Book cover: Mythologies

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Mythologies, by Roland Barthes, Paladin, Granada, first published in English 1972, this edition 1981, Cover by Philip Castle

At first glance, the cheesy airbrush work of illustrator Philip Castle seems wincingly at odds with a volume of French semiotics.

Castle made his name with his posters for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, sexualised and sinister imagery rendered in his hyper-commercial style. He became known for bedroom-poster type art, famously a teen fantasy picture of a cybernetic Farrah Fawcett, flicking her hair and flashing a glinting grin while her breasts morph into gleaming metal.

You can see the lingering traces of that image in the disco-lady who crowns this cover of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. But the real clue is in the Persil box beside her. In Mythologies, Barthes subjected tropes of pop culture to his “science of semiology”, analysing and demystifying signs and symbols as if he were an anthropologist discovering a TV set in the jungle.

Castle’s brilliant cover captures the quirky range of subjects broached by Barthes: Romans in the movies, striptease (hence the bra), Greta Garbo’s face, Einstein’s brain, soap powders and detergents, the Jet-man and Citroëns – although my favourite, his essay on steak and chips, was presumably deemed not graphic enough.

In addition to the success of this composition (with the characteristic man-machine-brain at its heart), Castle’s pure commercial style becomes the perfect expression of the themes within. Everything is seen through the lens of advertising; everyone is selling or consuming something, whether it is detergent, the face of Garbo or the brain of Einstein, which was being fought over at the time of writing by two hospitals.

Castle promises the fundamentals of Barthes’ quest, “a reconciliation between reality and men, between description and explanation, between object and knowledge”. And all without alienating anyone who might otherwise be terrified by the idea of French philosophy.

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