in the painter’s studio, working on his homework, or drawing pictures on sheets of sketching paper. In spite of their closeness, Max is secretive, and does not permit the boy to see his paintings, turning the canvasses toward the walls when they’re done. He also disappears from time to time, never telling the boy where he is going, but the self-described collector of moments is full of strange tales upon his return.

“Did you know that in Canada there are snow elephants? They’re even bigger than African elephants, and they have thick white fur, sort of like polar bears. They’re very shy and they come out of the woods only in fierce blizzards. Only very rarely can you see them pass by.”

Very rare indeed, although I confess that during fierce blizzards, I tend to stay indoors as close to the coffee pot and the anti-depressants as possible.

Max relates other fantastical tales while the boy plays his violin, and eventually makes plans to leave again on another adventure. This time, however, he leaves the keys with the boy, who upon entering the apartment discovers the paintings have been turned around for viewing; a private exhibition not just for the boy but for the reader as well. In front of each picture is a piece of paper with a message describing, in one or two sentences, the moment the artist tried to capture.

The Life of Pi…with lion

The words themselves aren’t quite as cryptic as the accompanying illustrations, but the combination of the two makes for quality head-scratching. Like most books of this type, however, deciphering the mystery is not really the point. The Collector of Moments is about the gorgeous paintings, and the story is the framework upon which the canvas is stretched. The illustration of the boat, sailing away in a misty, moon-lit harbour with a little girl, a man wearing a crown, and a lion in tow is a narrative unto itself, albeit a strange one. (Makes me think of The Life of Pi, with a lion instead of a tiger.) This is just one example of the beautiful and surreal imagery throughout the book. It is truly, the stuff of dreams.

The method to Quint Buchholz’s madness is equally perplexing. To attain the beautifully grained illustrations, Buchholz sprays a surface with carefully thinned inks through an atomiser, then draws in his lions, snow elephants and other confabulations with the subtle instruments at his disposal, including feathers and fine brushes. It is highly meticulous work, one that produces an unusual quality of tone and depth particular to his illustrations. The colour is subtle but vibrant, and perfectly balanced within the overall hum of the artwork. Initially, before the artist Max turns his paintings around, we are treated to small, sepia-toned illustrations of the town, which could be old photographs. When the colour pages appear in the middle of the book, it’s almost impossible not to gasp, or suck wind, a phrase my colleague in the book biz invented to describe that involuntary physical response to beauty. I think…I have a crush on this book.

Quint Buchholz was born in Stolberg near Aachen in 1957 and grew up in Stuttgart, Germany. He studied the history of art, followed by painting and graphic design at the Munich Academy of Art. Working as a painter and illustrator since 1979, Buchholz has illustrated over thirty books for German and international publishers. From 1982 onwards his works have also been exhibited in over seventy solo exhibitions in Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Greece and Taiwan.

Like my introduction to Michael Sowa, I first ‘discovered’ Quint Buchholz through his postcards, which are still in major circulation. Unlike Sowa, Buchholz has a great website, which has many examples of his beautiful work, as well as several interviews. In future posts, I will be reviewing two other Buchholz titles: Nero Corleone (1995) about a lovely black & white cat who may be a member of the mafia, and Some Folk Think the South Pole’s Hot (1998) by Elke Heidenreich, with illustrations of penguins who have no connection to the mafia whatsoever.

The Collector of Moments by Quint Buchholz, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1997, translation by Peter F Neumeyer 1999

Also reviewed: Im Land Der Bucher