Sunday, November 18, 2007


I have irritated some readers by criticizing popular illustrators such as Bama, Boris, Rowena or Vargas. These artists have good technical skills; they can paint realistically but they lack something far more important: a good design sense.

"What exactly is this design element you keep yapping about, and how can you claim to know which pictures have it and which don't?"

Like most glorious things, design eludes definition. It can be found in an infinite number of forms. But for those who want to observe it in action, I know of no more lucid distillation than in Japanese woodblock prints.

Look at the marvelous arrangement of shapes and patterns in the picture above, the artful negative space-- this is what I mean when I talk about design.

The great Japanese woodblock artists understood what Peter Behrens called "the fundamental principles of all form creating work."


Blogger emp said...

There is another, more important element that you are perceiving in these works (and which isn't present in those you have rightfully and accurately critiqued as lacking): emotion. Technical virtuosity is not enough - the artist must make us feel, and feel more than his or her ego showcasing it's skill.

11/18/2007 11:11 PM  
Anonymous kev ferrara said...

I think Boris and the others are so enamoured of form they have neglected design. In this sense they are the true heirs to retentive salon painting. And more than any other professionals today, they seemed to have completely missed the value of the arguments of modernism.

But, as a famous philosopher once said, "no one changes their mind, unless they are forced to do so". And since these artists make a living doing what they do, sans an aesthetic or narrative appreciation of the uses of abstract design, I don't hold out hope that they will change.

If only Brangwyn and Fechin had been allowed into the conversation that modernism sought to control, maybe there would be widespread realization that you can be both a technically accomplished westerner and design-oriented easterner simultaneously. The last artist one was allowed to see in that mode was probably Klimt. And sometimes Mucha.

Instead we have a backlash situation. Strict salon realism begats strict abstract non-representationalism which begats Boris and Rowena and a bunch of others.

I often wonder how much beautiful art was lost to the hegemony of militant modernist "education".Both then and now.

Then again, if the world had smiled pleasantly at Kandinsky and De Kooning instead of screaming, would there have been more air in which new Klimts or Brangwyns or Fechins could take their first breaths.

Didn't Homer have it figured out all along?

Maybe it's all WWI's fault, after all.


11/19/2007 10:38 AM  
Anonymous Brian said...

Yeah. A lot of so-called realism is just the ability to render. A lot of rederers are misrepresented as artists. Its no different from engineers who design well-functioning parts, but can't make them work together properly in a machine. There is the part, and there is the whole. One serves the other. If you can't figure out which does which, then you are not an artist.

But a good number of these renderers fool a lot of people.

11/19/2007 11:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what i find irritating about your blog is that you are unable to present good art without defining it in opposition to what you consider bad art.

I keep coming back because usually you present some art I haven't seen before and like. I always leave bummed out that you can't do it without ranting about some other shlub you don't like.

11/19/2007 1:54 PM  
Anonymous kev ferrara said...

Hey anonymous, relax. The human ability to understand is based on comparisons... subject verbs object... these distinctions may be so subtle they're practically non-existent or they may be like a sledgehammer,, vociferous, destructive and annoying, (or anywhere in between) but you can't deny their efficacy in the overall. Maybe you would simply prefer a gallery of art you've never seen before? I don't. And either way, it ain't our blog, natch. The egress is all around you.

11/19/2007 2:35 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Emp, I agree that emotion is another important ingredient affecting the character of art. Strong presentation of emotional content sometimes offset weakness other areas. But there are, of course, some images where the artist strives to avoid human emotion that I'd guess you'd find pretty darn good.

Kev, you always bring the "big picture" to these debates. There are some pretty nice salon paintings back there; I don't think that Boris and his crowd would have prospered under the more demanding standards of the salon.

Brian, I like and agree with your distinction between artists and renderers.

11/19/2007 2:38 PM  
Anonymous kev ferrara said...

Agreed, David. I stipulated in my first post that Boris et al are descended from "retentive salon painting" rather than the good stuff like Waterhouse, Bougereau and Tadema, which is not merely beautifully rendered but very finely imagined, researched and designed as well. I should have used the word "academic" salon painting. Although some would accuse Tadema of being just that. Oh well. I knew what I meant when I wrote it.

11/19/2007 2:56 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, your comment caused me to skim over my ten previous postings. I could only find one with a negative point (the point that I don't value fine lines and detail as much as I once did). So hopefully you don't "always" leave here bummed out. Maybe just one in ten times?

But there's another issue worth addressing because it goes to my motivation in doing something like this blog. If you ever find me gratuitously whacking "some shlub," you and others are welcome to blast me for it. The artists I pick on are usually not shlubs, but cultural idols surrounded by adoring fans. Many are published in the New York Times or exhibited in museums and receive handsome sums for their work. In my view, many of them are the beneficiaries of our current cultural motto, "It's all good."

That's not my motto. I believe that standards are real, and that there is a difference between good and bad art. I further believe that sometimes the difference between good and bad has no connection to the artist's fame or fortune, so it's worth thinking hard and speaking clearly about the nature of artistic merit.

When people write that some flavor-of-the-month artist is a "genius," (or that Art Spiegelman is a Michelangelo or Chris Ware is a Bach) I push back simply to preserve the integrity of the language. I respect words, and want them to continue to have a meaning.

Mostly, I want to honor the accomplishments of a lot of under appreciated artists who didn't have the right press agent or live at the right time to get a lucrative film deal, but who dedicated themselves to pursuing high artistic standards. As William Blake said, the only reason for asserting any truth is to defend others who know it.

11/19/2007 3:47 PM  
Blogger Hattermad said...

AMEN! Hit the nail on the head...One does not know what "light" is without "Dark" to compare it to. Yin and Yang, every culture, creed, cult, yammering whack job on the street knows this, or should at least...but maybe they're just caught up in admiring accurately rendered boring threads. Go out and enjoy a Lipking, Wyeth or a Liepke and marvel at the detail created without the use of a single hair rigger! Boris could learn a thing from the aforementioned.

11/19/2007 4:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, an animated comment section! People talking amongst themselves! Been waiting for the day.... Yay for you guys!

And D, you don't always give a good compared to a "bad", but I agree with Hattermad that contrasts do help frame life, and you do it well, with dignity & even when criticized. But I think I repeat myself form some previous observation. Oh well, I'm that dull.


11/19/2007 9:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

*from (damn, no spell check in my brain, gotta fire the internal editor...)

11/19/2007 9:52 PM  
Blogger Dan P. Carr said...

Excellent examples in the prints, especially the top one. Beautiful.

11/20/2007 2:12 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Dan, I think you're exactly right, that top print stands out head and shoulders above the others. Isn't it interesting that, with no established criteria or objective grading system, people can still recognize aesthetic quality?

11/20/2007 12:13 PM  
Blogger Andrew Smith said...

hmm, I've always struggled with understanding design. As soon as I want to lay down some rules about how it must go I realize that that is the wrong way to go about it... but on the other hand I wonder how one goes about learning it.

I do have a question though: What is the difference between composition and design? (if there is one)

11/20/2007 4:43 PM  
Anonymous tania said...

standards, once again, oh David!.. You're a such a renegade :-)
Wonder if I shouldn't.... No! Just:Hello!

11/20/2007 7:04 PM  
Anonymous Nathan Long said...

Though these Japanese prints are lovely and aptly show good design, if you are going to suggest that the folks you named lack a sense of design, perhaps the point would be better served by comparing them to people who do have a design sense, but within the same genre and style. So, for instance...

Bama vs McGinnis
Boris vs Frazetta
Rowena vs Whelan
Vargas vs Petty

You know, so it's not a case of apples and elephants.

11/20/2007 8:18 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Tania my savage friend, I don't know how I ended up as the guardian for standards. It certainly is a thankless task.

It would be far more rewarding to wear a leopard skin outfit and practice pagan rituals in the treetops. Unfortunately, so many smug people take such comfort from the abandonment of standards, I can't resist pointing out a few inconvenient facts for them to step over. And whenever I do, I can always count on a comment from you scolding me for my narrow mindedness.

I don't know who you are or what country you live in, but I always envision you as the last surviving member of the Baader-Meinhof gang, living in a cave on the outskirts of town perhaps with a bone through your nose. Tell the truth: am I close?

11/20/2007 9:16 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Nathan, I think those are excellent comparisons. You have paired artists more ably than I could have done.

I was trying with my examples to isolate (to the extent possible) pure design, unencumbered by the distractions of realism or perspective or lighting or shading or message. Frazetta, McGinnis and the other artists you mention all combine design with these other complicating ingredients. I thought design might be easiest to recognize as flat geometric patterns and shapes in woodblock prints. Maybe not.

11/20/2007 9:31 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Andrew, we all "struggle with design." Personally, I think that composition is one element of design.

Professors of aesthetics instruct us that aesthetic concepts such as "design" cannot be achieved logically through the application of some set of objective features. Unlike normal words, they are always dependent to some extent on an element of taste or perceptiveness. If that's true, it suggests that these dialogues may get us closer but they will never take us all the way.

11/20/2007 11:00 PM  
Blogger Gareth said...

Hi David, I discovered your blog last week and have since been reading through the archives like a man possessed! I love what you do here. I have found many pieces of art and artists I would never have known about otherwise (Hele being my favourite so far!). I am a big fan of drawing in particular, nothing can compare to a well observed, well crafted drawing in my opinion.

I was wondering if you knew anything about an illustrator by the name of J. H. Dowd? I have a book of his from the 30's called Important People, with some wonderful sketches and illustrations mostly of children. I can't seem to find out about much else he has done apart from this list of books though.

Do you know of him?

Anyway, keep it up. These woodblocks are excellent, not just for the pure design but for their texture too (although I guess that part of the design).

11/21/2007 10:40 AM  
Blogger Hattermad said...

Wow, you'd think with all the people whom appreciate good design that are out there bad design simply wouldn't exist..hehe Having designed things in the line of POP display signage to (supposedly) easier to read mortgage statements and catalog order forms I think I can say one really knows a good design when one sees it, not in ones own works, but all around...Street signs to fast food menus to actually being able to enjoy a Rothko...

by the by, McGinnis rules the roost...his design sensibility is uncanny...take out the realism, trace over a pic using just forms and it is visible...

gareth, thanks for that Dowd link, never had heard of 'em, and not sure if it is the thrill of some thing as yet newly discovered by mine eyes, but that pencil work is masterly!! A graphite link between Leyendecker and Lautrec almost...
(yes yet another comparison! to illustrate a point...)

11/21/2007 11:11 AM  
Anonymous tania said...

cummon, I would be 50-something!? Think again! (bone through nose is correct ;-)

11/21/2007 2:24 PM  
Blogger Mark Stroud said...

In a lesser or greater degree all of those prints show more design sense than a lot of whats out there, and they're certainly far ahead of me. Now I have to take a much closer look at them. Thanx for reminding us about this stuff.

11/22/2007 1:17 AM  
Anonymous John Musker said...

Love these prints. Are they under one roof in a book available for purchase? They're really beautiful and illustrate your point quite powerfully.

11/24/2007 4:37 AM  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

i like your choices. they're now reprinting the arthur wesley dow composition books, including this one which clearly extrapolates from the japanese.

of course his was nice because he didn't use them so much as models as lessons

11/25/2007 12:39 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Mark and John. I am glad you share my enthusiasm for these prints. John, they are not from a any book. They are just images I've picked up along the way.

Lotusgreen, I am flattered to hear from such an expert. Your Japonisme blog has some of the nicest Japanese art around.

11/25/2007 2:14 PM  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

that's so kind of you to say, david--thank you.

i wanted to tell kev that my blog also has a lot of western artists who are clearly very strongly influenced by the japanese work.

and i wanted to thank gareth for mentioning dowd, who was new to me, and i like his work!

11/25/2007 6:22 PM  
Anonymous Derric Peterson said...

Nice expamle! Actually the most i liked the top one!

11/26/2007 9:18 AM  
Anonymous Essay said...

wow, what a discussion. personally I enjoyed your blog very much

1/19/2008 1:20 PM  
Anonymous dissertation said...

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Anonymous Virginia Clarkson said...

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3/21/2014 8:04 AM  

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