Wednesday, November 30, 2016


Austin Briggs was 19 and still in art school when he sold his first drawing to Collier's magazine. 

Briggs soon decided he didn't need more school.  He was making good money from Collier's imitating the popular artists of the day.  But after a couple of years Briggs realized that he was faking it.  Many of his lines were just random squiggles with little understanding of what went on beneath the surface.  He was borrowing solutions he hadn't earned, and his shortcuts began to betray him.

His assignments started to dry up.  He'd never learned to paint.  Desperate for money, he quit the field of illustration.  He took other jobs, but all the while he was determined to go back and do it right: "I set about learning to draw, which I never could do before."

Briggs' son described this turning point in his father's life:
I see how correct he was in his mature assessment of his early work: he could not really draw, but with sheer vitality he faked his way to renderings that conveyed power and authority.  When the new demand for color illustration left my father in the Depression virtually without work and with a wife and two small children to support, he would not quit.  Taking his easel and sketch pad out of the studio, he began to look at the world-- to really see it.  Over God knows how many long hours of work, he taught himself until he eventually developed great skill as a colorist and as a draftsman....
Looking back, Briggs recalled:
These were experimental years; I explored new compositional approaches, new techniques or variations of old techniques and new manners of working with limited means. The fees I received from my drawings were largely plowed back into my work.... This was my chance to learn, and I worked over drawings until they were as good as I thought I could make them.  
Briggs learned to draw and to paint with great skill:

Then his art got looser...
And even looser:

Briggs became a dominant force in American illustration of the 20th century.  His strong, opinionated work covered the full gamut of the illustration field, from pulps and comic strips to the movie industry to the covers of books, records and top magazines.  

But the thing that interests me most about this story was that, at the height of his powers, having invested years in mastering painting and color theory, Briggs returned to simple drawing where he started.  As he became more fearless, he no longer needed fancy paints or even inks.  He simplified down to a pencil or a litho crayon.  Art directors for prestigious magazines were happy to accept a drawing from Briggs where once a full color oil painting would've been expected.  Briggs became famous in the industry for a remarkable series of drawings that he did for TV Guide, which were cited when he was inducted into the Illustration Hall of Fame:

Image courtesy of Taraba Illustration Art

If you compare Briggs' later drawings with his early random squiggles, you get a sense for how much he learned.   In the words of T.S. Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration.  And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016


In 1948, Ben Shahn illustrated an article for Harpers Magazine about the murder trial of James Hickman.

Hickman worked the night shift in a Chicago steel mill to support his wife and seven children.  The family lived in a tiny attic in a tenement slum, in one of the few neighborhoods where African Americans were permitted to live under Chicago's racially restrictive zoning rules.  Hickman tried to move out of his apartment but his landlord refused to return Hickman's security deposit.  The landlord  told tenants that if they raised problems, he knew "a man" who would come burn them out of their homes.

On the night of January 16, 1947, Hickman was working at the mill when his apartment caught fire.  The apartment was unsafe, with no exits, fire escapes or extinguishers.  His children were trapped inside.  When he returned the next morning his neighbor said, "Mr. Hickman, I hate to tell you this, four of your children is burnt to death."  They found the body of Hickman's 14 year old son under the bed, futilely trying to shield three of his younger siblings from the flames.

The Chicago police made no serious effort to investigate the landlord.  As the months went by, the anguished Hickman, devoutly religious, obsessed more and more about the babies that he'd lost, and the lack of justice in the world.  He said, "some day they would have married, someday they would have been fathers and mothers of children...."

Eventually Hickman got a gun and at God's instruction killed the landlord.  Finally motivated, the Chicago police arrested Hickman.  He freely admitted what he'd done, saying, "Paper was made to burn, coal and rags, not people.  People wasn't made to burn."

The prosecutor put Hickman on trial for first degree murder.  He was surely headed for the gallows, but then the story took an unusual  bounce.  The other tenants in Hickman's building angrily organized into the Chicago Area Tenant's Union  and combined with the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) to publicize the case and support Hickman.  An outraged public rose up.  The ACLU defended Hickman and the jury refused to convict him.  

Harpers Magazine hired the distinguished journalist John Bartlow Martin to write about the trial, and renowned artist Ben Shahn to do the illustrations.  Shahn remained haunted by what he had learned about the case, and after completing the illustrations, he went on to create a larger, more allegorical painting about the tragedy.  Shahn transformed the fire into a flaming wolf / lion creature, with the children lying dead at his feet. 

Unfortunately, some officials-- already suspicious of Shahn's support for racial equality-- became concerned that the red beast might symbolize communism.  Henry McBride, writing for the New York Sun,  argued that Shahn should be "deported" for painting a pro-communist painting.

Shahn was indeed a socially conscious artist; he had previously participated in the WPA, where he worked with other artists who were interested in creating an American art that reflected the lives of ordinary people.  The following image, by another WPA artist, gives us insight into crowded urban life in the '30s for people of that class.

One critic noted that once the social injustice of the Great Depression and the existential threat of World War II had subsided,  former WPA artists became less interested in a representational, humanistic style:
Artists had to apply for WPA positions.  They were paid between $23 and $35 a month to produce a set amount of work every week.  "There were a lot of women participants... and it was very overtly welcoming to African-Americans....."  Perhaps because there was so much collaboration-- or because the artists wanted to keep their patron, the WPA, happy-- most of the prints remained representational and accessible.... "very focused on the present and engagement with the human experience.... The WPA officially disbanded in 1942, although artists continued to work in that style through Word War II.  But after the war, notions of art changed.  "The project developed a national identity that pulls away from the personal....After the war, artists reacted against it with abstract expressionism....It was a natural pendulum swing, I think, a reaction to the ways the WPA didn't speak to individual artists."        
Since the post war era, much of fine art has been self-absorbed and self-referential.  But it appears that there may be many opportunities for artists to play a socially conscious role in the years ahead.  It will be interesting to see how the art community responds.

PS-- In 1948 the Supreme Court finally ruled that the racially restrictive covenants which had kept Hickman and other African-Americans confined to a narrow stretch of dilapidated, rat infested apartments were unconstitutional.  Here's hoping that the new appointments to the Court don't have a change of heart.

Thursday, November 10, 2016


Some of the finest ink drawing was created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in response to the invention of the modern magazine.  The popular new medium created a huge demand for black and white images in the years before reliable color printing.  Just one of the new magazines, Life, employed an average of 25 different pen and ink illustrators each week.

A group of well known illustrators such as Charles Dana Gibson, James Montgomery Flagg, Joseph Clement Coll and Orson Lowell developed the craft of ink drawing for the new market.  But there were dozens of other highly skilled, less remembered illustrators whose work for these magazines deserves attention.  

Frank Godwin is mostly known for his popular comic strip in the 1950s but back in the 1920s he was a regular contributor to Collier's magazine.

Look at how magazines were chock full of drawing back then. 


Prior to the introduction of full color the highest medium of expression in these magazines was line work with pen, brush and ink.  As usual, constraint inspires creativity.

A lot of excellent drawing is buried back in those archives.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016


"To live is to war with trolls."    -- Ibsen

Congressman George A. Dondero (Republican from Michigan) was convinced that art is a communist plot.   In his impassioned 1949 speech to Congress he explained how art undermines the morals of America:  
As I have previously stated, art is considered a weapon of communism.... It is a weapon in the hands of a soldier in the revolution against our form of government.... The evidence of evil design is everywhere....  The question is, what have we, the plain American people, done to deserve this sore affliction that has been visited upon us so direly; who has brought down this curse upon us; who has let into our homeland this horde of germ-carrying art vermin?...
 (From the Congressional Record, First Session, 81st Congress, Tuesday, 16 August 1949.)

Dondero spent a lot of time carefully analyzing how each school of modern art contributes to the destruction of America:
1.  Cubism aims to destroy by designed disorder.
2.  Futurism aims to destroy by the machine myth
3.  Dadaism aims to destroy by ridicule.
4.  Expressionism aims to destroy by aping the primitive and insane.
5.  Abstractionism aims to destroy by the creation of brainstorms.
6.  Surrealism aims to destroy by denial of reason.  
Dondero and his fellow patriots were particularly agitated about immigrant artists (or "germ carrying art vermin") coming into the United States:  "LegĂ©r and Duchamp are now in the United States to aid in the destruction of our standards and traditions.  The former has been a contributor to the Communist cause in America; the latter is now fancied by the neurotics as a surrealist...." 

Other Congressmen on the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 were similarly concerned about immigrant art vermin, such as artist Arthur Szyk.  Szyk had escaped from Hitler in 1939 and came to the United States, where he became a relentless propagandist against the Nazis.

His cartoons infuriated Hitler, who put a price on Szyk's head. Eleanor Roosevelt welcomed him as a "one man army."   Szyk adored his adopted land and did many drawings and paintings praising its freedom:

However, after the war ended certain Congressmen became suspicious that anti-fascist immigrants might also harbor Communist sympathies.  They launched an investigation of Szyk in April 1951. Although Szyk denied any affiliation with communism, the old and frail artist died of a heart attack four months into his investigation, on September 13, 1951.

It's ironic that while Congressman Dondero was fulminating about threats to the country from modern art, the CIA was secretly subsidizing abstract expressionism as part of the cold war against the Soviet Union.   Spies on the front lines were spending substantial sums weaponizing modern art by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko as part of a culture war, while Dondero and his fellow patriots were defusing the CIA's work.  

Stalin, sounding very much like Congressman Dondero, was equally paranoid about the impact of modern art, which he called "ideological sabotage against our country and especially against our youth...." Stalin complained that
attempts are being made against socialist realism in art and literature.... In these so-called abstract paintings there is no real face of those people, whom people would like to imitate in the fight for their peoples’ happiness, for communism and for the path on which they want progress. This portrayal is substituted by the abstract mysticism clouding the issue of socialist struggle against capitalism.

Thursday, October 27, 2016


An art critic once remarked that when Rembrandt was young and cocky, his portrait subjects were dramatically lit from the outside, but as he got older and wiser, his subjects became lit from within.

Rembrandt self-portraits at age 23...  and at age 53
Very few things in the world actually emit their own light-- angels, fireflies, suns-- the rest of us are opaque objects, only visible because we reflect the light from those rare sources.

That hasn't stopped artists from trying to imbue opaque surfaces (such as paper or canvas) with radiance, to suggest that their subject glows from within.  In the middle ages, texts were called "illuminated" when artists used gold or silver to make them glow.  Today we can illuminate images electronically using light-emitting diodes or simply turning up the brightness on our computer monitor. This makes colors glow in a way that Rembrandt never dreamed.

Some commercial illustrators of the 20th century turned that "lit from within" feeling into a personal brand.  Haddon Sundblom was famous for creating a Santa Claus that radiated sunshine.

Another talented illustrator, less well known than Sundblom, was Pete Hawley.  He painted cute babies on greeting cards and little plastic plaques that grandmothers hung on their kitchen walls in the 1950s.

His assignments were largely simple minded, yet he did beautiful work.

Note how his colors and technique combine to give his subjects an incandescence:

Highlights from above on their hair and reflected light on their cheeks from below were ethereal pinks and turquoises.

As an aside, I love Hawley's snappy brushwork which adds contrast and vigor to the brim of her straw hat, or to the shape of his mechanic's cap.

Sundblom and Hawley didn't have the luxury of lighting their subjects electronically. Today anyone can flip a switch and give a face more lumens than Rembrandt ever did.

But a picture that literally glows is not the same as a picture that glows metaphorically.  Sundblom and Hawley used their considerable arts and artifices to simulate a feeling of radiance.  Their goal was not just to make colors brighter but to give Santa Claus a magical, radiant smile or surround a praying child in celestial light.  In the autumn of his life, Rembrandt could give his face the sadder glow of embers after the original bonfire of his youth had subsided.

Their illusion of light was achieved with a combination of skills and talent on behalf of an artistic purpose, and those don't come with an electric switch, at least not yet.

Friday, October 21, 2016


In Richard Thompson's comic strip, Cul de sac, a guinea pig escapes from a school classroom.  Once outside, the pig says:

What does he mean by that?

The famous poet Stephen Crane pointed out that we'd better be careful about wishing for freedom:
If I should cast off this tattered coat,
And go free into the mighty sky;
If I should find nothing there
But a vast blue,
Echoless, ignorant --
What then?
Thompson never wrote poetry about existential dread but he was able to make the same point using humor, children and talking animals.   Crane's words wouldn't fit in a tiny word balloon, but Thompson effectively grabs our attention by juxtaposing the simple words "I'm free!" with "Help!"

Last week we discussed whether comics are a suitable medium for profound content.  As a general matter, I'd say no.  Comics are short, simple, cheap, badly reproduced and aimed at a low readership.  Most are poorly drawn.   It's difficult to make great art using a medium that chafes and strains against ambitious content.

But every once in a great while, an artist comes along who vindicates the medium by achieving greatness within its confines.  Gifted artists such as Herriman, Schulz, Watterson or Thompson, have the rare ability to simplify larger human truths into brief adventures squeezed to fit in small boxes.

Thompson's brief strip about the guinea pig makes Stephen Crane's point, but in a lighter more elegant way than Crane.  As a bonus, he makes other funny observations about human nature along the way:  

I love the evanescent loyalty of the children:

Like Herriman, Thompson drew with "secret grace and obvious clumsiness."
As St. Augustine said (and as Thompson also shows us) "the virtue of children lies not in their wills but in the weakness of their limbs."

When Thompson's children grow up, they'll develop the guile to conceal their true natures.  But cartoons don't allow room to gradually strip away artifice, so great cartoonists use children to distill grown up truths to their essence.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


When R. Crumb illustrated Bible stories in comic book form, some critics complained, "the power of the text seems diminished, not enhanced or illuminated, by these images." If the pictures don't enhance the text, what's the point?

Crumb himself said, "I decided just to do a straight illustration job." For example, he portrayed God as the traditional old white guy in a toga with a long beard.  He even gives us the perfunctory starburst to symbolize the creation of heaven and earth.

I would've enjoyed seeing Crumb's demented imagination applied in earnest.  Instead, he handled the Bible "just like [the Classics Illustrated comic books from the '50s]. You know, it's no big deal." 

You might wonder why the world needs another comic book version of the Bible, a book which raises the world's most challenging and complex subjects.  After all, there are plenty of versions out there already for lazy students seeking a study guide the night before exams. Do any of these illustrations contribute anything original on the subjects of creation, mortality, sex, destiny, spirituality, love, passion, miracles, etc.?  From the Classic Comics version to the Kubert version to The Graphic Canon treatment to The Action Bible, the graphic novel format seems to dumb down, rather than enhance, the text.

As Mario Naves wrote, "An artist who trades in trivialities should know well enough not to mess with themes that are beyond the scope of his talent."

Which brings me to the new book, Garden of the Flesh, biblical stories by Gilbert Hernandez. [CAUTION: EVEN WITH MY REDACTIONS THE FOLLOWING IMAGES ARE NSFW.] 

According to the cover, "Beginning with Adam and Eve and continuing through the story of Noah's ark," this book offers "biblical tales of Original Sin."  Inside is perhaps the most barren treatment of the Bible or of sin I've ever seen.


What in the world was the artist thinking?  These awful drawings-- flat, bland and unimaginative--together with the sparse, inane dialogue suck the IQ points right out of your head.

(N.B.: I promise these are not unfair excerpts.  The entire book limps on like this, page after page.)

If these drawings had been scratched on a men's room wall I'd say, "go for it!"  I agree with the wise man who said, "Bad drawing, even bad bad drawing, almost always has character.... the vision has a weird purity you kind of have to admire, no matter what."  But bad drawing loses some of that "weird purity" and no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt as it become more pretentious.

Today we're all good post-modernists; we evaluate pictures based on the artist's success at achieving his or her individual ambitions.   But that doesn't mean we have no standards whatsoever.  A book that is essentially a Tijuana Bible at heart gets evaluated differently when it takes on the ambitions of a deluxe embossed book which presumes to address Biblical stories of original sin.  It's hard not to feel insulted by this book.

Authentic Tijuana Bibles may not get reviewed in prestigious journals but they are superior works of art, more successful at achieving their artistic ambitions. 

Many of the artists who drew Tijuana Bibles were technically unskilled but their drawings were more genuine and human and lusty than the thin, pleasureless drawings in Garden of the Flesh.  

Not only that, but their plots were more intelligent.

John Dillinger stops to aid two pretty girls who are having car trouble.