Thursday, January 14, 2021

THE JOURNALIST ILLUSTRATORS: ROBERT WEAVER

"What journalism is to literature, illustration is to fine art." 

"Form is the fire under the pot, and content is what's in it."

"A man without an opinion is dull company but an opinion without a man is duller still."

"Many illustrators of today are too little concerned with the actualities of their time."


Robert Weaver was probably the most verbal and self-conscious artist amongst his generation of journalist illustrators.  A highly articulate, socially aware and strongly opinionated artist, he became known for his bold graphic approaches in magazines such as Esquire, Fortune, Playboy and New York where he found art directors willing to give him a long leash.  Marshall Arisman reportedly called Weaver "the only pictorial genius I have ever met."  

The definitive History of Illustration describes Weaver's style this way: 

Inspired to find new approaches to visual storytelling that were reflective of the growing interest in psychological or ideological content, Weaver ruptured the picture plane and combined discontinuous actions or seemingly unrelated ideas on one page to invite interpretation.  

In the following series of drawings for Milton Glaser at New York magazine,  Weaver gave his impressions of a day in the life of New York City police.






Weaver's concepts call for an unconventional interaction with the viewer.  Sometimes his concepts couldn't possibly have been intelligible to his audience. For example, unlike Burt Silverman who we saw reconstruct a crime scene, Weaver took pride in drawing things he had actually witnessed, so when it came time to draw a robbery he hadn't seen, he left the face of the robber blank: 



A highly cerebral type but not a systematic thinker, Weaver has taken positions on all sides of an issue.  On one day, illustration qualifies as art but on another day it has nothing to do with art.  On Tuesdays Weaver speaks out against "amateurism" but on Thursdays he brags about being an amateur.  On weekends he says no self-respecting artist could work for "large-circulation magazines" but during the week he works for Life and Sports Illustrated.  

And if you happened to speak to Weaver on the wrong day, you might be in for a tongue lashing.  When a youthful Bernie Fuchs first visited the Society of Illustrators and said he wanted to become an illustrator, Weaver yelled at him, telling him that was a terrible ambition, that illustration had nothing to do with art and he should find something else to do.

 



I like some of Weaver's drawings very much. 


Like his contemporary Austin Briggs, Weaver loved using a thick black crayon with a bold, crude line.  




Briggs was the first to introduce the raw tool in finished illustrations, but Weaver, following in Briggs' footsteps, was willing to take Briggs' innovation further.


Much of Weaver's influence seems to stem from his persona as well as his pictures.  His boldness, his politics, his eloquence and his public handwringing about the social conscience of an illustrator attracted a huge following, even among "establishment" illustrators who he regularly disparaged.  When the Famous Artists School asked Weaver for permission to reproduce one of his drawings to train art students, he turned them down with a sniffy letter:





Weaver was the only artist to withhold permission to let his work be used to teach art students.  Al Dorne, the then-president of the Famous Artists School, had already seen far more of life than Weaver and was not intimidated by those "more soi-disant than thou" types:





Tuesday, January 12, 2021

THE JOURNALIST ILLUSTRATORS: BURT SILVERMAN

 In my view, Burton Silverman is one of the premier portrait painters in the world today.  




However, for over 30 years Silverman was an illustrator best known for his reportorial work.  He first made a name for himself in 1956 when he traveled to Montgomery, Alabama to draw Dr. Martin Luther King's bus boycott.  That important series of drawings, now housed at the Delaware Art Museum, helped to open the eyes of art directors to the value of journalistic illustration.




After that, national publications called upon Silverman to draw a number of situations and events for national publications:






Silverman was sent to locations as far away as Asia to draw his impressions:




In addition to drawing what he had witnessed, Silverman received many assignments to reconstruct or imagine events that had taken place outside the range of cameras.


These were frequently crime scenes:




 In the 1960s and 70s photography decimated the field of illustration.  A large percentage of the assignments that once would've gone to illustrators were diverted to photographers.  But a small breed of journalistic illustrators, capable of drawing in factually accurate ways but also adding something special, proved their worth and recaptured some of the ground on reportorial assignments that normally would have gone to photography.




Sunday, January 10, 2021

THE JOURNALIST ILLUSTRATORS, part 1

Before cell phones converted every citizen into an amateur news photographer it was popular to employ illustrators as visual reporters.  Artists such as Burt Silverman, Daniel Schwartz, Marshall Davis, Hank Virgona, Robert Weaver, Harvey Dinnerstein, Franklin McMahon, Tom Allen, Paul Hogarth, Stan Hunter, and Harvey Schmidt were regularly assigned to create drawings to accompany news articles when photographs were unavailable or inadequate.   

Burt Silverman

Daniel Schwartz illustration for an article on Watergate

Hank Virgona illustration for an article on a jury's deliberation

Journalist illustrators appeared in magazines such as Life, Newsweek, Fortune, Holiday and Sports Illustrated regularly.

Marshall Davis illustrates an article on night court for Life Magazine



Feliks Topolski records the streets of Chunking

Noel Sickles reports on a NY political convention

Art like this, commissioned for reportorial purposes, tended to be forgotten as soon as the news became old.  But many talented artists contributed to this body of work, and they often came up with interesting and creative solutions.  

That's why, over the next several days, I'm going to offer up art by several of these artists who I believe are worth a second look.  I hope you'll agree. 

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

AFTER WORDS HAVE BEEN EXHAUSTED, DRAWING RETAINS ITS POWER



As Donald Trump gracefully exits the presidency, the blizzard of words over the 2020 election continues unabated.  Rival versions of reality bark, blabber and chirp uselessly at each other from competing cable news sources.  Facts gain no traction with people who believe whatever they need to believe in order to get by.  

The famous linguist S.I. Hayakawa wrote, "Long before we developed language as we know it, we probably made, like the lower animals, all sorts of animal cries, expressive of such internal conditions as hunger, fear and triumph."  Hayakawa explained that our ancient ancestors used sounds for tribal communion rather than to communicate objective information.  Today, people daunted by the burdens of civilization have abandoned the meaningful use of objective words and retreated to pre-symbolic utterances.    

Ah, but even before our ancestors developed language they had images.  Now as words lie exhausted by the side of the road, pictures still retain their ancient magic.  People have figured out that words lie-- a good vocabulary and grammar can be misdirected by any con man, pimp or president-- but good drawing doesn't lie; its integrity can't be separated from its line. 

Which brings me to this drawing by the talented political cartoonist Ann Telnaes:



By understanding line, color and composition Telnaes has designed a strong, effective picture with unity and integrity.  Note the elements that she brings together here:  the composition has the energy and force of an arrow.  She uses the high contrast / dark color at the tip of the arrow, penetrated by that bright red zig zag tie, to start our eye exactly where she wants it.  Once we're there, the artist establishes her initial joke with father time.  (She also shows that she knows know how to draw deranged eyes.)


Both the design and the content are enhanced by her ability to abstract the human form into a rubbery trapezoid (perhaps a legacy from her years at Disney?)


From that starting point she leads our eye into a widening trail of disaster.

Telnaes knows enough perspective to foreshorten the trail leading up to the trapezoid, but a purely realistic, mechanical perspective would've been boring.  By distorting the objects with a flair, she gives them an additional snap which keeps us interested from one object to the next.


She also integrates the objects with pattern and design, something too often neglected in modern cartooning:

Rather than join in the fruitless battle of words, Telnaes uses the power of an artist's symbols.  She doesn't write an op-ed with psychological explanations for the president's immaturity, she plants a pacifier at his feet and lets the concept unfold from there.

  

Hundreds of thousands of pages of legal prose have been carefully drafted for more than 60 failed lawsuits around the country, yet those lawsuits are so detached from reality they might as well have said, ceci n'est pas un legal brief.  The fact that the lawsuits were universally rejected by judges didn't affect the beliefs of those with no regard for the meaning of words.  Telnaes doesn't try to join in the debate of words, she plants a pitcher of Kool-Aid and lets the visual symbol do its work.  Viewers are drawn into understanding the significance of the pitcher, and once they've done that they've been tainted by the concept.

In today's debased political vocabulary, calling someone a "liar" has lost its sting.  But oboy, those drawings still have a bite, at least judging from the brutes who become so enraged by Telnaes' pictures that they threaten her with violence.

My point isn't that a particular politician is good or bad, my point is that even when language begins to disintegrate as a means of communicating what is real and what is not, drawing has a truth and integrity all its own.  We see its power in the way it communicates concepts and the reactions it evokes.  

 

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

THE END OF 2020


There are dozens of images waiting in a queue for the honor of being the "End of the Year" on this blog.  However, to sum up a year like 2020, there was only one possible winner: Tom Fluharty's marvelous drawing, which I've shown before in a different context.

As 2020 trundles off into history, leaving potholes in its wake with every step, Fluharty's drawing says it all better than any article, poll or editorial ever could.  One more reason why I end the year loving good pictures even more than I did at the start. 


For those of you who've somehow succeeded in surviving covid 19, political blood feuds, unemployment, Russian hacking, the economic collapse and dysfunctional government, congratulations!  

I'm sure 2021 will be better for us all. Thanks for your participation this year, and here's wishing you a happy, healthy new year.

Friday, December 18, 2020

THE WISDOM OF WIVES WHO POSE NUDE

The war over the relationship between photography and painting has raged for 150 years. 

Philosophers have battled with art critics.  Artists have feuded with other artists.  Photographers have clashed with art directors.  Are the two art forms comparable?  How heavily may a painter rely on photographs? Thousands of pages have nearly exhausted the subject, but one important perspective has been neglected: wives who pose nude for their husbands.


In her 1933 divorce proceedings against illustrator Everett Shinn, Gertrude McManus Shinn explained the difference between painting and photography to Judge Leonard Nickerson:     

I didn’t mind posing for my husband in the nude in his studio, even holding poses for two hours at a stretch.... But when my husband insisted that I also pose in the nude while he brought out a pocket camera I was deeply embarrassed and hurt.

It was altogether unfair and cruel. I simply can’t bear to go on with life if it means living with him.
She then broke down in tears.

This distinction between painting and photography was equally obvious to other wives in the community.  After Gertrude's tearful testimony, wives rallied around her and expressed their opinions in the local press.  They said Gertrude was “absolutely right" and “snapshots are horrid." They believed that unlike photography, painting transformed the facts "underneath the mystery of her clothes" in a way that freed her from shame. 

Professional thinkers may see many shades of gray, but for the wives of Westport it was black and white: 

One of Mrs. Shinn's friends said,

Of course Mrs. Shinn is right. Husbands of pretty women are always so stupid about failing to understand why their wives volunteer to pose in the altogether for artists but won’t allow anyone, even their own husbands, to snapshot them that way. 

She knows that the artist will idealize her, painting out or in as the case may be, such sins of commission or omission as nature perpetrated in her case, so that when the finished canvas is exhibited, there she stands naked and unashamed, in the interest of art, because, all faults being corrected, she sees nothing to be ashamed of. 

The snapshot tells the unvarnished, naked truth, which is simply horrid. How could Mrs. Shinn be sure that her husband, with that dumb, masculine honesty that is the despair of all smart women, would not take out that little picture and show it to a group of devoutly admiring men looking at the painting, and spoil everything?

It's not clear whether Gertrude fully persuaded Judge Nickerson about the aesthetic differences between paintings and photography, but he felt the differences were substantial enough to grant her request for a divorce.


Sunday, December 06, 2020

NEW BOOK: A LIFE IN INK BY RALPH STEADMAN

Many years ago, the famous Chinese artist Huang Erh-Nan would fill his mouth with black ink and paint pictures with his tongue.

Ralph Steadman seems to love black ink only slightly less than Huang Erh Nan.  Over a 60 year career he has splattered great gouts of dense black ink on his pictures, misted ink through an atomizer and scratched it into the surface with technical drawing tools.  He describes this career in his new book, Ralph Steadman: A Life in Ink.  The book contains a cross section of his work as a political cartoonist, a cover artist for album covers and movie posters, a children's book illustrator and perhaps most famously for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson.

Self portraits by Steadman in 1965 and 2020

The self-portrait above of Steadman in his covid mask is the only example I could find in the entire book of Steadman being muzzled.  He seems to have started right out of the gate with outspoken, often barbed opinions.


1967


1975

Detail from The Malevolence of War (2001)

When I spoke with Steadman about his career path, his choices seemed as impetuous as one of his ink splatters:

My first job was as an apprentice at an engineering factory in Liverpool. I went once a week to learn technical drawing.  I was drawing straight lines and circles; I was going to do a 5 year apprenticeship but after nine months I had to leave. I couldn't stand it.  My mother was very upset. She didn't know what to do with me.  I eventually ended up working at Woolworth's as a stockroom boy.  My headmaster saw me one day sweeping in front of the store and he looked at me with contempt.  He said, "Look at you.  You had a good job at de Havilland Aircraft Company and what do you do? End up sweeping the streets of Wales." 

Yet, he stumbled across an ad for a correspondence art class and his long career was launched. 


Book cover for Animal Farm

Slash

In addition to hundreds of pages of art showing the evolution of Steadman's style, the new book contains photographs from Steadman's life and an interesting interview discussing his philosophy.  

At the end, Steadman lists his personal "Honour Roll" which includes his artistic heroes such as Marcel Duchamp, Terry Gilliam, William Hogarth, Anita Kunz, Ronald Searle and Leonardo da Vinci.



In addition, his honour roll includes Kurt Vonnegut, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and Winsor & Newton. 


 

We are living in a great era for art books.  Art publishers have been scooping up the best work from the top illustrators of the 20th century-- talented artists who led long and productive careers.  Many of their  brilliant images existed only in yellowing, crumbling back issues of magazines.  They are being rescued from obscurity by monographs such as this one, which enable us to look at artists in a fresh light.