Lolita’s Cultural Legacy Comes to Life in New Art & Design Book

by Amalia Graziani

Today I am excited, and for all you twisted saps and culture fiends out there, here’s why. On August 16, Print Books is set to publish Lolita – The Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design. Thanks to editors John Bertram and Yuri Leving, we now have access to a beautiful book that brings together truck loads of never-before-seen works and texts inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The book includes cover designs for Lolita by eighty amazing graphic designers (epic name-drops below), in addition to essays by design luminaries and Nabokov scholars that discuss the difficulties in visually representing the novel’s, er, themes.

From Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 Lolita 

Lolita is a text that has lived many lives through the extensive creative ventures it has inspired. From questionable undergrad essay imitations to incredible art and the Kubrick film of the same name (and the 1997 re-imagination), Lolita and its paratexts are an unparalleled cultural force. 

The National Design Museum’s Ellen Lupton praises the forthcoming collection, writing:

“Behold an obsessive book about an obsessive book. Dig deep into the visual history of Lolita, and ponder the future this dangerous novel might have had if published in dozens of new editions today. Designers in the past often offered us images of the famous nymphet; designers today are more interested in how Lolita didn’t look, leaving behind bits and pieces of a lost childhood.”

Proposed cover designs by Sara Cwynar (left) and Barbara deWilde (right)

Designs by Rachel Berger (left) and Jessica Hische (right), designer of the cover of the BUST book!

The project came together when Bertram sponsored a book cover competition, inspired by Dieter Zimmer’s (awesome) collection Covering Lolitafor new cover designs for Lolita. After receiving 155 entries from 34 countries, Bertram was approached by Leving of the Nabokov Online Journal about writing about the works. Together they’ve created a book that brings together aesthetic and intellectual interpretations with essays by Ellen Pifer, Barbara Bloom, Alice Twemlow, Sian Cook & Teal Triggs (of the legendary Women’s Design & Research Unit) and covers by graphic designers like Pentagram’s Paula ScherJessica Helfand, Johanna Drucker, Debbie MillmanEllen Lupton (and on and on and on). Even the table of contents is epic.

Nabokov, the butterfly-chasing eccentric whom America has known and loved (and condemned) gave us an enduring cultural treat with the 1958 release of Lolita. A tale of the controversial inclinations of literary scholar Humbert Humbert and his twisted romance with the now-iconic 12-year-old Dolores Haze (whom he privately calls Lolita) sparked massively polarized reactions upon its release. Lolita continues to provoke its readers, and what fascinates me most about Lolita is the cultural clout that her character inspired. 

Title shot from Kubrick’s Lolita (1962).

Tangent: I became acquainted with Lolita-the-adjective far before I’d know Lolita-the-girl. It was 1997, and my grandma called me a “Lolita” on Halloween. My mother had taken a photo of me (below) in a mermaid costume working my best “draw me like one of your french girls” poses. I can’t remember the specifics of the awkward explanation my parents provided, but I was intrigued by the conflict the term prompted. 

Portrait of the author as a Lolita

This is one example within a half-century peppered with cultural connections and creations inspired by Lolita’s themes. Co-creator John Bertram and I agree that the art, advertisements, discussion and existential crises that Lolita has ignited across three generations is worth celebrating. 

Dominique Swain covers Esquire’s 1997 issue/Dakota Fanning’s banned Marc Jacobs ad 

I’ve taken a peek, and this book is nothing short of all-caps AMAZING. I had a Russian literature professor once tell me that Lolita was the one text she could never teach. She said she was fine with covering Kubrick’s film and related essays, but the text, was “just too close.” This sentiment can be found in Bertram’s collection. The immediacy of the novel can be overwhelming, the creations it continues to inspire are more tangible and at times more evocative than the text itself. So whether you’re looking for a perfect fusion of pop culture, art and YES, or for an excuse to burden your housemates with new musings on the nuance of interpretation, Lolita – The Story of a Cover Girl is the way to go. 

You all know what I’ll be snagging come August 16th. 

Does anyone else agree with my fangirl-levels of unconditional love for this text? Discuss!

Photos via John Bertram and Yuri Leving, Netflix, Peach Lobot and The Daily Mail

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