Kyle Hilton had little trouble transforming the lead characters of Downton Abbey, Girls, and Breaking Bad into paper dolls, but he turned out to be unexpectedly confounded by Picasso. “I thought I knew what he looked like until I tried to draw him,” says the Jackson, Mississippi–based illustrator. “It took many tries—and I never noticed before, but he’s got a really interestingly shaped head.” Picasso, who appears shirtless, in espadrilles, and can be dressed in signature Breton stripes or African masks in Hilton’s rendering, is joined by the likes of Michelangelo, Paul Cézanne, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Jackson Pollock in Art History Paper Dolls (Chronicle Books), a kind of art-history primer by way of MAD magazine.
“I’d been playing around with paper-doll illustrations, and this was an opportunity to do something more—along the lines of a comic book and trading cards, or what you might see on the packaging of an action figure,” says Hilton. “So I thought, What would a van Gogh action figure look like?” In paper-doll form, van Gogh stands unsmiling on a Starry Night–inspired background, ready to be cut out and accessorized with the ladder-back chair from his Arles bedroom, a bouquet of sunflowers, and his severed ear. Interchangeable heads depict him with and without the organ.
All the artists are accompanied by one of their most famous works (shown in progress), and fun facts (did you know that Rembrandt “suffered from an addiction to shopping?”). “I hope people will get a kick out of the book and learn some stuff, too,” says Hilton. He took some art-history courses in college and studied up on his 16 artist subjects while working on the book. “With Degas, you can put a ballerina tutu on him, although I doubt that is historically accurate.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 40 under the title “Art History, Now in Doll Form.”