Koenraad Tinel distorts catchy stories of Jewish writers

Sculptor and illustrator Koenraad Tinel (88) was inspired by the timeless stories of the authors Isaak Babel and Isaac Bashevis Singer for his new book. Based on their stories, he uses drawings that measure the essence of what a person is.

‘I have no choice but to translate those stories into drawings, to retell them that way. With pleasure. Because I find them so clean. ‘ Out of unadulterated love for their literature, Koenraad Tinel chose four stories by the Jewish writers Isaac Babel and Isaac Bashevis Singer. He provided them with a series of illustrations that drill right into the soul. Infinite and yet precise, as if it could not have been done otherwise. The book’s title is simple: ‘Tinel draws Babel and Singer’.

Tinel Babel tackles ‘The end of Saint Hypatius’ with wild pen strokes. It is a melancholy tale in which Babel wanders through the betrayed grandeur of an abandoned monastery. As night falls, he and the last remaining monk watch, while the monastery is taken over by the workers of the Textile Association, who have been assigned their new home there.

‘Loud was the breeze from the ruddy draft horses shrouded in frost and steam over the river; pink lightning from the north shot through the pine trees, and anonymous crowds snuck up the ice-covered slope in droves. ‘

Tinel sums it up in whimsical pen drawings, where he contrasts light and darkness sharply. The dazzling white snow landscapes contrast with the ancient darkness of the monasteries. The black shadows of crows and wolves populate the sides, and a rotten god lies forgotten in his grave.

‘The Last Look’, based on a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

In Singer’s ‘The Last Look’, a man attends the funeral of the woman he once (and still has) loved. “In fact, it was his funeral, he thought, not hers.” Tinel evokes the man’s loneliness and grief in gray pencil strokes against the backdrop of a deserted and snow-covered New York. For ‘The Smuggler’, he chooses a palette of earth tones, a brush dipped in clay and peat. He paints the portraits of figures who have gathered around a table for an evening, but create a timeless and eternal scene of them.

war history

A ‘still burning core of his artistry’ is Tinel’s struggle with his parents’ war history. They collaborated with the Germans, and anti-Semitism was widespread. The grief and anger over it is not yet extinguished. ‘Maybe that’s why I have something to do with Jews and Jewish writers. I love them almost too much, “he writes in the book.

A ‘still burning core of his artistry’ is Tinel’s struggle with his parents’ war history.

Isaac Babel (1894-1940) was one of the greatest Russian writers of the first half of the 20th century. His numerous short stories are an absolute must for anyone who wants to get acquainted with his work. In 2013, they were again translated into Dutch and republished. In a few pages, Babel created an entire world that less talented writers need a novel for.

Babel fell out of favor with Stalin in 1939 and was executed a year later.

The essence

  • In her new book, Koenraad Tinel (88) makes illustrations for stories by the Jewish authors Isaac Bashevis Singer and Isaak Babel.
  • Tinel’s drawings are not just illustrations of a story, they give it a new dimension.
  • The author and artist are still struggling with the war history of their collaborating parents.

The Polish-American writer Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991) grew up in the Jewish quarter of Warsaw, where his father worked as a rabbi, judge, and spiritual leader. Due to growing anti-Semitism, Singer emigrated to the United States in the mid-1930s. In New York, he worked as a journalist and series writer for the Jewish newspaper Forverts.

Although Jewish culture in Poland was virtually destroyed by the Nazis, it survived in the United States. In his books, Singer described the environment of the Warsaw ghetto and the atmosphere of the Eastern European states with their beliefs and superstitions, customs and folklore, the gap between the Jews and their environment. One of his most famous stories is ‘Yentl’, made into a film by and with Barbra Streisand. Singer became the first Yiddish author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978.


Tinel does not make illustrations in the narrow sense of the word. His drawings are not just a reproduction of the text. They are an addition, or better: an enrichment. They create an extra dimension in the story, add unexpected accents and deepen the meaning of a discreet detail. An obscure staircase, the desolation of a telephone on a table, a Russian church under a raging whirlpool of snowflakes, the shadowy figures of two men at a table.

He shapes the meaning in the stories. ‘I want to reinforce the story,’ it reads. “I think it’s so clean I want to add something to it.” And thus arises a dialogue between word and image, a conversation between artists across the ages who seek and root the same: the essence of what a person is. Man, who is as sacred as it is insignificant, as fragile as it is destructive. Man who does not change through the ages, but always performs the same disasters, and always the same miracles.

Koenraad Tinel, ‘Tinel draws Babel and singer’, 184 pages

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