A look inside Noma Bar’s new book, Bittersweet

Noma Bar is a master of the visual pun. With a limited colour palette and a clever use of negative space, he creates images that demand a second glance. Look closer at that balloon on a string and you’ll notice the string is a needle. Look again at that dog’s face and you’ll see a cat and mouse within.

Bar has applied his playful approach to a range of media – from book covers to a bird-shaped tree house and an animated film about a pioneering cancer treatment. He has also tackled a range of subjects, from war and crime to sex and relationships.

A new book published by Thames and Hudson brings together 445 of Bar’s illustrations from the past 15 years. Bittersweet: Noma Bar includes an introduction from Pentagram partner Michael Bierut and thoughts from Bar on his work and creative process.

Illustration for an article in the Guardian on ‘vocal fry’ (2015)
Illustration for a Greenpeace campaign highlighting the importance of fisherman and the threat posed by large-scale fishing boats

The book is arranged thematically: one section compiles celebrity portraits (subjects range from Osama Bin Laden to Jamie Oliver) while another focuses on illustrations about love and sex.

Bar has drawn many an intimate body part in the course of his career, illustrating articles on penis size, foreplay and orgasms. Some illustrations are explicit and others more abstract but they share a sensitivity and playfulness.

An image of a woman’s crotch for an article about foreplay might be considered too risque if it were captured with a photograph – but when rendered in Bar’s minimal style (with a lit match in place of a vagina), it’s cheeky and fun. Like any good double entendre, it leaves viewers to join the dots.

Illustration for the cover of Times Saturday Review, for an article praising erotica written by women

“Sex is a sensitive subject, and it seems to me that illustration is a great way to deal with that sensitivity,” he writes in the book. “I think perhaps the editors choose me for these topics because as well as being quite sensitive, my work is fairly abstract. It’s a way of getting at sex without being too literal.”

Bittersweet also highlights Bar’s fascination with faces. His faces are constructed from inanimate objects or animals: Basil Fawlty’s features double as a finger ringing a buzzer (a nod to the fictional character’s role as manager of Fawlty Towers hotel) and playwright William Shakespeare’s features are formed from a question mark. Bar started sketching faces when he was at school and they continue to provide a source of inspiration.

Illustration for an article marking the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide in NME. Cobain’s face is constructed from musical instruments – his chin is a Fender guitar and musical notes make up his eyes
The Art of Wearing a Hat (left) and Out in the Cold (right), both for GQ France

“I find it astonishing that we all have two eyes, a mouth and a nose and yet no-one looks quite like anyone else…. Even the most classically beautiful person in the world has a defining characteristic that if captured, will make a portrait of them immediately recognisable,” he writes.

War is another recurring theme in his work: Bar was born in Israel during the Arab-Israeli war and served in the Navy before studying at art school. (He turned to drawing as a way of reclaiming his identity following military service, he says, and went on to study at art school in Jerusalem before moving to London in 1997.)

Images from Bar’s exhibition Cut the Conflict. Bar put out a call on Facebook and asked for people living in countries engaged in conflict or disputes with another country to send him items in the post. He then created images using items from opposing countries (including the USA and Cuba and Israel and Palestine)

A section on his more serious illustrations includes images from his thought-provoking 2013 exhibition Cut the Conflict. Bar combined items donated from people in countries engaged in conflict and combined them to create a single image, using symbols of war (such as a gun or a soldier) to create motifs associated with peace. Images are designed to make viewers think about conflict and how we see people from opposing nations.

Writing in the book, he explains: “I’m not a politician or a soldier, but a lot of people see my artworks, and through them I would like to be able to change how we deal with political problems and what we think about the nations with which our own countries may disagree.”

Asked to create an image for the Israel-Palestine Peace Conference, Bar referenced the Biblical image of a wolf among sheep

Whether he’s dealing with light or serious subjects, Bar’s images are an example of what Abram Games aptly described as “maximum meaning, minimum means.” As Michael Bierut writes in an introduction to the book: “Noma Bar’s drawings are deceptively simple. Flat colours, minimal detail, nothing more than necessary. But when we look at his drawings, we see exactly what he intends us to see.”

His artworks are always designed to provoke ‘aha!’ moment – the realisation that occurs viewers spot the joke or the image within an image. It is this wit and desire to engage with people – to make them think or make them smile – that makes Bar’s work so effective.

Covers for publisher Vintage’s editions of books by author Haruki Murakami. Illustrations reflect the hidden meanings in Murakami’s texts and were also turned into screen prints

“People generally aren’t looking for additional meanings, so when they see that extra thing they’re pleased, as though they’re in on a secret,” says Bar of his work.

Bar’s illustrations remind us of the power of a great illustration. In a world where we are bombarded with visual noise at almost every waking moment, the images featured in Bittersweet are proof that the best pictures still have the power to cut through and hold our attention.

A 3D piece for an exhibition in Paris. Bar had the idea for the image when a drop of ink landed on his sketch book. “[It] looked like a burnt-out match that formed my profile, perfectly expressing my feelings in those busy, stressful weeks,” he writes
Illustration for the cover of Dutch magazine De Volkskrant, following terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015

Bittersweet: Noma Bar is published by Thames and Hudson and costs £29.95. You can order copies here. A limited edition version is available for £200 and includes a screen print. (Details here).

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