Part 2: ‘Light and Shadow’ – Anna, Elena Balbusso on Margaret Atwood’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Part 2 of two: Finding ‘women emptied of their personalities’ in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ illustrators Elena and Anna Balbusso knew what to do.

Excerpt from ‘Ceremony,’ one of Anna and Elena Balbusso’s illustrations for ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ for The Folio Society

Part 1: ‘We’d been waiting so long for a story like this,’ say Elena and Anna Balbusso, who illustrated Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ for The Folio Society.


By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

A ‘State of Suffering, Slavery, Emptiness, Obsession’
One of the most interesting stories around the new Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood‘s 1985 The Handmaid’s Tale has to do with the book’s TV and film rights. As John Koblin reports for The New York Times, 87-year-old co-executive producer Daniel Wilson, controlled “a big chunk” of those rights.

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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ cover by Anna and Elena Balbusso

With his business partner Fran Sears, as Koblin writes, Wilson has found himself in close proximity to the work, a screen adaptation of which hadn’t been attempted since 1990.

And, as Publishing Perspectives reported yesterday, another duo is celebrating the sudden revival of interest in Atwood’s towering novel: the “Balbusso Twins,” as they’re known, Anna and Elena, are enjoying newfound attention for the 2012 illustrations they created on a commission from The Folio Society.

Response to the first part of our interview with the Balbussos from their studio in Milan has been sharply positive, often with a tinge of surprise. “I’m usually suspicious of illustrated editions,” says one London-based novelist in a note to Publishing Perspectives, for example. “But this is gorgeous.”

One reason that these sister-illustrators’ work on the Atwood book isn’t better known might be the price. The Folio Society’s edition of The Handmaid’s Tale retails for US$74.95.

Before you scoff at such a rate, however, be aware that the mission of The Folio Society is, in fact, to create what its materials call “beautifully crafted, imaginative editions of the world’s great works of fiction and nonfiction.”

The Handmaid’s TaleAnd, of course, one of the most interesting parts of seeing the work created by Elena and Anna Balbusso for this special edition (re-released this month) is comparing the sisters’ vision to that of the new Hulu adaptation.

We return to our interview with the artists in Italy, in fact, with one of the most profound elements of the Balbusso vocabulary for the piece, their use of a red so distinctive that it may remind some observers of another such lovely hue related to Milano: the singular bitter Campari is produced there, radiant with just such an arresting red.

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‘City,’ from Anna and Elena Balbusso’s illustrations for ‘The Handmaid’sTale’ for The Folio Society

‘Color Is For Us a Living Being’

Publishing Perspectives: One of the most compelling elements of this work is in your use of reds. The color itself seems to become a motif all its own. Was this a conscious decision? Or did you find yourself simply guided to so much red by the nature of Margaret Atwood’s story?

Anna and Elena Balbusso: Yes of course, red is a conscious decision.

We chose a minimalist, essential palette to communicate the psychological state of suffering, slavery, emptiness, obsession: red, black and white with a touch of striking, complementary color, as acid green of the image titled “Pregnant.”

The color reduction has a symbolic meaning. The color is for us a living being. The color reduction is like the reduction of the freedom of thought, characteristic of all totalitarian regimes.

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‘Examination,’ from Anna and Elena Balbusso’s illustrations for ‘The Handmaid’sTale’ for The Folio Society

‘An Aseptic, Empty, Skinny Scenography’

PP: We also see the opposition of hard, angular lines (the state) and soft, human curves (the women).

A/EB: We created a contrast between the straight lines and angles of the women’s dresses (like armor that imprisons their bodies) and the sinuous curves of the female body.

“When the handmaid takes off her red uniform, the body re-emerges with its carnality and identity.”Elena and Anna Balbusso

The handmaids seem clones. Their faces are anonymous, they’re women emptied of their personalities, they’ve lost their identity.

We wanted an aseptic, empty, skinny scenography.

The clothes, the city, the lights are inspired by the Futurist theater. When the handmaid takes off her red uniform, the body re-emerges with its carnality and identity.

Our references were also the Italian artists Mario Sironi [1885-1961] and Felice Casorati [1883-1963] italian painters. Their work suggested to us the plasticity of the female body, with clear volumes and a synthesis of light and shadow.

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‘Ceremony,’ from Anna and Elena Balbusso’s illustrations for ‘The Handmaid’sTale’ for The Folio Society

‘The Fact That There Are Two of Us’

PP: How do the two of you work together? Do you both create the work we see for a book like The Handmaid’s Tale? Or does one of you take each assignment? Does one of you make the first drawings/sketches and the other then respond? Or do you both work simultaneously on a project?

A/EB: We both work on a project. Our personalities complement each other.

“In every step, there’s a mutual exchange of ideas and work. There’s continuous interaction between us, and at the end, the work is the contribution of both of us.”Anna and Elena Balbusso

There’s no competition between us. It wouldn’t be possible to work together if one dominated the other.

We can start the project together and then divide the tasks. Our style has developed from our collaboration gradually. It’s not difficult for us to work together because it’s a natural thing. We talk a lot before starting a new project, but if we disagree about something, we can discuss and mediate. At the end of each project we must be convinced of what we did.

After having carefully read the entire text of a book, the first thing we do is to do iconographic research. We never start a project without our collection of images that will inspire us.

We rarely start with pencil sketches, either, we prefer to start by making many digital layouts.

If possible, we prefer to work together at the beginning of a new project. When we’re thinking of the ideas, the concepts, to develop, we have to try several approaches simultaneously: the fact that there are two of us helps us to find the right direction.

We also work in many fields of communication, and with different styles for different markets.

If we’re doing many different assignments, one of us usually starts. In that case, one of us, alone, is free to experiment then, at some point, and can ask for help from the other. There’s no precise rule that we follow in all cases.

For example, one of us is more expert in working on the faces of the characters, and the other focuses on landscapes.

One of us loves more stylized graphic projects, the work, and the other prefers to follow the business’ communication, social networking, and promotion: we divide these tasks without problem. In every step, there’s a mutual exchange of ideas and work. There’s continuous interaction between us, and at the end, the work is the contribution of both of us.

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‘Lipstick,’ from Anna and Elena Balbusso’s illustrations for ‘The Handmaid’sTale’ for The Folio Society

‘We Don’t Know How To Answer This Question’

PP: As individual artists, how different are your natural styles from each other’s? If you were to stand at opposite ends of the room and draw for us, say, a window with a face looking out from it into the night, would your two drawings look quite a bit alike? Or would we be able to say, “Ah, here’s the Elena window, and look how different it is from the Anna window?”

A/EB: At the beginning of our career we had separate portfolios and drawings done with various techniques: watercolor, gouache, acrylic, collage. We thought we had very different designs but for publishers, our individual artworks turned out to be very similar. We’ve always had the same abilities and very similar tastes.

We don’t know to answer this question [about the window-drawing test]. Presumably they would be two different but similar drawings.

Today, all of our projects are handled as teamwork, and we never reveal who’s doing what part. We work in the same area very close together, in a small space—a little apartment in the center of big Milan.

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‘Scrabble,’ from Anna and Elena Balbusso’s illustrations for ‘The Handmaid’sTale’ for The Folio Society

‘To Experiment and Take Risks’

PP: And are there projects currently underway you could mention? Anything you’re working on now?

A/EB: We’re currently working on many projects: magazine articles, book covers, posters, personal design products, personal motion projects.

Right now, in fact, we’re waiting for the text of our next children’s book. We don’t know the subject yet, and we’re excited and curious.

Starting a new project is like beginning a new journey: we don’t know where it will lead, and we love to experience that mystery.

To improve, it’s necessary to experiment and take risks. We try to experiment and find new ways of working in our commissions. Quite often, it’s an interesting commission that gives birth to new ideas that will influence our future work and also our personal projects.


Part 1: In case you missed it, The Balbussos talk about many of the political and ideological foundations of their work on Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ in the first part of their interview with Publishing Perspectives.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He is also co-owner and editor with Jane Friedman of The Hot Sheet, the newsletter for trade and indie authors. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, at London's The Bookseller. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.