Monday, November 21, 2011

ERICH SOKOL'S PRELIMINARY SKETCHES

I have previously written about my admiration for illustrator / cartoonist Erich Sokol, whose brilliant work appeared in Playboy Magazine.  A collection of his work recently published by Residenzverlag includes some of his preliminary studies.

Napoleon (preliminary study)
Napoleon  (finished version)
Sokol does not wait until the final image to worry about good design and composition.  They are present in the very first small fragments.

Note how strongly Sokol locates this sketch on the page...


 ...or how he starts out early identifying and then emphasizing the rhythm and harmony of the human forms:


Like many other  artists, Sokol's building blocks contain the DNA of a finished artistic statement.





No matter how small or incomplete, details and fragments such as these can encompass the artist's  genetic code and are well worth our attention.

Monday, November 14, 2011

THE SLAV EPIC



I spent the past week in Prague where I was working on the World Forum on Governance.  Away from my books and art materials, I resigned myself to skipping this week's post.

However, the cultural attache at the embassy shared with me the happy news that Alphonse Mucha's masterpiece, the Slav Epic, will go on display in Prague next year, just 84 years after Mucha donated it to the city.

For those who only know Mucha for his art nouveau posters, the Slav Epic was Mucha's most important and meaningful work: 20 huge patriotic murals of key moments from the history of the Slavic people.

Mucha posing in front of two of his murals

In times of trouble and uncertainty, Mucha "wanted to talk in my own way to the soul of the nation," reminding them of their proud heritage and the heroism and sacrifice of their ancestors.

The origin of the Slavic homeland around 200 - 300 AD: peaceful Slav farmers flee invading Goths (seen galloping away from the burning village with their loot).  As the young Adam and Eve of the Slavs escape, a holy man with outstretched arms implores the gods for mercy.

Mucha's reference photo for the holy man

"The Celebration of Svantovit: When Gods Are At War, Salvation Is In The Arts."  The earliest Slavic center of civilization from 700-900 AD was centered around the shrine of Svantovit (later destroyed by Danish warriors in the 12th century)  
The Introduction of the Slavonic Liturgy: Praise The Lord in Your Native Tongue 

"After the Battle of Grunwald: The Solidarity of the Northern Slavs." Here we see the first great defeat of the previously invincible Teutonic Knights, demonstrating the rising power of the Slavic empire. 
"After the Battle of Vitkov: God Represents Truth, Not Power"

"Peter Chelcicky at Vodnany: Do Not Repay Evil With Evil." A famous Slavic pacifist implores the victims of a Hussite raid not to become too caught up in revenge. 
"The Defense of Sziget by Nikola Zrinski: The Shield of Christendom"

Mucha presented his murals to the city of Prague in 1928, but some criticized them as old fashioned and nationalistic.  By 1933 the canvases were rolled up and placed in storage, and Mucha's hopes for his native land seemed farther and farther away.  In 1939 the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia and the gestapo arrested the aging artist.  He died shortly after his release.  The Slav Epic murals were stored away in a basement that flooded, damaging the paintings.  After many years, the canvases were retrieved and restored, and were put on display in 1968 in southern Moravia.  In 2012, these lovely works will return to Prague where they will be displayed with the honor and dignity they deserve.

"The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia: Work in Freedom is the Foundation of a State"

I think Mucha's accomplishment was an act of courage comparable to the accomplishments he was celebrating.  He put aside his commercially successful decorative art to make a lasting statement about the spirit of his country. He originally planned to make each painting approximately 20' x 26' but war, political repression and economic hardship repeatedly forced him to change his plans.  After his first few paintings, the Belgian factory which manufactured the oversized linen was occupied by the German army and converted to military use.  Mucha switched to painting on sailcloth from Scotland, and later was forced to reduce the size of the last murals.  Still, he persisted.  The Czech avant garde artistic community ridiculed his work as a "monstrosity of spurious artistic and allegorical pathos which, if exhibited permanently could harm the taste of the public."  His murals were nearly confiscated during World War I for their "Czech patriotic content" and he made plans to bury them in the woods to protect them.  The work was frowned upon by Nazis in World War II and by communist occupiers in the postwar era. 

Time and again, Mucha was presented with obstacles but he persisted and left behind an important work of art.

"Jan Amos Komensky: A Flicker of Hope."  A religious exile dies in his chair by the sea, looking out at eternity and thinking about returning to his beloved homeland.


Monday, November 07, 2011

NEW BOOK FROM STERLING HUNDLEY


Award winning illustrator Sterling Hundley has come out with a collection of his art, Blue Collar / White Collar.


The book melds Hundley's commercial illustration, his gallery art, and his thoughts on working "between the demands of  Blue Collar ethic and the ambitions of a White Collar aesthetic."
 

Readers may recall that I admire Hundley's talent, his enthusiasm for nurturing young artists, and his thoughtful efforts to adapt to the circumstances confronting a 21st century artist. Many illustrators talk about diversifying and selling "fine" art to gallery audiences, but Hundley is one who seems to have pulled it off.  I was pleased to be asked to write the introduction for his book.

This compact volume (6" x 9") includes revealing preliminary sketches for some of his better known works.


I recommend that you check it out.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

EMPTY ARMS


Mead Schaeffer

You hardly ever see pictures of men carrying women in their arms these days, but once upon a time such pictures made up 71.32% of all illustrations in women's magazines.

 John Gannam

Austin Briggs ad for business travel by train: bring your wife along and have a second honeymoon

Readers of Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, Cosmopolitan and McCall's all seemed to love these pictures.



R.G. Harris








Ed Vebell
"Beautiful, overprivileged Elizabeth Matthews"
in the strong arms of  escapee Donovan


Then, sometime around the middle of the 20th century, such illustrations became extinct.  Why?

Leonard Starr

Apparently, women realized they could travel faster, and usually in a better direction, by walking on their own two feet.

Of course, there could be other explanations for why these illustrations were so popular with women.  If you accompany a man to the cave of the winds, being carried gives you deniability about assent.  In a subtler era, ambiguity about assent could play a significant role in your relationship with the man, or with your mother.  In the second half of the 20th century, ambiguity would become less important.

Or perhaps these illustrations began to lose their charm as women looked at this same theme in men's magazine illustrations, and realized what was going on in the heads of the lummoxes who were carrying them:

Norman Saunders
Regardless of physical strength, women often ended up doing the heavy lifting anyway.

If you look at the old illustrations of men carrying women, you see that (politics aside) there was  a lot of room for play and psychology as a result of the fact that nature had endowed one sex with the physical strength to lift the other.

But whatever the reason, those nuances are no longer of much interest, so neither are the illustrations.

The end of the demand for such pictures (rather than the invention of television) may be the real reason for the shrinking illustration market.