Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Last year I described the life of Ivor Hele, the great Australian war illustrator. Hele painted front line combat in Africa, the Middle East, Korea and the South Pacific during World War II and the Korean War. In the jungles of New Guinea he was injured and lay unconscious for two days.
After a career filled with death and carnage, Hele withdrew from the world. He and his wife lived a life of isolation in a remote cottage by the ocean. Hele rarely spoke about what he had witnessed. He avoided the public and refused to have his picture taken. The local newspaper noted upon his death that "very few people have ever been inside their home." One young niece who visited the cottage recalled "Ivor really detested children."
But Hele never stopped drawing. Instead of drawing armies clashing on a battlefield, he began drawing intimate pictures of his wife around the house. He drew her putting on her stockings, he drew her sewing, he drew her wearing a funny hat made from a folded newspaper, he drew her reading a book. Mostly he seemed to like drawing her with her skirts raised and-- bless her-- she indulged him.
The local newspaper noted that "it was not until after his death... that it was realized he had kept so many sketches." The following drawings are from that collection. They have never been published, but deserve an audience:
Drawing his wife in the safety and seclusion of their little cottage seemed to be therapeutic for Hele's scorched soul.
These are marvelous figure studies but they are more. By lingering over the design of the human form, the symmetry and harmony of the limbs, the tenderness of human flesh, Hele may have been able to restore a little of nature's balance to his own life.
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
How would you draw the sky if your only tool was a black line? Outline a few fluffy clouds perhaps? Add some cross hatching at the horizon? Well that's why you're not Rembrandt, buddy.
The vast majority of this picture is vacant air, but Rembrandt has filled it with lines so free and abstract that they put Jackson Pollock to shame.
It takes courage to etch even a single line in an open space like that. Look closely at Rembrandt's mad, gorgeous dithyramb across the sky and be proud of your humanity!
I'll return to more recent illustrators with my next posting, but I just couldn't resist squeezing in one more Rembrandt. This picture gives me goose bumps and I hope it has the same effect on you.
Monday, July 17, 2006
I usually try to limit myself to updating this blog once a week. However, I could not let the 400th birthday of Rembrandt-- one of my favorite illustrators of all time-- go by without a gesture of respect.
Rembrandt illustrated stories from the Bible, Faust and other sources. Just like today's illustrators, he designed pictures for reproduction and popular consumption (using etchings, the most advanced technology of the day). Like today's illustrators, he was often frustrated by his tasteless and unreasonable clients. (At the height of the "tulip craze" in Amsterdam, a single tulip bulb sold for three times as much as Rembrandt's masterpiece, The Nightwatch.) And just like today's illustrators, he died broke.
But 400 years later, all the money squabbles and heartbreak and exasperation have faded into background noise, along with the names of all the investment bankers and merchants who were once such big shots in Amsterdam. All that's left is the sublime poetry of Rembrandt's pictures.
Friday, July 14, 2006
Albert Dorne had a wretched childhood. He was born in the slums of New York and grew up in poverty, suffering from tuberculosis, malnutrition and heart disease. Fatherless, he quit school after 7th grade to support his mother, two sisters and younger brother. He tried everything to feed his family, from selling newspapers on a street corner to prize fighting to working on a shipping dock.
One of the things I like about Dorne is that he had all the credentials for life as a thug, yet the siren song of art was stronger and pulled him through.
At age 10 Dorne began cutting school 3 or 4 days a week to sneak off to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where he taught himself to draw by copying almost every work of art in the place. The determined little boy soon became well known around the museum. Dorne lived in constant fear that his school would catch him, and he went to great lengths to cover his tracks. He later discovered that his teachers already knew what he was up to and had agreed not to turn him in. They admired his talent and ambition, and thought his chances were better at the museum than at school.
When he turned 17, Dorne decided to make his move into the art business:
Dorne went on to become one of the most popular illustrators in America, rich beyond his wildest dreams.
"I went to a man who ran a one-man art studio and offered to work for nothing as an office boy while I learned the business. The 'nothing' as a salary sounded fine to him. But I still had to take care of my mother-- and by this time I was also married so I had two families to support. I worked in the studio six days a week from nine to six-thirty. Then I'd get home, have supper and a nap, and go back to work all night seven nights a week from midnight to eight in the morning as a shipping clerk... I did this for a whole year. Finally... I was made a full fledged artist with a salary. I was able to give up my night job. After almost a year of this, I decided I could make more money and perhaps find better work as a free lance artist."
Dorne's traumatic childhood left him scarred. He drank heavily. Yet, the bee fertilizes the flower it robs. His experience endowed him with two great gifts. First, he developed a powerful survival instinct. Like a weed pushing its way up through the sidewalk, Dorne always hustled and found assignments when other illustrators lacked work. Second, growing up in a world of desperate, scruffy people Dorne developed a sharp eye for the human carnival. Note how Dorne's insightful line captures a riot of folds, lumps, wrinkles and patches in these marvelous drawings.
However damaged he may have been by his experiences in life, these drawings demonstrate that he never lost the unabashed joy of drawing. Look at the pleasure he took in drawing fanciful hands.
Thursday, July 06, 2006
Eugene von Bruenchenhein (1910-1983) was a small, quiet man who worked the night shift at a bakery near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He and his wife Marie lived a humble life in a tiny home where Eugene painted and wrote poetry.
Eugene and Marie mostly kept to themselves. The neighbors never guessed that inside their meager shack, Eugene and Marie lived as a god and goddess.
The couple adored each other and during their forty year marriage enjoyed a rich fantasy life. Eugene made crowns and elaborate jewelry for Marie out of clay which he dug himself. He used the bakery oven as a kiln to fire his creations late at night when no one was watching. He also made tiny thrones out of chicken bones painted gold.
Eugene's paintings and sculptures were pretty mediocre, and his poetry was no better. His real art was his several thousand pictures of Marie as his queen, muse, glamour girl, goddess, siren. He scavenged floral print wallpaper or scraps of fabric to create exotic backdrops for her. He adorned her in sarongs and togas and bikinis. Many of these photos he later colored by hand.
Eugene created montages with Marie's face in the sky, in the sun, and in the trees.
I don't imagine that many housewives in Milwaukee during the 1940s and 1950s spent their days posing for their husbands in nothing but a tiara. But then, Eugene and Marie don't seem to have felt constrained by the time and place where they lived. Their love was transcendent.
Eugene's artistic devotion to Marie reminds me of the line by the great Walt Whitman:
I will leave all,Whatever you may think about the song of Eugene von Bruenchenhein, there are definitely worse ways to live.
and come and make the hymns of you.
Saturday, July 01, 2006
Before Hollywood began making pictures that moved and talked, illustrators who created the still pictures for popular magazines were national celebrities. Successful illustrators were paid huge sums, received hundreds of fan letters and hung out with the "beautiful people" of their day.
No illustrator was more of a celebrity in the 1920s than the now forgotten Ralph Barton, whose work appeared in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and in books such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. A notorious womanizer, Barton lived a fast life and went to glittering parties in Paris, London and New York with friends such as Charlie Chaplin, George Gershwin, H.G. Wells, Clarence Darrow, H.L. Mencken and the Barrymores. He was reputed to be the highest paid artist in New York City.
At the peak of his fame, Barton fell in love with a sultry young Broadway starlet with the exotic name of Carlotta Monterey. She was allegedly the daughter of Danish aristocracy.
It turned out that Carlotta's real name was Hazel Taasinge. She was the unwanted daughter of a poor fruit farmer from a small town in California. Abandoned at age four, she worked as a housekeeper but was crowned Miss California in 1907. After that, she used her looks to secure a bit part on Broadway where she was "appallingly bad."
Carlotta's Broadway career flopped, but she moved in with Barton who soon divorced his second wife in order to marry Carlotta.
Despite his love for Carlotta, Barton could not quite let go of his philandering ways. Carlotta walked in on Barton in bed with some "country club type" so she divorced him. She didn't ask for alimony, just "my Krazy Kat clippings in a Chinese lacquer box." (Clearly Carlotta had the right priorities). Soon she set up housekeeping with the great playwright, Eugene O'Neil.
Too late, Barton realized that Carlotta had been "the one." He became fixated on getting her back. His career went into a precipitous decline. He could not work without his muse. His health suffered, and he lost much of his fortune. But Carlotta never returned. He wrote one last impassioned plea to "my dear lost angel" but the note arrived in Paris the day after Carlotta and Eugene O'Neil sailed for New York. Despondent, Barton dressed himself in his silk pyjamas, wrote a suicide note, lay down on his bed with Gray's Anatomy opened to a picture of the human heart, and killed himself. He was 40 years old.
I find it fascinating that an artist who was so jaded-- a smug, sophisticated veteran of countless affairs on several continents-- could no longer work-- or even go on living-- without Carlotta, the small town girl with the made up past.