[28 May 2009]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
PHILADELPHIA — It’s not exactly a conspiracy. Or even a secret.
Still, it needs to be exposed, if fans of fabulist Dan Brown are to have any peace.
Brown’s creation, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, so ably corporealized by Tom Hanks in the 2006 box-office smash “The Da Vinci Code” and its shiny new sequel, “Angels & Demons,” isn’t quite fictional.
He’s based on a very real, rather pleasant — even jolly — Narberth, Pa., native.
But this Langdon, our Langdon, is named John, and he’s not at Harvard but at Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.
And he doesn’t decipher symbols, he makes them.
John Langdon is the artist behind the funky-looking word designs in “Angels,” including the messages gruesomely inscribed on the murder victims’ chests. Not to mention the inspiration behind the name — if not the soul — of Brown’s most famous literary hero.
A painter and graphic designer, Langdon is a recognized pioneer in the mathematically precise art of ambigrams — words or phrases that read the same from different perspectives. Some can be rotated 180 degrees, others work when reflected in a mirror.
“Angels” opens with Langdon’s now familiar ambigram Illuminati, which announces to us and to Hanks’ character that the game is afoot — that there is a mystery burning for solvation.
Langdon lives in an impossibly sunny, airy and spacious house with his wife, Lynn, who serves as senior vice president and chief operating officer of the Philly-based American Board of Internal Medicine, and their two cats. (Their daughter, Jessica, 33, lives in Brooklyn.)
“It’s an old converted carriage house we renovated ourselves,” explains the slim Langdon, 63, whose graying, ponytailed hair is the only sign that he’s over 50. His energy level and enthusiasm would shame any 30-year-old.
“Well, it was a shell when Lynn and I got it,” he said.
Langdon’s playful paintings hang throughout the first floor. He challenges his visitors to decipher them.
How does one decipher paintings?
“They hide verbal messages,” he says mysteriously.
“Stand farther back,” he says, pointing to a squarish cubist oil above the couch.
Stare long enough and the piece, which is dominated by shades of brown, begins to resolve itself and give up the letters c u b . . .
A-ha! It’s c-u-b-i-s-m!
“Did you get the other word?” Langdon asks. He’s loving this. “The letters are darker.”
To see the full message, you need to do the same sort of perceptual shift that allows you to see, alternately, a vase and a pair of faces facing each other in the famous Gestalt Vase drawing familiar from psychology textbooks.
The more you stare at it, the more the word cubism dominates the canvas.
Cubism ... cubism ... cubism ...
It’s enough to drive anyone crazy.
Other word paintings include a dynamic Op Art number that plays hide-and-seek with optical and illusion.
A large canvas is splashed with a black, Rorschach-like inkblot.
“It’s my tribute to Andy Warhol’s inkblot series,” Langdon says. And sure enough, as if by magic, Andy Warhol emerges in black.
What about that blasted cubist piece?
A second look teases out Langdon’s visual joke: Letters spelling out Picasso show up interspersed between the initial letters.
“For me, it’s always been words,” Langdon, author of “Wordplay: The Philosophy, Art, and Science of Ambigrams” (1992; revised 2005), said of his focus (or obsession) as an artist. “I was an English major (at Dickinson College in Carlisle), but I’ve always been an artist somewhere beneath.” He said that after years of struggle, he discovered “that, for me, the visual representation of words was my direction.”
He discovered ambigrams in the 1970s, famously designing the Starship ambigram used by the band Jefferson Starship on its 1976 album, “Spitfire.” (More recently, he created an Aerosmith ambigram, which the band has yet to use.)
His inspiration, he said, came from the yin-yang symbol, which visually represents the concepts of balance and harmony and embodies the idea that everything can be seen from multiple perspectives.
Langdon said he made his most famous association — with Dan Brown — in a roundabout way. He first came to know Brown’s father, noted mathematician Richard Brown, who taught at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.
“Dan’s father had bought ‘Wordplay’ and was trying his hand at doing some ambigrams himself ... and he wrote me for pointers,” Langdon said.
“He called up one day and said, ‘My son, Dan, is a singer-songwriter and I wondered if you could do an ambigram for his album.’ “
At the time, Dan Brown was still working as a not-too-successful singer-songwriter, and Langdon did an ambigram for his CD, “Angels & Demons” (1995), which ended his singing career.
The rest is history: Four years later, Brown turned to Langdon for help designing elements in the novel “Angels & Demons.”
“So (Dan) was halfway through the novel and he calls up and says, ‘You know, I decided this morning I want to name the character after you,’” Langdon recalled.
“So I said, ‘OK, cool,’” Langdon said, laughing. “I thought of it as a kind of quaint honor. I mean, at the time he was nobody and I wasn’t well known.
“And I thought, you know, nobody’s ever going to hear about ‘Angels & Demons’ or Dan Brown.”