Monday, September 25, 2017

HEINRICH KLEY FEEDS POMEGRANATE SEEDS TO THE MUSE

If a man wishes to be worthy of the best that a woman has to offer, he must have the patience to feed her a pomegranate, one seed at a time.
 -- Ancient Persian Proverb


Before the muse gifted Heinrich Kley with this idea about racing snails...




... he explored snails with lovely little studies such as these:









By working at a snail's pace, Kley learned how to make them race at breakneck speed.



Friday, September 15, 2017

STAYING EASY IN YOUR HARNESS

The poet Robert Frost understood that freedom is not the absence of constraints.  "You have freedom," he said, "when you're easy in your harness."

The illustrator Mort Kunstler used to work for men's adventure magazines such as Stag or For Men Only.

Illustration for the Men magazine article, "Get to Comrade Zoltan with Girls." (1959). The article says that when all other interrogation tactics failed, "There was no choice but to summon the 'passion troops.'"
Cheap and lurid, these magazines were printed on a low budget. They couldn't afford full color reproduction on every page.  In the double page illustration above, Kunstler was told he could use full color on the right side, but only two colors (red and black) on the left side.

Didn't notice Kunstler's sleight of hand, did you?  OK, look again to see how he finessed it:


The Russian soldiers were painted in two colors...


...and so was "comrade Zoltan..."



... but Kunstler subtly camouflaged the transition to full color with this red headed temptress:



The real trick was how Kunstler used the artificial light in the room to disguise his color limitation. 


Kunstler was faced with unreasonable constraints, but he knew enough about color and staging so that the restrictions didn't chafe or pinch his painting.  He planned around them. He was easy in his harness.

 And Kunstler wasn't the only one. In earlier days, technical and economic limitations on the printing process created all kinds of obstacles for artists but if they were good enough and imaginative enough, the viewer never knew.

Look at how the illustrator Henry Raleigh dealt with the same problem that Kunstler handled:


Raleigh staged the drawing to take advantage of the blue ink on the right side to convey a dour, obsequious man...


...and used the warm color on the left to create this radiant creature:


Today artists are blessed with unlimited rainbows of color, in cmyk or rgb variations.  The computer monitor permits us to use full color on both the left and the right side at no extra charge.  Nor does the internet constrain the number of copies created.  One might argue that with all these technical advantages artists have finally achieved true freedom.  But that's not genuine freedom, genuine freedom is being easy in your harness.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 54



You probably don't know the work of illustrator Charles Sarka but you probably should.

Sarka (1879-1960) started out as an apprentice to an engraver and became a staff artist for newspapers (first for the Chicago Record and then for the New York Herald). He did some lovely pen and ink work for Collier's, Cosmopolitan and Harpers in the era of pen and ink greats: Joseph Clement Coll, Charles Dana Gibson, Orson Lowell and James Montgomery Flagg.  In my view, his excellent pen and ink work belongs in that esteemed company.

However, unlike his peers Sarka had wanderlust. Rather than sit by his drawing board he traveled extensively to South Pacific Islands, Africa and other remote locations where he recorded his travels in watercolors. His paintings of the hill tribes of Morocco, of the natives of Tahiti and the markets of Egypt took him far from the normal career path of a typical American illustrator, so his name is not as well known. Still, I think his early ink work is excellent.

Note in this detail how Sarka not only understands hands, but toys with different comic possibilities for presenting them.  He uses a strong, vigorous line to add some excitement to that solid coat and the folds in those pants, but he also appreciates the value of using a variety of effects, such as the spatters on that tire:



In the following detail, his lines shaping those trees are quite muscular, but Sarka knows when to back off, contrasting them with a single lacy line to convey that cigarette smoke; he even adds a few little tweety birds flying through it:



Note how Sarka gives the trees density, weight and movement by giving them heavy shadows and curling them over, (as contrasted with that cigarette smoke which wafts upward on an errant breeze-- one set of lines has to fight gravity and the other one doesn't).  


And speaking of lacy, Sarka applies the same lesson to these two charming ladies. They are clearly earthbound creatures, as we can tell from the volume and density in their dresses and coiffure, but that scarf wafts upward, contrary to gravity, with a different line just like the cigarette smoke.

Two li'l dollinks somewhere between heaven and earth
I like that Sarka put so much personality and energy in his line.  I like that he understood perspective and anatomy but used them only as starting points. I like the sense of humor in his drawing. If he'd stayed home and created a substantial body of work in pen and ink, I feel certain he'd be in the pantheon today.


Monday, August 28, 2017

ONE STEP FORWARD, TWO STEPS BACK

This is the cover of yesterday's New York Times magazine:


The NYT explained its goal for the cover:  "Like all great athletes, Roger Federer makes the impossible look easy.  So we decided to go with an action shot that captures his grace and dynamism."

My dictionary doesn't recognize these uses of the terms, "action" and "dynamism." To me the freeze frame photo of Federer hovering in air looks inert and static.  There is no suggestion of speed, and in fact the strangely meandering word "wonder" (in random type faces in miscellaneous sizes) dominates the figure and neutralizes any semblance of movement or direction or thrust.  The visual emphasis placed on an outstretched hand releasing a ball seems to be the antithesis of "dynamism."

A few years ago on this blog I wrote about how sports illustration in the 1950s tended to rely on frozen, stop-motion images that looked hopelessly stolid.




Then in the 1960s, imaginative illustrators developed fresh ways to capture speed.  They learned from action painting and abstract expressionism in the fine art world; they learned from movies, by blurring or repeating images rather than carefully capturing a single Muybridge snapshot; they learned from impressionism and expressionism (going back to J.M.W. Turner's revolutionary masterpiece, Rain, Steam and Speed);  they learned from Einstein's special theory of relativity that spacetime bends as velocity increases toward the speed of light. 

The following examples are from Bernie Fuchs' brilliant illustrations for Sports Illustrated in 1961.


Note the figure in the foreground starting to stretch to the right with Einstein's spacetime.

He used slashing lines and rapid brush strokes to create sensations of speed. 

Detail


He captured figures in truly dynamic poses with traction and thrust, not merely floating in air.  He selectively used sharp focus or blur to convey motion and emphasis.  These are among the tools of a sophisticated artist.

If the goal of yesterday's NYT Magazine cover was "action" and "dynamism," I think by comparison these 1960s examples make the cover look sick.  How much we have forgotten!

The concept of "progress" applies in science but not so much in art.  In science, each new generation can build on the objective discoveries of the generation before.  But in art, prehistoric cave paintings may be just as beautiful and sensitive as a picture made yesterday. It's not unusual for art to take one step forward and two steps back.  But if we are aware of our history and work in good conscience, it's at least possible to take two steps forward and only one step back.


Monday, August 21, 2017

NEW REFLECTIONS ON OLD COMBAT ART, part 4

In the last few posts we discussed combat art from World War I.  

In the comments, a lot seemed to depend on the fact that these artists, whether illustrators or "fine" artists, were first-hand witnesses to the trauma of war.  The personal ordeals of these artists seemed to give their work an authenticity.  In some cases, it pushed the artist to abandon traditional artistic techniques and flail around for new methods of communication. 

How does this art compare with work by artists who did not participate in the war?  How were the results different for artists who merely imagined the war from a great distance?

In my view, the best contemporary artist to be inspired by World War I is George Pratt.  Here is some of his work, which I find quite striking:


Pratt uses a powerful composition to strengthen an already powerful subject.




Some of Pratt's subjects are similar to the subjects chosen by Dix, but Pratt kept his wits about him. 



His first graphic novel about World War I was the highly regarded Enemy Ace: War Idyll.





Pratt worked a safe distance from the terror, in both time and space.   Yet his imagination and talent enabled him to close some of that distance and give his pictures strength, insight and veracity.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

NEW REFLECTIONS ON OLD COMBAT ART, part 3

For me, the work of Harry Townsend was among the most impressive art in the Smithsonian's exhibition of World War I art.  Townsend wrote in his war diary, "Only those near to it all can know what endurance and suffering that was."  He was thankful to be there in the battles of the Marne, and of St. Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne,  for the "impressions, spiritual and material, that alone can furnish the inspiration for a convincing pictorial record." 

Here is Townsend's powerful charcoal drawing, "The Hurry Call, Night of May 30, 1918."


It shows two red cross wagons racing to the front in response to an emergency call.  Townsend chose not to detail the mangled bodies they would encounter there, although he certainly saw plenty of bloodshed and wrote about it in his diary.  His approach is more symbolic.  His dread is more abstract.  Whatever his reasons for restraint, I find this to be a formidable drawing, both in form and content.

A number of commenters to my previous post praised the work of fine artist Otto Dix, who graphically showed the mangled bodies and distorted them:


It has been suggested that fine artists such as Dix responded to the horrors of war in a more genuine, meaningful way than illustrators.  He abandoned conventional western realism and clawed out drawings that seem like a howl of despair.  I find Dix's drawing powerful too, but a large part of that is due to shock value.

In one of Townsend's paintings, he captured the vertiginous experience of air combat-- something new in the history of war:



In his diary, Townsend described his first experience with flight:
Higher and higher we went.  What a cubist painting below, and cubist paintings would appeal, if only they could catch some of the beauty of color and design of all those lovely patches on the canvas beneath us.... It was beautiful beyond wild dreams.  Here and there one caught the earth way down there between the clouds, struck now by the sunlight and thrown into a wondrous high key of light, citrons and greens and lavender.  And here and there thrown into shadow by the clouds, one saw it in rich, low tones like music, close and melodious, purples and low greens and earth that were like bass to the high tenor of the sun.
As soon as he landed, he promptly vomited into the gunner's cockpit where he was sitting.

No matter what horrors he had witnessed, Townsend could still be astonished by the beauty of nature. And he gave (in my opinion better than Dix) "a convincing pictorial record" that conveyed both the "spiritual and the material" ramifications of air warfare.  In his drawing of air warfare, Dix again focuses on the mangled bodies left behind...


Powerful, yet I don't find Dix's treatment any more insightful or creative than a drawing by an EC horror comic artist, or a modern graphic novelist who had been nowhere near battle.  For example, compare this war picture by Dix...


...with this Jimbo comic book illustration by Gary Panter:


I guarantee you, Panter had no first hand experience with, or special insights into, war.  Yet, he finds it easy to simulate the horror that Dix experienced first hand.  In my opinion neither of them could do what Townsend did.

The argument seems to be that illustrators, harnessed to a commercial function or purpose (or as Kev Ferrara put it, "faith") are not as sensitive to the true horror of War.  But here we see a hand drawn and lettered poster by Townsend, who was sufficiently sensitive to the horror of starvation to try use art to do something about it:


I suppose a nihilist would argue that such "purposeful" art is oblivious to our existential predicament.  I'm not sure that distinction would impress the starving French peasants.

Monday, August 07, 2017

NEW REFLECTIONS ON OLD COMBAT ART, part 2

Did fine artists and illustrators react differently to World War I?

Many historians believe that World War I changed the path of fine art.  In the years leading up to the war, art had already begun to explore modernism and the industrial age.  But no one was prepared for the way scientific progress changed the nature of war: the invention of the tank, air warfare, the development of poison gas, and mass killings that didn't discriminate between combatant and civilian-- these were just the tip of the iceberg.  More ominously, modern mass communications, mass transportation and other fruits of scientific progress which once appeared to hold such promise turned out to escalate and accelerate the worst of humanity.  They revealed a yawning existential void beneath a thin veneer of civilization.

 As a result of the World War,  nihilism seemed to spread throughout the fine art world.  For example, Dada represented a negation of everything that reason had once taught us.



Surrealism (a term invented by soldier Guillaume Apollinaire) represented another assault on common sense and social order.




Similarly, futurism urged in violent language the overthrow of the old values and order.  And the "New Objectivism" of George Grosz and Otto Dix cast aside traditional artistic images and values to show how the great war had shattered lives beyond any rational explanation.



 As art critic Reed Johnson wrote:
World War I reshaped the notion of what art is, just as it forever altered the perception of what war is.…. In visual art, surrealists and expressionists devised wobbly, chopped up perspectives and nightmarish visions of fractured human bodies and splintered societies slouching toward moral chaos.
Even as modernism severed its ties with the traditions of fine art, the illustrators of the AEF kept their faith.  These eight artists worked on the front lines and witnessed as much horror as anyone.  Their art contained as much drama and pain.  We can't assume that they were any less sensitive or talented than their fine art counterparts.  Yet, the illustrators didn't forsake their roots in rationality, or their belief that realism had something worthwhile to say.  They created powerful, beautifully designed, meaningful images in response to the same stresses that contorted fine art.

Harding

Harding

Aylward

Townsend

Why did the illustrators respond differently than the fine artists?

Perhaps the illustrators didn't succumb to nihilism because, unlike fine art, their art continued to be braced by a purpose (or to put it more crassly, a mission).   Nihilism is purposelessness, but illustration-- for better or worse-- by its nature has a purpose or function. In this case it is reportorial art, the art of witness.

Everyone is quick to point out that illustration's "function" imposes constraints and limitations that don't apply to fine art.  At the same time, I think a function or purpose has its advantages as well.  The reactions of the AEF illustrators to the horrors of war were moderated and tethered to coherence by the need to communicate with an audience.  These artists had to keep their wits about them.

Dunn

Harvey Dunn, The Sentry

Harvey Dunn, The Flare

It's important to emphasize that the AEF illustrators did not retreat to jingoistic propaganda (the opposite side of the spectrum from fine art).  The illustrators were not blind to the harsh realities of the front.  In fact, the US military staff was disappointed that the illustrations had no propaganda value.  A report concluded, "the officers of the General Staff [don't] appear to express very much interest in the pictures.  They do not serve either a military purpose nor propaganda purposes."

In short, the illustrators seemed to have worked between the pro-war propaganda on one side and the antiwar nihilistic despair on the other side.  Consider their merits and think about whether this is a good place on the spectrum for an artist to work.

Harvey Dunn, The Grenade
I AM PLEASED TO REPORT THAT THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION HAS OPENED A BRAND NEW WEB SITE DISPLAYING  MANY ILLUSTRATIONS FROM THE AEF ILLUSTRATORS IN HIGH RESOLUTION.  I URGE YOU TO VISIT AND ENJOY THE ART.