Thursday, September 09, 2021

SEVEN LESSONS IN SEVEN SENTENCES

  • An 18 year old cartoonist named Charles was exhausted and disappointed after being rejected by every employer in town, but before giving up he decided to give art one last try.  
  • His father waited impatiently for Charles to abandon cartooning and get a "decent," financially stable job. 
  • Charles knocked on the door of a struggling start up magazine, fully expecting another rejection, but to his shock the editor purchased one of his cartoons.
  • Thinking he'd finally found his market niche, Charles hastily prepared twelve more cartoons, all of which were quickly rejected.
  • Charles was devastated, so the editor took the young cartoonist to lunch and coached him about life and art.
  • Eager for attention, Charles drew a brash cartoon insulting an author at a rival magazine; the rival magazine complained about the "tasteless" cartoon, but then tried to hire Charles.
  • Charles declined the lucrative offer, staying loyal to the editor of the start up who took him to lunch.

                                    *                *                *                *

The "Charles" in my story was Charles Dana Gibson.  He was paid a total of $4 for that first cartoon, which he sold to a start up magazine called Life.  His "insulting" cartoon (published on January 6, 1887) depicted writer Robert Louis Stevenson as gay.  Rival magazine Puck attacked Life for the tasteless cartoon, but tried to lure Gibson away with a long term contract.  Gibson turned down Puck because he was so grateful to the editor of Life for taking him to lunch.

As Frank Mott wrote in his epic five volume History of American Magazines, Gibson's decision "turned out to be very lucky for Life."

Three years later, in 1890, Charles invented the Gibson girl, which became an international sensation.

  Gibson's cartoons turned out to be hugely profitable for Life and helped solidify its position.  It also made Gibson fabulously wealthy-- wealthy enough to please even his father.  As Susan Meyers noted in her book, America's Great Illustrators, 

All this fanfare over Gibson's work represented a major turning point in publishing history.  Never before had an illustrator so influenced American business; never before had so much money been earned from the creation of a single artist. As magazines competed for his services, the stakes grew higher and higher.  

Collier's magazine agreed to pay Gibson $1,000 per drawing for 100 drawings, but Gibson "categorically refused to desert Life, ever loyal to [the editor who had taken him to lunch]." 

Gibson ended up owning Life magazine and living on his own private 700 acre island. 

His example contains lessons for everybody.





In addition to his "Gibson Girl," Charles became an excellent draftsman capturing a
wide variety of faces, expressions and archetypes for his social commentary.



Monday, August 30, 2021

THE DOLLAR IMPACT OF CARTOONS


This week an appellate court in New Jersey ruled on the economic impact of cartoons. (Michelle Migut v. State of New Jersey Administrative Office of The Courts, Docket no. A-2787-18)

A woman claimed she experienced pain and suffering because she had to walk down a flight of stairs during a fire drill.  She said that a prior foot injury gave her a rare condition known as "complex regional pain syndrome" (CRPS). This CRPS caused her to experience "a lot of pain" when she had to use the stairs rather than the elevator, so she sued her employer for millions of dollars.  

 The lawyer for the plaintiff, perhaps doubting her ability to persuade the jury with mere words, commissioned three cartoons to use with the jury:


The cartoons must have been effective because the jury saw them and awarded $2.5 million in damages.  This confirms what I've long suspected: cartoonists are underpaid.

On appeal, the defendant claimed the drawings improperly influenced the jury. This forced the appellate court to analyze key issues of aesthetic theory that have long puzzled the sages.

The court decided to overturn the verdict for several reasons.

The court was obviously no fan of artistic license.  It ruled, 
The cartoon of a woman in a wheelchair with no legs sitting in front of a closed elevator with smoke bore no resemblance to the plaintiff, who has legs and does not rely on a wheelchair. It also mischaracterized the circumstances of the events, which unfolded in the context of a fire drill, not an actual fire. 
This is a very literalist approach to art by a court that is apparently steeped in the traditions of 19th century realism. We are forced to ask: Would an abstract expressionist court have been more open minded?

Second, when the cartoons were used at trial the judge instructed the jury to disregard them because they were "inflammatory and misleading." The appellate court nevertheless overturned the verdict because it believed the jury would not be able to forget the pictures. "The instruction to ignore... after the jury had already seen them was not sufficient." In other words, the prejudicial effect of a picture cannot be overcome by mere words. The court's ruling goes straight to the heart of aesthetic theory about the relative impact of words and pictures.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the trial court might have avoided reversal if it had used 3,000 words to instruct the jury. However, if 3 pictures are worth $2.5 million, we may have entered a new paradigm in faded bromides about art.

Finally, the appellate court, warming to its new role as art critic, disapproved of the way the drawings distorted the jury's view of reality and thereby "inflated compensation for the plaintiff's alleged emotional distress." One cartoon depicted the plaintiff's employer as a "buffoon." Another cartoon of "a woman covering her face with her hands under the title: 'Compensation for Emotional Damages' was an appeal to sympathy intended to inflate compensation...."

Philosophers and aesthetes may haggle endlessly about the metaphysics of art, but as I've said before, if you need a concrete answer you're always better off consulting a lawyer.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

GARTER BELTS, THEN AND NOW

Compare this picture of a garter belt by Olivia de Berardinis...

...with this one by John Sloan:
 
John Sloan, Subway Stairs, 1926

Why is the Sloan illustration more suggestive and provocative?  What makes it a more successful work of art?

In Sloan's picture, a random updraft reveals a small, brief glimpse of thigh in an otherwise cold, impersonal sea of travelers bundled in winter coats.  Look at the narratives that radiate from those few inches of flesh:  Only one person (presumably Sloan) among hundreds is positioned to witness this unexpected gift:


The experience clearly left an impression on him.

The woman catches him looking:



Is he embarrassed?  Does he avert his eyes?  What is she thinking?  She can't hold down her dress because her arms are full.  Does propriety even matter any more if they're anonymous ships passing in the night?  Her face, her exposed thigh and the back of the man's head form a narrative triangle here.  It took Sloan seven versions of this drawing before he felt he got the balance just right. 

Olivia's fantasy trambo, on the other hand, has no such narratives.  She's too one-dimensional to contain penetralium. 

Amorous pictures today have become fairly predictable, even from masters of the skill such as Frank Cho or Adam Hughes.  We see the same routine provocative poses with the same anatomical distortions.  We see nudity, or at least an abundance of flesh, drawn with the same smooth, rounded lines.  We see soft, blended colors.  When censorship disappeared and printing quality improved, the same formulas became more and more entrenched. 

But 100 years ago, artists working with far less freedom and more primitive tools created pictures that were more intense than much of what is produced today.  Creativity, like passion, often comes from constrained circumstances. 

For example, etchings-- an inky black medium full of smudges and scratchy lines-- could be quite steamy, especially capturing moments of passion in a gritty, urban world.       


Edward Hopper (above) and John Sloan (below) show us couples grasping for intimacy in a crowded city.  These drawings capture serious moments that we know were preceded by hours of anticipation and followed by hours of reflection.



In Sloan's etching, Turning Out The Light, we see a woman preparing to remove her nightgown but simultaneously turning out the light.  There will be no unearned intimacy for us here; our imaginations will have to work for it.  But these are figures with real humanity, and the expression on her face as she looks over her shoulder at her partner shows us that there is another worthwhile narrative taking place. 


This last etching by Hopper, Evening Wind, is a sensuous tour de force.  Once again an errant breeze plays a central role.  


This time it brings relief from the heat of the city in an era before air conditioning.  Hopper didn't need spandex or corsets or stiletto heels.  He didn't need huge breasts.  His evocation of the sweetness of sticky summer sweat is enough to demonstrate the difference between a real artist and amateurs.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

ALL YOU NEED ARE FEET

Feet can tell you everything you need to know about a relationship.

Jon Whitcomb sells silverware

ad for the Pan-American Coffee Bureau
 

In these two pictures, the women are obviously in control while the men dither.  

But linger a while.  Consider the subtler shades of meaning that pictures are able to communicate:  In the first picture the woman leans in, but her hands remain clasped demurely over her knees because she ain't giving anything away until the deal is sealed.  


The man leans in too; his legs are spread and his arm buttresses his stance-- he knows what he wants.  Yet, his wobbly feet betray his confusion because he's not in control of the negotiations and doesn't know what it will cost him.  

By comparison, the woman's legs are aimed like an Exocet missile.  He has the color of putty while she has the high contrast, red and white coloration of fight-or-flight.  Fire.  Blood. 

All this is conveyed without a single facial expression or word.

Now contrast the first picture with the second picture.  The ring box on the floor tells us why the woman is acting with more abandon.  The lighting in the apartment is lower.  The man's feet go from wobbly in the first picture to almost panicking in the second picture.  (Is his leg even raised a little defensively against the angle of her attack? He knows what he wants but seems a little unsettled by the prospect of getting it.) The sponsor's coffee only appears at the very edge of the picture, a product the company somehow wants us to associate with happy times on a sofa.  And of course, couples can enjoy coffee without requiring a bridal registry, unlike silverware.

In this next picture, we know right away we are dealing with a younger couple.  The artist has shown us malt shop chairs and bobby sox.

ad for Griffith Shoe Polish

Even at this younger age, the girl understands things the boy doesn't.  We don't need to see the boy's blushing face to tell that he is tense and confused.   His feet are straight, rigid and facing forward, rather than mirroring the angle of the girl's feet.  He knows he likes it but he isn't clear what he's supposed to do.

Art equips us with a richer vocabulary for exploring the range of complex human emotions.  The language of pictures can use feet to convey complicated feelings but it can also use hands, or folds in clothing, or shadows on a wall, or the tilt of a picture or its coloration.  It can use activity or quiescence, it can convey meaning with gaps or overlapping layers.  It might even use facial expressions.  The language of words can't hope to keep up.  And if we look at pictures with some self-awareness, we may get sensitized in the process.

What's going to happen to the people in these relationships?  Perhaps some of the women pictured here will get married, become disappointed in their loutish husbands and ultimately decide they can't take it anymore.

Well, feet can tell that story too: 



Monday, July 19, 2021

NEW BOOK FROM TOM FLUHARTY

 Tom Fluharty is an artist with great enthusiasms.  

When he became enthused about dogs, he produced a torrent of drawings and paintings of dogs.  


They were marvelous-- funny, smart and truly insightful about the nature of dogs.




Then for a while he became infatuated with sharks.  He also produced a series of pictures of rock stars, and then a series of orchestra conductors.  Each time, he burrowed into his theme with enthusiasm and energy.  You can see in his drawings the pleasure he takes in playing with the character of his subjects.  

Now it's time for cowboys.

Fluharty has produced a brand new book full of drawings of cowboys.  

As with his previous infatuations his cowboy pictures are a delight, full of loving details, hilarious facial expressions and a variety of situations.  


The book contains 72 pages of new drawings in Fluharty's trademark indigo blue pencil.  I recommend it to all connoisseurs of draftsmanship.  

Fluharty's web site offers two options.  You can either order the regular book, or for those interested in owning an original, Fluharty is also offering a special inscribed edition of the book with an original drawing.    

Monday, July 05, 2021

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 66

 I love this tiny (221 × 152 mm) etching by Paul Klee, Suicide from the Bridge.

Smart, funny, compact, dense with meaning-- this little doodle from 1916 is everything that conceptual art today should be but rarely is.

There's sparse room for detail, so Klee chose to define our hero by his hat and moustache-- excellent choices!

Here Klee shows us the weight of time as the moment of destiny approaches:



The path from the bridge down to the water below is filled not just with wind currents and birds... 




... but also with gods and demons.




Splat!!!


X marks the spot

100 pounds of content in a one ounce package.




Tuesday, June 29, 2021

DRAWING ON A SHOPPING BAG

 The brilliant Mort Drucker had the world's greatest arsenal of faces.



Detail





Where did all those incredible faces come from?  

Drucker said that when his wife went shopping for clothes, she'd take him along to sit outside the dressing room with other husbands while she tried on different outfits.  As long as he was stuck there, he took advantage of the time to study faces and sometimes sketched them for future use.   




Detail

There's no guarantee that, if you remain constantly observant and draw on every available surface, you too will be able to draw great faces.  But it sure couldn't hurt.