Thursday, January 04, 2018

SOME THINGS I LIKE ABOUT H. J. MOWAT

At the end of last year I offered one lovely drawing by an illustrator you've never heard of, H. J. Mowat.   Mowat has been lost in the sea of anonymous illustrators of the 1920s and 30s who worked in the loose, scribbly fashion of the day.  But I think he was really good.

To give him a fair chance, I promised some commenters I'd show a broader range of his work.

 


Mowat's pictures may seem a little fuzzy compared to today's sharper, hard edge fashions.  But plenty of mediocre illustrators can make sharp pictures of fuzzy concepts.  It's harder to create successful fuzzy pictures of sharp concepts.  

Take for example the drawing, "She used to come into the Petrovski barracks and empty her pistols into the poor devils who wouldn't bend."


I think this is a well staged picture, with selective use of lights and contrasts to direct your eye.  The figures are well posed and integrated to show how the professional soldiers are queasy about the bloodthirsty woman.  But most importantly, Mowat has made some highly unusual but smart choices: the "poor devil" has no face yet Mowat chose to emphasize his cowlick (which conveys his rumpled condition).  Also without drawing a face, Mowat shows us that the man's chin is raised by positioning his ears.


Just as Mowat drew rumpled hair, the man's clothing is one big wrinkle.  He has a defiant tilt to his head combine with a posture of resignation waiting for the bullet.  Mowat did not focus on the facial expression, which would preoccupy a more obvious illustrator.  For me, this is excellent, subtle drawing.

Note how, in 1927, ordinary Saturday Evening Post readers were presumed to be cultured enough to know the lyrics to Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado." 
Mowat used a bag of tricks to compensate for the cheap paper and primitive black and white printing of his era.  His medium would not permit him to display a blushing cheek or a steely glint in the eye, but he seemed to make maximum use of a tilt of the head.  






Many of the illustrators of the 1920s are best forgotten, but I think H. J. Mowat is one worth remembering.



62 comments:

Aleš said...

I like the image 8/10 with that lamp that looks like a mystical moon. I've read on Ebay that "...his slowness and reliance on (well-paid) models made it impossible to make a living so he left the field." Is that true? How did he earn living after that?

Tom said...

Hi David

I like the way the darker figure sets of the lighter figures (who tend to be the most important character in the drawings). And the spotting of lights in a generally dark field. Like two points on a line segment the figures and the light hold each other in balance. I especially like the line of sight he gives the viewer in the execution scene. The eye rushes to the light along the alley way he has provided for the viewer between the woman and the man about to be shot. The victim and his gaze then returns the eye back to the woman down a path that is implied between the two figures. I get the same feel in the first drawing with the sun balancing the two figures on the left hand side and directing the eye back to the face of the man and the only two figures in light the man and the tree.

Does a simple dramatic narrative lend itself to making good pictures, when all the elements of a story pre define character and motive? The stories themselves almost seem to force an aesthetic arrangement and are a easily graspable motivating force to pictorial composition.

Thanks for posting these.

Tom said...

Are they pencil drawings? Or what material did he use to draw with?

James Gurney said...

Walt Reed notes that Mowat spent so much on models that he scarcely broke even. Mowat said: "My medium is a piece of white paper and a black pencil. Sometimes a bit of dirt from the floor. I'm at it from early morning until far into the night. I haven't known the meaning of true peace of mind for years, but I infinitely prefer the uncertainties and struggles of the illustrator to any other game on earth."

Donald Pittenger said...

I wonder how much the screening process increased any initial fuzziness. Clearly "slicks" had finer screens than newspapers or "pulps," but it would be revealing if any Mowat originals turned up.

Regardless, unearthing Mowat was a real "get," David: he was never in range of my radar.

kev ferrara said...

Many of Mowat's pictures read well at first glance and have nice, fun melodramatic figural attitudes and emotions. That's his strong suit. The few value arrangements he learned from Gruger also work fine. He reminds me of some of the behind-the-scenes artists working for Disney at the time.

If there is any ready explanation for why Mowat got creamed by modelling fees, it's because he simply couldn't draw well. His struggles with basic anatomy, even basic drawing, are written all over his pictures. As soon as the first glance is over, I find it a chore to linger. This is not art for the ages. Not to harp on this, but most illustrators I know could easily knock out a good hand, in line, from the model, in a minute's time. Hands are the canary in the coal mine; if I don't see good hands, I smell gas. And there isn't a single well executed hand in the lot. (Even "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way" insisted on the essential skills of rendering faces and hands.)

I think the more Mowat struggled to be Gruger (with a dash of Raleigh or Grant Reynard) instead of actually learning anatomy, or actually observing nature, the more he fudged and fudged, day in and day out, undoubtedly driving himself nuts with self-frustration in the process.

David Apatoff said...

Aleš -- I haven't been able to find a lot about Mowat's life, other than that neat quote that James Gurney found in Walt Reed's book. It sounds from that quote like Mowat was not likely to give up the life of an illustrator, even if it left him impoverished. I'm impressed that you found information on ebay, that's not a source I would've checked.

Tom-- Thanks, I like your analysis of the drawings. (By the way, these are drawn with some form of graphite, but I've never seen a Mowat original to tell whether they are exclusively pencil). As for the narrative content, I'm not sure it compels any particular artistic solution but I was struck by the way those sentences reach out and grab you. In a more literate age, those Post stories were really quite skillful.

James Gurney-- Thanks for adding a great quote. I love that part about dirt from the floor. It sounds like Mowat was self-aware and knew what he wanted.

David Apatoff said...

Donald Pittenger-- That's a legitimate question about the screening process. It's hard to tell, although some of the pen and ink illustrations from the same period can be pretty sharp and crisp. I'm guessing that most of that fuzziness was deliberate.

Kev Ferrara-- I understand your inclination to use the hand as a litmus test. It's a good one, as demonstrated by the great Al Dorne, Robert Fawcett or Mort Drucker. But I'm sure you'll agree that it's not the only test. There were excellent illustrators, such as Harold von Schmidt and Noel Sickles, who thought the ability to draw a horse well was the ultimate test of an artist. I concur that none of the hands in these pictures are well articulated, but few of the faces are well articulated either. That apparently wasn't Mowat's approach.

I think the example of the face that I highlighted displays impressive anatomical knowledge without articulation. By emphasizing the ears and placing them so low, he elevates that chin in a very sophisticated way. The top of the head shows that Mowat understands the structure of the skull, despite the fact the sides of the head are two basic, simplified lines. The nose is just a vertical smudge, there are no eyes or mouth, Yet I think it is a subtler, more interesting head than what Raleigh or Gruger would normally invent.

I think Mowat did a very good job with body language, and shape, and folds. And I agree with you that they are fun in a melodramatic way-- something that's hard to come by these days. All in all, I wouldn't put Mowat in the same league as Gruger or Raleigh, but that still puts him ahead of 50 other illustrators for the Post.

Aleš said...

David, yes, I checked the Ebay because I wondered about the price of his originals.
Regarding the materials one of the seller writes "... done in graphite and a little ink wash."

kev ferrara said...

There were excellent illustrators, such as Harold von Schmidt and Noel Sickles, who thought the ability to draw a horse well was the ultimate test of an artist.

Actually, I would agree that the ability to draw a horse well is a kind of ultimate test for an artist. The ability to draw a hand well is more of a minimum test.

"Sophisticated..." "Impressive..." "Interesting.."

Unsophisticated... unimpressive... uninteresting... #ArgumentbyAdjective

it is a subtler, more interesting head than what Raleigh or Gruger would normally invent.

He put the ears on the neck, put a dot for the nose, then plopped a curved Ed Grimley on top to give it some expression. It's called cartooning.

I think the example of the face that I highlighted displays impressive anatomical knowledge without articulation.

I think you are confusing expressiveness with proper anatomical relationships and understanding. Same thing happened with that weird limp Tomer figure. You thought it was good anatomy because you liked the cartooning of it. I think we're learning something here.

I think we can agree that Mowat's cartooning is quite good. In that light, he's really more of a closeted Kurtzman than a Dunning-Kruger Gruger.

chris bennett said...

My own feelings are that these illustrations would not be much improved with firmer articulation of the anatomy, including the extremities. Judging by the illustrations themselves I believe the shortcoming to be irrelevant to this artist's purpose. Many late Michelangelo drawings of torsos spout limbs that are little more than branches fading into twigs, yet remain fabulous performances of plastic expression. Of course, artistically, Mowat isn't even in the same room as Michelangelo, but I consider the principle to be the same.

kev ferrara said...

My own feelings are that these illustrations would not be much improved with firmer articulation of the anatomy, including the extremities.

Maybe not. And, as Cartoonoscuro; as works of narrative design, they're not bad. I like them at first glance.

But, just to clarify, my issue was never with "articulation" per se, a word that David introduced. My issue is really much more generally about suggestion, and its necessary foundation in knowledge and specificity. As Harvey Dunn said to his students, "You can paint it as loose as you want, so long as you know exactly what it is."

I don't think Mowat knows exactly what it is he's drawing fully half the time. I don't think he knows what kind of tree or vine it is, or what's on the ground outside; whether there's leaves or gravel or dirt or groundcover, what kind of stones are being used for the patio tiles, whether the pot he's sketching is tin or copper or iron, whether the bars are metal or wood, whether the pillar is plaster or marble, whether the skirt is cotton or wool, whether the furniture is oak or mahogany, victorian, country or colonial, etc.

Such vagueness is often part of the process of feeling things out, of moving from design to realization. Of course. But I feel he never gets past this design stage; he never quite realizes what he's saying, so to speak.

There is every possibility that none of this matters to anybody but me. I'm simply trying to dig down into the work and find out why I am bothered by it so much.

chris bennett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chris bennett said...

I take your point Kev, and I do have sympathy with what is nagging you about these illustrations. And while I agree some of it stems from lack of knowledge behind what is suggested, I’m none too certain that this knowledge always entails the degree of literalness or comprehensiveness you seem to recommend.

For example; let’s say I've just had a walk along an avenue of trees on a windy winter afternoon and want to make a painting about it. I feel I can picture the scene pretty clearly in my mind's eye, but on reflection discover when 'zooming in' on anything specific most of it evaporates into a notional generality. I might, let’s say, sense a tree to my left but I have no idea what species it is, let alone what precise form it has. Would driving back in the car and visiting the same spot to collect this information necessarily help with the painting I had in mind? Maybe, but not inevitably, because, for me at least, I find that recollection of a situation is chiefly a haptic experience of space and its furniture as if I had been inside a transparent sculpture. In other words; we recall space with far more fidelity than we do comprehensive details about its content. No doubt this is a product of our evolutionary survival.

As we both, and I hope others here, agree, the camera cannot photograph experience. So the real subject of any painting is the condition of experience. And this is defined or shaped by what presses most on out recollection of it - which is not the comprehensive specifics of an event but more to do with what our minds can readily, naturally and selectively recollect. And I believe this is so even when ‘the event’ is an imaginary one, which is, anyway, ultimately a selective synthesis of previous experience.

Anonymous said...

Kev what do you think about illustrators like Ludwig Bemelmans?

JSL

kev ferrara said...

So the real subject of any painting is the condition of experience. And this is defined or shaped by what presses most on out recollection of it - which is not the comprehensive specifics of an event but more to do with what our minds can readily, naturally and selectively recollect. And I believe this is so even when ‘the event’ is an imaginary one, which is, anyway, ultimately a selective synthesis of previous experience.

Firstly I don't understand "comprehensive details" or "comprehensive specifics." Those are oxymorons to me. As I understand the term, a comprehension is a conception that encompasses the relevant specifics of an inquiry, such that they are bundled into a single understanding.

Secondly, my experience of imagination and memory is of various visceral and emotional sensations, not just haptic. Included are details, movements, sounds, conversations, etc.

Thirdly, with the above pull quote, which resembles the Pyle philosophy, and to some extent early Romanticism leading into early modernism, I'm not sure you are contradicting anything I've said.

Overall, I think the main point that you may be missing is that every experience is nested within larger experiences, while being built of smaller experiences. The larger experiences contextualize the smaller, and the smaller orchestrate the larger.

kev ferrara said...

Kev what do you think about illustrators like Ludwig Bemelmans?

I loved William Steig's Bad Island as a child. Then one day in my teens I looked back on it, and it was dead. All the magic had gone from its pages. Which is to say, a certain innocence had gone from me. I had changed and couldn't go back. I remember those early experiences of Bad Island vividly, but I can no longer get that experience from the actual book.

If Bemelmans' work gives that same kind of magical experience to children, it is effective. I didn't see it until long after I grew up, so I can't determine its worth to children.

But let's presume that many children find Bemelmans' work wonderful. One might say, for them it is Good Art. Since I don't personally find it sensually effective or engrossing, one might say to me it is Bad Art. The relativists would chalk this up to different audiences, or mere taste, or even cultural bias. They might say that so long as it is Good Art for somebody, it is Good Art.

To those relativists I recommend a child's diet of soda, cookies and ice cream, board games like chutes and ladders, daily day-long tag games in the mud, and relentless feel good bedtime stories. With the hope that they'll either die, go insane, or learn something so basic no adult should ever have to explain it to another adult.

chris bennett said...

Kev,

I used the phrase 'comprehensive details' to mean 'every detail that was part of the event' that is being recalled. I did so because I am aware that while recollection of an experience does contain details that directed our attention they are an infinitesimal fraction of all that comprised it. In other words, what presses most on our sense of fidelity to a remembered event is our haptic overview of it.

This begs the question as to how many recalled specifics about a past experience (real or imagined) are necessary to invoke it in the creation of a work of art compared to the plastic thrust of its "larger orchestration".

It is for this reason I think areas of plastic expression within a work that are unspecific as to what they represent in reality, even for the artist who is making them, do not necessarily weaken the work as a whole. And for an artist to assign specifics to such areas could be antagonistic to the potency, the immediacy, the fidelity of the experience in question.

David Apatoff said...

Aleš --I think that was very enterprising of you. My hat's off to your resourceful research.

Kev Ferrara wrote:
"Actually, I would agree that the ability to draw a horse well is a kind of ultimate test for an artist."

Two other artists who apparently felt that way were Frederick Remington and William A. Smith. I don't know if it's the ultimate test, but I think a lot of illustrators tried to fake it, which irritated the ones who invested the time and knew what they were doing.

"He put the ears on the neck, put a dot for the nose, then plopped a curved Ed Grimley on top to give it some expression. It's called cartooning."

Because this point is not just a matter of personal taste, it should be something we can address fairly objectively. I think those ears only look like they're on his neck because his head is tilted back. The higher the chin, the lower the ears behind it. That's not the observation of an everyday cartoonist; it's the kind of feature for which artists blow a lot of money on models. I agree Mowat put a dot for the nose; I think that's a better choice than putting two dots for nostrils. But as for the "Ed Grimley," I think we have to ask ourselves, "why?" It's such an unusual choice, like Thoreau's "trout in the milk." No art teacher would instruct you to skip the eyes and mouth to focus instead on a cowlick. Only an opinionated artist with an innovative view on how to show a bedraggled "poor devil" would make a choice like that.

On the subject of cartooning vs. drawing, it is a distinction you've drawn in other situations, and I may not fully appreciate your view of the difference. We've talked about "cartoons" as the preliminary drawings of Michelangelo and "cartoons" as the finished drawings of Saul Steinberg. Personally, I like cartoons, so some of the stigma you intend may be falling on deaf ears.

Chris Bennett-- I agree with your point about Michelangelo. Other more recent examples of the same phenomenon include Degas and Matisse whose "fabulous performances of plastic expression" include numerous examples of nondescript, almost amorphous hands very similar to the ones by Mowat in the samples I've reproduced.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: As Harvey Dunn said to his students, "You can paint it as loose as you want, so long as you know exactly what it is."

I have great sympathy for Dunn's view-- one of the reasons I've touted Bernie Fuchs on this blog is that his broad, loose, almost abstract treatments still leave no doubt that he knows "exactly what it is." (For example, note the Kennedy, golf and football examples here: https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2017/05/the-old-house-on-tanglewood-lane-part-3.html ). But there are other artists such as Degas or Rodin whose later drawings don't always reveal that they know "exactly what it is," even though we know from broader experience that they do. In other words, I could show you a hand drawn by Degas or Rodin that is visually indistinguishable from the kind of hands drawn by Mowat. So if you believe that a work of art must stand alone, without an explanatory text or back story, I don't know how you apply Dunn's standard as a practical matter to separate wheat from chaff.

The test becomes even more problematic because the boundaries of art have been challenged since Dunn's day by sincere, imaginative artists who've experimented and paid a heavy price to come up with valid alternatives to Dunn's standard. They would argue, with some legitimacy, that in an age of quantum physics, it is Dunn who doesn't know "exactly what it is" that he's looking at. There's a larger and more complex reality out there that is just as worthy of comment as the bone structure of the human hand. Artists such as Raoul Dufy or Matisse were working during Dunn's lifetime but there were also artists who came along later, such as Jean Dubuffet (who I've written about here) who I believe do beautiful work, despite the fact that you cannot tell whether they were able to draw a human hand.

Chris Bennett--Once again, I agree. And to carry your metaphor a little further, even a photograph of your windy avenue might not contain facts about that tree to your left. The depth of field will inevitably make some details sharp and other details fuzzy. The mechanical nature of the reproduction process doesn't spare the photographer from prioritizing what he or she wants in focus and what he or she is willing to let go.

Anonymous / JSL- I can't say I'm a big Bemelmans fan myself but I think your point is a good one. I think greater structural precision or accuracy would only have hindered those illustrations and spoiled their dreamlike qualities.

kev ferrara said...

The higher the chin, the lower the ears behind it. That's not the observation of an everyday cartoonist; it's the kind of feature for which artists blow a lot of money on models.

That's a starting observation; chin higher, ears lower. Further observation would include: That the ears don't fall off the skull and end up on the neck when the chin is up. That the helix of the ear doesn't rip away from the temporal muscle/bone in real life anatomy. That the back of the skull in foreshortened front view doesn't suddenly disappear, resulting in a V-shaped head. A moment with a mirror will show that Mowat is cartooning without real anatomical knowledge/memory. Nor, apparently, with a mirror in his art studio through which to make even modest observations. Google:images will also work (try "head tilted back")

On the subject of cartooning vs. drawing, it is a distinction you've drawn in other situations, and I may not fully appreciate your view of the difference. We've talked about "cartoons" as the preliminary drawings of Michelangelo and "cartoons" as the finished drawings of Saul Steinberg. Personally, I like cartoons, so some of the stigma you intend may be falling on deaf ears.

This has nothing to do with stigma. I like cartoons as well.

This has to do with distinguishing between informed anatomy and bluffed anatomy. You have recently, twice now in fact, described bluffed anatomy as informed. I'm simply trying to keep things honest.

kev ferrara said...

The real issue may be pretension.

A good cartoonist knows his whole shebang is expression. He isn't going to draw an adam's apple unless it's part of gag. He could care less about a femur or a neck muscle or the sculpting of a fold on a dress shirt or the color of the ambient light bouncing around the room. And rightly so. A cartoonist isn't trying to ground us, he's trying to entertain. Which requires buoyancy. He lives fully in a dream world that only thinks of mud and blood as opportunities for comedy.

Mowat is pretending to express anatomical and material details through a filter of knowledge. He is pretending to ground his cartoons, and he fails. If he didn't pretend, I would have no qualm about his work. I might even adore it, as I adore Kurtzman.

They would argue, with some legitimacy, that in an age of quantum physics, it is Dunn who doesn't know "exactly what it is" that he's looking at.

This is your defense of Mowat's fudged drawing?

Speaking of pretension. I remember reading Guitar for the Practicing Musician in the early 90s. Several neo-classical metal virtuosos wrote technical articles about Jimi Hendrix's playing style. Inevitably Paganini was referenced.

Tom said...

Maybe it's Mowart's failure to create clearer or cleaner specific shapes. After all anatomy is way for an artist to understand what he is seeing so he can better define or give from to the shape of the body. Planes are a great aid to defining form. As is seeing a clear pattern in the internal relations of an object. It tends to make for a much stronger silhouettes.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I'm not sure how you can say that "this has nothing to do with stigma" and then accuse Mowat of pretension, bluffing and fudged drawing. I'd hate to see what happens if you ever start to haul out pejorative terms.

I think that the term "bluffed anatomy" assumes facts not in evidence, as the trial lawyers say. What do you see in the drawing that proves Mowat's intent is to bluff rather than to achieve some other goal? Would you say that Rodin's rubbery, non-vertebrate figure drawings and watercolors were "bluffing"? Would you say that Degas' and Toulouse Lautrec's drawings where an arm ends in a wispy crude paw were "bluffing"? Was Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon "bluffing"? I think you could just as easily say that what you call "cartoon anatomy" is simplified and stylized, or folded into larger concerns, such as what Chris Bennett described as "performances of plastic expression" or what you call "The larger experiences [which] contextualize the smaller."

As for my reference to quantum physics: I'm about as much of an empiricist as it's still possible to be in the 21st century. I'm willing to continue to milk the obsolete Newtonian universe for all it's worth. Recognizing that the sun has set on the age of reason, I nevertheless conduct my daily affairs "as if" reason still governs. Even after being confronted with the undeniable truths of multiculturalism, I still continue to put my thumb on the scale for reading the western canon. After the electorate votes for a gibbering idiot who slips in and out of reality with the consistency of a subatomic particle, I continue to cling to the notion that objectivity and consistency have a role to play in the governance of citizens. So you won't find a more patient ally than me for the proposition that the disciplined appreciation of natural forms, as they appear to our naked eye, is a worthy pursuit.

Despite all that, I think there is no longer a singular answer to what Dunn calls "exactly what it is." There were artists who survived the insanity of World War I or who witnessed the speed of the space age or who looked through a microscope or who felt threatened by our nuclear future, or even who just looked at the ability of a simple camera to capture so much of "exactly what it is" that they sized up the rules of academic painting and said, "unh unh, that path eats up too much of my life and leaves too much unaddressed; I'll take some of what it has to offer but I won't devote every waking minute to it, the way grandpappy Dunn did, because I have to leave room for contending with newer, important realities.

I'm not even saying that Dunn doesn't know "exactly what it is" that he is seeing, I'm just saying that's not ALL that it is.

kev ferrara said...

David...

I think I was clearer than you pretend. Or you're determined to not meet me halfway. Or your train is just not pulling into the station. Either way, I'll try to restate so that even a lawyer can understand...

I meant that the word cartooning has no stigma attached to it. Cartooning is fine and can be wonderful. In the same way that a limerick has no stigma attached to it. Limericks are fine and can be wonderful.

The actual question we're battling over is; What constitutes bluffing? Or pretension? Both words, I believe justly, are pejorative. (Whether such judgments 'stigmatize' is definitionally a matter of whether they stick. Although, of course, dumb people will believe whatever they hear more than once. But I can't help that.)

Good cartoons do not bluff. They pretend nothing. It takes years and years for a cartoonist to develop his own particular style; which consists in his personal conventions and almost nothing else. 'Conventions' being clean visual symbols one develops and uses in place of more realistic signification.

Nobody looks at Kurtzman, Gross, Charles Schultz, or Hieroglyphics and says, "Well, that person is pretending to know anatomy!"

And that's because accurate anatomy is mostly dispensed with. It isn't even roughly indicated in most instances. Having conventions converts the problem of realism into a much more manageable problem for cartoonists. In some instances where the conventions become highly abstracted, a cartoonist's work can become pictographic, approaching the nature of text.

This 'cartoon ethic' is both necessary for the cartoonist's success and qualitatively (and then by necessity quantitatively) distinct from more realistic attempts at narrative art.

Although obviously, any number of more realistic illustrators also have their own conventions they've developed and use. But I would submit, these come into practice at a much lower level of abstraction, and often at the level of technique. (as for example the Leonard Starr types. Or Franklin Booth. Or Virgil Finlay, who sucks.)

Once anything has been established as a convention, it tends to get little if any further thought. It is an arrow in the quiver, ready to fire at a moment's notice in the heat of battle. And this is why conventions, as necessary as they are, quickly become artistically stale and pass into the realm of dogma or cliché. Because they are mechanical rather than organic. They resist rather than respond to the ideas and changes which surround them. Which results in disunity.

This, I would submit, makes conventions qualitatively inferior to fresh observation, imagination, and consideration.

kev ferrara said...

All good art uses suggestion. The reason anatomy is ever "roughly indicated" is because it can be more suggestive and engrossing to render in that way. Moreso than the stiff over-rendered realism, where nothing is left to the viewer to interpret or complete.

But rough indication, like all suggestions, can be informed or uninformed. One type of uninformed suggestion results simply in vagueness. Another signifies bluffing/pretension. The latter is what interests me here and I would characterize it as opposite to what I had mentioned above that great cartoonists do. Namely that while great cartoonists utterly dispense with indications of refined anatomy, bluffers suggestively indicate anatomical information without actually supplying that information. The bluff is called when the indicated suggestion fails to achieve effortless closure in the mind. Poor suggestion is another way to describe it.

Mowat's work is filled with such shell games. Sometimes you look deeper and you find fudge. Sometimes, surprise, you find a suggestion that yields a symbol/cartoon.

I'm not even saying that Dunn doesn't know "exactly what it is" that he is seeing, I'm just saying that's not ALL that it is.

I think I'm well versed in the nature of abstraction. That, for instance, there are hierarchies or scales of abstraction. As I said to Chris earlier, every event is nested within a larger event, and every event is built of smaller events. The larger event provides context and the smaller events provide orchestration. This thought is worth dwelling on, but is not really part of the present discussion. Nor are your scientistic references. We can be fairly certain that Mowat would have been much more keen on what Harvey Dunn had to say than Dirac.

kev ferrara said...

Chris,

I am confused by your use of the word haptic. I wouldn't call one's imaginative sense of space or light or movement or blocking 'haptic.'

I think areas of plastic expression within a work that are unspecific as to what they represent in reality, even for the artist who is making them, do not necessarily weaken the work as a whole. And for an artist to assign specifics to such areas could be antagonistic to the potency, the immediacy, the fidelity of the experience in question.

"Could" is the right word. "May not" also applies. The question is when does specificity hurt and when might it help? Since F.R. Gruger is the artist Mowat wished he was, there is an education to be had in parsing their qualitative differences. Which is what I have been attempting to do.

kev ferrara said...

As for my reference to quantum physics: I'm about as much of an empiricist as it's still possible to be in the 21st century. I'm willing to continue to milk the obsolete Newtonian universe for all it's worth. Recognizing that the sun has set on the age of reason, I nevertheless conduct my daily affairs "as if" reason still governs. Even after being confronted with the undeniable truths of multiculturalism, I still continue to put my thumb on the scale for reading the western canon.

Charles Sanders Peirce asserted that Alexander Bain's definition of belief was the true origin of Pragmatism: "Belief is that upon which a man is prepared to act."

If you believe this definition, the following holds: If you act as a reason-based pragmatist/modernist who believes in the qualitative superiority of the Western Canon, you are not actually the postmodernist multiculturalist your information diet keeps browbeating you to be. So you might want to change your information diet accordingly.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- Well, let's see whether my "train is just not pulling into the station" or whether it's possible your tracks are out.

As I understand it, you're saying that your pejorative terms such as "pretension" and "bluffing" and "fudged drawing" and "shell games" aren't aimed at cartooning in general, only to Mowat's pretentious form of cartoons. (You note, "If he didn't pretend, I would have no qualm about his work. I might even adore it, as I adore Kurtzman.")

So basically, cartoons can be "fine and wonderful" as long as they know their place and don't violate Ferrara's "cartoon ethic" by aspiring to something above their station. If a cartoonist is content to "entertain" us with his "buoyancy" and isn't mistakenly "trying to ground us," then sheriff Ferrara will know into which corral they should be herded. Cartoonists must "only think of mud and blood as opportunities for comedy," nothing more. And heaven help the cartoonist who masquerades as an illustrator and thereby fools the art director of the country's leading illustrated magazine into hiring him.

Kev, you'd make a first class legislator; they could set you to work on the code of federal regulations and you could do a brilliant job labeling and categorizing things and articulating the principles that should govern their behavior. But I think you make two errors which experienced legislators know to avoid: first, to have a viable regulation the standard for distinguishing one class of items from another has to be more objective and concrete than mere intention. If you say that somebody has crossed a line because he has "pretensions" or is "bluffing" you end up with a subjective standard that is impossible to administer consistently. (If the sheriff in Chicago thinks a cartoonist is bluffing and the sheriff in Phoenix thinks the cartoonist isn't, you just end up with circular and unproductive arguments.)

The second flaw is that wise legislators never try to police factors that are beyond their control; they just end up looking impotent and it undermines the rule of law. For example, the US Congress may huff and puff about regulating the internet, and even give cogent reasons why it should be done, but they're not foolhardy enough to attempt it because the global technology has already jumped the fence and is beyond their command. Like King Canute, you can explain all you want to cartoonists and illustrators what their respective roles are, and admonish them that they should "pretend nothing," but I fear the arts are too robust and organic for legislation. Anyone who seeks to police a rule to keep artists-- whether cartoonist, illustrator or fine artist-- from "pretending" is destined to have his heart broken. Artists are among the world's great pretenders.

P.S.-- it may be that my "scientistic references" aren't worth reflecting upon, but I tried to offer a cross section of factors why traditional academic painting became too confining in the 20th century-- not just the scientific revolution that ended the domain of Newtonian physics, but changes in intellectual history, changes in culture, changes in economic competition (from the camera),changes in the nature of doom itself (from an individual phenomenon to a global phenomenon). That's more than mere scientistic references. I think it's just plain unrealistic to think we can keep picture making pruned, like a bonsai tree, to its 19th century dimensions.

kev ferrara said...

So basically, cartoons can be "fine and wonderful" as long as they know their place and don't violate Ferrara's "cartoon ethic" by aspiring to something above their station.

Settle down there Mother Jones.

Pretty sure you didn't understand me technically, given what you're writing. Or you're just deliberately conflating different phrases of mine in ways I never meant or intended, to make a better Piñata. (Also, your emotional conjugation of "fudging" to "aspiring" is hilariously daft.)

I get it. You're an avowed champion of the cartoonist. For you, cartooning is not just a recipe for fun, but, by golly, Otto Soglow is every bit Titian's equal! Right?

Not that you can prove this to be so. But you simply will not countenance any argument that even attempts to prove it is not so. And that limbo of nonjudgmentalism is good enough to keep the jury hung. At least in some dim moral recess in your mind.

But we both know: In this matter of artistic quality, you have consistently blocked the way of inquiry; the hallmark of unreason. Unreason being a fair characterization of the belief that sensible, meaningful artistic judgments can be made without being founded on sound principles.

I think it's just plain unrealistic to think we can keep picture making pruned, like a bonsai tree, to its 19th century dimensions.

You'll make a good television lawyer some day. You're sure to trounce your opponent's points, even if you have to make them up yourself.

I really enjoy these discussion, by the way. I feel like I'm constantly pulling teeth that grow back overnight.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Pretty sure you didn't understand me technically, given what you're writing. Or you're just deliberately conflating different phrases of mine in ways I never meant or intended."

...Or a third possibility is that I'm just trying to follow those railroad tracks you laid down.

Let's face it, blog comments are an inherently unsatisfactory way to compare notes on visual images. If we were sitting around a table together I could point to a dozen hands by Degas that are virtually indistinguishable from Mowat's. Then you could explain that it doesn't matter that the hands look physically identical because you are able to sense the underlying intentions of the competing artists, or you could point to the the artist who was grounding when he should have been entertaining. Then we could both have a warm laugh over your intellectual gerrymandering and drink a nice glass of cabernet.

chris bennett said...

Kev,

(I think it's safe to come out; the tussle between you and David seems to have died down)

I am confused by your use of the word haptic. I wouldn't call one's imaginative sense of space or light or movement or blocking 'haptic.'

To quote myself: "I find that recollection of a situation is chiefly a haptic experience of space and its furniture as if I had been inside a transparent sculpture." Our haptic experience of a conventional sculpture is communicated to our sense of touch by way of 'space, light, movement and blocking'. So this sense of experiencing an environment as if inside a 'transparent sculpture' is communicated through my five senses (or is it six?) in the same way. And my emotional recollection of it feels closer to a sense of articulated space than it does to a list of topographical specifics.

Although I have been nudged, understandably, a little off-piste here I think remains a component to the Mowat question; "when does specificity hurt and when might it help?"

Tom said...

David said
‘I could point to a dozen hands by Degas that are virtually indistinguishable from Mowat's.’

The thing that distinguishes a Degas or a Michaelanglo is what precedes the incomplete limb. The reasons for leaving off or only indicating the limb could be many but the preceding forearm and upper arm and even the torso are already telling the viewer what the incomplete form is doing it’s position in space. Something my be incomplete or lack finish but that dosn’r mean it’s not clear. As the Chinese say about there brush painting the object is painted without ever having laid a brush mark to it.

kev ferrara said...

This reminds me of that famous Kissinger quote about Academia, "The battles were so bitter because the stakes were so low."

If we were sitting around a table together I could point to a dozen hands by Degas that are virtually indistinguishable from Mowat's.

Yep, you might be able to find a few backgrounded figures in Degas' work that had hands similarly inarticulate to that of every single main figure appearing in Mowat's. What would that prove? That Degas' worst is equivalent to Mowat's best?

Wait.... Just did a simple google search. The first twenty Degas I saw were filled with beautiful, subtle, suggestive hand-work. Ah, the ol' Argument by Gaslighting trick! You TV lawyers are so tricky!

you are able to sense the underlying intentions of the competing artists, or you could point to the the artist who was grounding when he should have been entertaining. Then we could both have a warm laugh over your intellectual gerrymandering and drink a nice glass of cabernet.

If you were as sensitive to art as you are to the tactical intricacies of argument, you'd be in a different profession. For each of us, there exists the possibility that there are whole classes of information toward which we are either insensitive, blind, or ignorant. Such is the breeding ground of paranoia.

kev ferrara said...

By the way, on the topic of Postmodernism, and as an antidote to the notion that all is lost in the world of reason, I would recommend this recorded discussion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oyzSrtr6oJE

Anonymous said...

Has anyone ever caused you to cede a point or rethink a position in a debate ?

kev ferrara said...

Contribute, anon. Sniping is infantile. Contribute.

David Apatoff said...

Tom wrote: "The thing that distinguishes a Degas or a Michaelanglo is what precedes the incomplete limb."

I agree. Mowat is certainly no Degas. (Neither, of course is Harvey Dunn).


Kev Ferrara wrote: "Yep, you might be able to find a few backgrounded figures in Degas' work that had hands similarly inarticulate to that of every single main figure appearing in Mowat's. What would that prove? That Degas' worst is equivalent to Mowat's best?
Wait.... Just did a simple google search. The first twenty Degas I saw were filled with beautiful, subtle, suggestive hand-work. Ah, the ol' Argument by Gaslighting trick! You TV lawyers are so tricky! "

Aw c'mon, Kev-- you're seriously going to do this to me after what I just wrote about visual examples on a blog? OK, when I do a "simple google search" for Degas' drawings, I immediately see dozens of drawings where Degas was content to leave the hands on the the main figure-- or the only figure-- in the same state where Mowat left his hands. I have no way to scoop up jpegs and show them here, but for a start here are ten examples in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum alone:

https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/333809
https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436135?
https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436136?
https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436137?
https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/359361?
https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/350283?
https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/334326?
https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/334424?
https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/358797?

You're welcome.

Anonymous-- Rethink a position? Constantly. That's one of the primary reasons for doing this. And I'm educated by readers all the time, often by the suggestion of artists or pictures I didn't know, or books or videos I hadn't seen. Cede a point? Occasionally, although some of that happens off line because the limitations of this comment format means that more focused discussions are easier in email.

kev ferrara said...

David,

Let the record show that you stink.

You went out of your way to find a batch of utterly obscure, dashed-off, putrid sketches from the wastebasket of Degas's studio which were probably never meant to see the light of day.

And you want the jury (the gathered rubber-neckers, dead-enders, masochists, blog lurkers, and confused aficianados) to compare those scraps to the very crown jewels of Mowat's illustrative output in THE national magazine of his time as selected by you personally? The works Mowat spent his peak moments as an artist creating?

Wow. You literally acted out my point; you tried to make a case by finding the very worst of Degas and comparing it the very best of Mowat. This makes you, to be absolutely honest, a coo-coo puss! (Which is even worse than a TV Lawyer.)

Somebody back me up on this. We have to save David from his reality distortion field. (Plus, we might actually get him to "cede a point" live on the air.)

Aleš said...

I won't provide anything new here, I'll just describe what I can see (so the Universe will know).

There are many unpleasant mistakes in Mowat's drawings that are simply mistakes. Legs of a man are too long (image 2/10), woman's neck is too long (6/10), man's head is too small (7/10) and woman's jaw looks like a bottom on an iron (9/10). These things could be acceptable in a much more stylized visualization, but Mowat's illustrations are relatively realistic so these anatomical deviations feel like a mistake. Some of them also attract too much attention, like that woman's giant jaw.

I feel similar regarding hands which Kev criticized many times. I don't have a problem with squiggly lines or minimal amount of marks that define the hand's shape, what bothers me is the arrangement of rhythms/masses underneath the surface of those quick "characteristic" lines. Palms in the image 7/10, the one on her lap is too small, the size of the area between the wrist and knuckles is too small, and fingers are too short. The palm feels like a weird note in music, like it doesn't belong to the shape of the whole body. Her other palm looks beaten and gnawed. Man's forearm looks bent and his fist is too small. Or image 2/10, her palm on the floor looks childishly crude, a complete mess, while the other one on her lap seems kind of acceptable to me, the area between the wrist and knuckles has an indication of a solid shape (that sings harmonically with a shape of her face, for example) but the fingers sadly end up quite weak.

There is no artistic purpose for these anatomical conditions, they were not Mowat's thoughtful decisions, so I think if somebody fixed these things in front of him he would be pleased. David, you asked Kev "What do you see in the drawing that proves Mowat's intent is to bluff rather than to achieve some other goal?" He already answered you, I just want to say that I sometimes perform gesture lines with a hope that I'll get lucky and the anatomy will look spontaneous and rich (informed) like Sargents. But I know that I don't possess his level of anatomical knowledge. My struggles force me to be aware of that. Mowat performed quick, loose pencil marks with intention that those marks would suggest a proper hand to the viewer.

How do I know what Mowat intention was? Well, the way that his hands vary in quality among each other and especially compared to some other anatomical parts, and his failure to achieve harmony with the rest of the body/image makes me conclude that his intention was to evoke structural integrity. That's why I said that I like image 8/10, those two tables with objects behind the man have a nice solidity of material, nice texture (I could probably use Chris's word "haptic" here?) and the way that light falls over them. Woman's palm for example is a mess again and her leg is too long and straight. That's how I think I know what his intentions were and why I agree with Kev that he bluffed.

kev ferrara said...

Since David answered the question as if it were serious; Ceding points and rethinking arguments has happened to me on this site many, many times, and thousands of times in real life. I can’t count the number of times I have been completely stopped dead by a dart to the bullseye. As well, my debates with myself are rife with concessions and rethinking. And mule kicks.

There is also the problem that so much of what is said in debate is wrong in ways that are very difficult to parse. Fallacies of logic and argument pop up everywhere, and they are wily to ferret out sometimes. Quite often an entire debate can turn on a minute and subtle bit of confusion. Also facts introduced into a debate very often turn out not to be factual. Etc. This has led me to a skepticism of almost everything I and everyone else says in debate or in conversation. I take on points slowly as a result.

As well, I only have so much cognitive ability. In a complex discussion I might only come to appreciate a really strong point in its full measure after the debate is long over. And so the merit of the point; its saliency or penetration, only reveals itself to me with time. Alas, not in time to give due credit to the point-maker. My guess is this happens to all of us.

Aleš said...

Regarding your statement, David, that "Also without drawing a face, Mowat shows us that the man's chin is raised by positioning his ears" I feel that for me the true position of the head is defined by the positions of marks that stand for the eyes and a nose. Those marks describe the head to me, If I focus on the ears I hear a wrong note again because then the head seems elongated upward.

David, I know you said "I concur that none of the hands in these pictures are well articulated" and later you said that you have great sympathy for Dunn's view regarding "exactly what it is". So If Mowat's hands fail to achieve the Dunn's demands, what did you want to say by mentioning Matisse and Dubuffet? By "well articulated" did you mean merely factual anatomical articulation? Because Dunn probably wasn't talking about that, he was talking about constructional, gestural truth underneath the stylization. And as Kev said, Mowet would probably be interested in what Dunn has to say, not the other guys. Or can you tell why do you think that Mowat's intention was something that could be explained by Matisse or Dubuffet's attitude?

Aleš said...

Yeah, those Degas images are sketches and studies.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote; "You went out of your way to find a batch of utterly obscure, dashed-off, putrid sketches from the wastebasket of Degas's studio which were probably never meant to see the light of day."

Kev, you are exhausting. You claimed you were unable to find such examples, so I gave you ten from the Metropolitan, a single obvious, authoritative site. One stop shopping for your convenience. Now your grievance is that one of the greatest art museums in the world is displaying "dashed-off, putrid sketches from the wastebasket of Degas's studio."

But of course, you're wrong. If you looked at the descriptions of each drawing on the Metropolitan's website, you'd have seen that many of them are signed and some were sold by Degas' art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, during Degas' lifetime. Some are monoprints or etchings which make clear that Degas did not "dash them off," but rather worked on them extensively. (One, you'll note, is "the twelfth state of twenty-two.")

But your far bigger calumny is your suggestion that a preliminary drawing or sketch, even a "dashed off" one, is somehow disqualified from the discussion. Sure, we keep in mind that they are sketches but you know and I know that quick drawings from sketchbooks are often the most sensitive, revealing, sublime work that an artist does. I show them on this blog all the time; they're sometimes hard to get hold of, but I think they're often very worthwhile. If you want to disqualify preliminary sketches, here is another one, right down the hall from Degas at the Metropolitan:

https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/337497

Better throw that one out too.

If you're still waiting for me to produce examples of a "famous" unquestionably finished Degas, the kind they sell on posters in museum gift shops, that's easily done. You must be using one of those old fashioned wood burning google machines for your searches.

https://www.wikiart.org/en/edgar-degas/leaving-the-bath-1885-1
http://ih0.redbubble.net/image.14783003.8412/flat,550x550,075,f.u2.jpg
http://www.wikigallery.org/wiki/painting_185665/Edgar-Degas/Dancers-VII
etc., etc., etc.

Kev, at first I wondered whether this discussion was going anywhere, but now I feel a lot better knowing that, under your unblinking critical eye, not only does Mowat stink and I stink, but the Metropolitan stinks and now Degas stinks too. Not bad company to keep, I'd say.

Aleš wrote: "Yeah, those Degas images are sketches and studies."

See my response to Kev, above. I think I'm going to put my favorite saying from Seneca at the top of my blog title: "If you would judge, investigate." God knows I cite it often enough around here.

kev ferrara said...

If you want to disqualify preliminary sketches, here is another one (Michaelangelo's Libyan Sibyl drawings)

I'm presuming the implied "argument" here is that, because Michaelangelo made one really finished sketch page of hands, therefore there's no excuse for any other artist in history to be sloppier on their private sketch pages and leave hands unfinished. So therefore, if you can dig out any scribble from Degas' trashcan where he doesn't finish a hand, he's as much of a bluffer as Mowat was on his most highly refined, finished, nationally-showcased work.

This. Is. Insane. Logic.

Kev, you are exhausting. You claimed you were unable to find such examples,

You are exhausting yourself, in both senses of the phrase. I never said that!

I said that the first twenty Degas I saw on google image search (which everybody should know by now, generally corresponds, albeit loosely, to some of the most popular Degas 'hits' on the internet, thus probably his better known work) had quite beautifully done hands.

In other words, if we are comparing apples to apples, 'good' Degas with 'good' Mowat, your hand comparison falls apart.

The only way your assertion works is, as I said, if you cherry-pick 'bad' Degas or weak portions of good Degas images or quickly dashed-off sketches, and compare it to cherry-picked 'good' Mowat.

But who would bother to do that? Why would someone insist on the validity of a textbook case of a strawman argument? I don't know. I do know that you're a lawyer. And I come from a family of lawyers. And thus I know that you should know the logical fallacies by heart so as to avoid them like the plague!

I will, however, give you credit for finding some of the absolute shittiest Degas images on the face of the Earth. I've been a Degas fan since puberty, and I've never seen the kind of dreck you're digging up. I accept that some of these works were actually sold by his dealer during his lifetime, which I consider a strike against both Degas and his dealer. And the buyers, frankly.

But as I always view a great artist by his best work rather than his worst (standing in opposition to the absurdly idealistic, and corrosively hypercritical heuristic that an artist is 'only as good as the worst work he lets out the door') I will continue to think of Degas as one of the true masters of Art.

So, in conclusion, yes, it is true, that every now and then Degas will not fully work out a hand in a showpiece if he doesn't feel it will contribute. I believe I already conceded that.

It is certainly not the case that Degas fudges anywhere near every single hand in his refined "for-show" work, as Mr. Mowat does. Nor does Mowat attempt a fraction of what Degas attempts aesthetically. Thus the great calumny in any of this (beyond the snarling gotcha journalism of spotlighting the worst of a man's output to take him down a peg) is to compare Mowat to Degas at all.

Harvey Dunn, however, in my opinion, has a handful of pieces that can stand next to Degas' best.

As an aside, isn't it amazing how, even on a bone-chilling winter's night, a ludicrously time-wasting, balls-out ragefest like this can pleasantly raise one's body temperature?

kev ferrara said...

I obviously agree with Aleš' points.

I also want to say that Aleš, even though he hasn't done much finished work and has not really attempted to sell his work professionally, draws beautifully... Solid sculptural form, real sensitivity of perception, a nice eye for proportion, and a lyrical sense of light.

And, as much as people hate this kind of 'elitist' argument, I insist that people who have demonstrated artistic sensitivity, like Aleš or Chris Bennett, are better judges of it than those who are just appreciators of it. Art is a very difficult poetic language that some people just have affinity for, while others do not. Just as some can and some cannot understand calculus.

So, for example, ask yourself: Would you pay more attention to Theodore Adorno's assessments of humor or Garry Shandling's?

etc, etc said...

Sorry but not finding them worth a second look. Just isn’t visually digestible for me as images. No real organization and posterization of values, and most everything descends into a dark murky fog. Very forgettable work.

David Apatoff said...

etc, etc-- As I said, Mowat is no Gruger or Raleigh, but those guys have already been covered fully on the internet (including on this blog). Mowat, I think, has been lost in the sea of anonymous illustrators from the Saturday Evening Post but after going through a couple of years worth of Posts from the 1920s I think his work stands out among them. My job here us not just to report on the Leyendecker covers, but on what's beneath the surface. If you think his work is forgettable that's fine too, no need to be sorry.

Aleš wrote: David, I know you said "I concur that none of the hands in these pictures are well articulated" and later you said that you have great sympathy for Dunn's view regarding "exactly what it is". So If Mowat's hands fail to achieve the Dunn's demands, what did you want to say by mentioning Matisse and Dubuffet? By "well articulated" did you mean merely factual anatomical articulation? Because Dunn probably wasn't talking about that, he was talking about constructional, gestural truth underneath the stylization.

Well, we may have a different understanding of what Dunn wants us to be "exact" about. I rarely think of "gestural truth" and other types of floating truths that only take the viewer halfway, and are susceptible to more than one interpretation, as an "exact" art. I think there are some forms of artistic excellence (such as Dubuffet) where the artist does not need to follow Dunn's edict, and even some where imprecision achieves benefits that "exact" drawing does not. (That's why some of us are not Steven Dohanos fans here.) If we're talking about what you call gestural truth, I think Mowat satisfies that standard (although none of these truths are on what I would view as a higher scale of artistic veracity). If we're talking about "constructional" exactitude, or "well articulated" exactitude of the kind that George Bridgman would teach or Bouguereau would paint, I would say Mowat flunks that test, but that doesn't bother me as much as it appears to bother others here.

Aleš said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aleš said...

Thanks a lot Kev.


David wrote: But of course, you're wrong. If you looked at the descriptions of each drawing on the Metropolitan's website, you'd have seen that many of them are signed and some were sold by Degas' art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, during Degas' lifetime.

"If you would judge, investigate."



I think I know what signatures and the fact that they were sold by an art dealer can generally imply, but I don't have definite knowledge why Degas signed these sketches. To me the real proof of value is what I can actually understand when it comes to drawing's visual formulation. So my investigation was simple:

1) No additional description on Met site, but to me it looks like a study for a painting called "After the Bath c 1883" - LINK. You can see how he improved the head and the palms.

2) That study for "the central figure in Degas's Dancers in the Classroom" - LINK. He improved both hands.

3) A study for the "second figure from the left in Degas’s pastel of the 1890s Ballet Dancers in the Wings" - LINK. Degas improved both palms and the head.

Aleš said...

(had to break a comment, too many links probably)

4) This is the one that Degas sold to the dealer Ambroise Vollard that you mentioned. Here is the finished painting - LINK. Degas improved all the palms.

7) This sketch doesn't even really show palms. It's a sketch for a Dancer on Pointe - LINK. Since the study very vaguely shows one of the hands, here is such a hand in a similar position, Four ballerinas on the stage - LINK. Degas improved the hand.

Regarding the image 8, that's a study for Madame Théodore Gobillard (LINK) and a finished painting has the same anatomically weird hands. Regarding the images 5 and 6, to me those simply appear to be poor hands, especially image 6, the weird shape of the left hand pops up immediately.
The fact that Degas improved all the hands in all those images I mentioned above tells me, that he didnt consider those sketches and studies to be good enough. And since I agree with him I feel I might apply the same criteria to images 5,6 and 8 (the finished Madame Théodore Gobillard bothers me a bit, I don't know why he didn't fix those hands).

kev ferrara said...

I agree that Mowat's figures have a lot of gestural truth to them. Which is to say, they evoke physicalized emotional states that are recognizable.

Tom said...

David said
"I agree. Mowat is certainly no Degas. (Neither, of course is Harvey Dunn)."

Sorry David I wasn't trying to imply that you thought Mowat was as good as Degas. It just got me thinking why certain artist feel more complete or more sound (perhaps vital is a better word) then other artist. What I meant by precede, was literally the arrangement of the anatomy that is drawn before reaching the hand. The position of the pecs the the deltoid the biceps the triceps, the olecranon process , the medial and lateral epicondyle of the humerus, the orientatiion of the distal end of the radius and ulna. All lead to a final destination in the hand.

I like the Degas examples you chose, I don't feel they were never meant to be seen (who knows). In fact who cares if they were never meant to be seen. They are incredible good drawings. Once and artist like Degas has accumulate such knowledge it will show up in all his work. His knowledge will always inform his aesthetic decision, it is unavoidable. To say some drawings are not worth considering and others are because they are a sketch or they where done quickly without an "intended," audience seems to miss the nature of things. Some trees grow large some trees grow small. Some things are rough some things are smooth. Mountains take ages to form, flowers take days, yet they all come from the same source. To quote James Joyce, "“A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”

One can tell Roger Federer is a great tennis player whether he is warming up, teaching a little kid how to play the game or playing in the finals of Wimbledon.

I never thought you were equaliting Mowat with a Degas but only introducing us to an illustrator who deserves another look.




David Apatoff said...

Aleš -- Thanks for taking the time to look into these pictures and respond. I just got off a 6 hour flight and I'm on the run right now, but when I'm in a place where I can open your links and respond I definitely will.

chris bennett said...

David, is there a chance your next post could be one about the drawings of Degas? The whole idea of 'drawing' as opposed to 'painting' seems to rest on the degree of suggestion in a sentient-written image. And the arc of Degas' career is in one sense founded on an ever deepening meditation on what this means.

The reason for my request is that the discussion we are having would be better served under a set of images more useful to its purpose than these examples of Mowat's.

David Apatoff said...

Howdy, gang-- I returned from the coast yesterday with a lot to add, in case any of you are still around:

Chris Bennett wrote: "David, is there a chance your next post could be one about the drawings of Degas?... The reason for my request is that the discussion we are having would be better served under a set of images more useful to its purpose than these examples of Mowat's."

I spent a portion of my marathon trip thinking of thousands of examples of pictures that might advance this discussion. As soon as I winnow that down to a manageable number, I'll throw them onto my next post. I think Degas is a good example both because he is one of my favorite artists and because I think his drawings support my point (notwithstanding Kev's mistaken belief that they are "scribbles from his trashcan.") But we should note that Degas is anomalous in one key respect: his eyesight was so bad toward the end of his career that he was no longer physically capable of drawing hands with the precision of his youth. Several of his later hands look like mittens, yet in my view those later works are artistically superior. The anatomical truth of phalanges was, in my view, subordinate to the expressive truth of those soft focus pictures he produced at the end. So I'll be offering a bunch of non-Degas examples as well.

Tom wrote: "I don't feel they were never meant to be seen (who knows). In fact who cares if they were never meant to be seen."

As you might expect, I agree very much with your point. As a matter of pure empirical fact, we know that most if not all of these were meant to be seen because they were signed and some were sold with his permission during Degas' lifetime. We know that the "12th version" of an etching was hardly a scribble thrown into a wastebasket. As you say, that by itself doesn't prove that a picture is good or bad. There is plenty of good work in wastebaskets and plenty of junk sold by art dealers (although with a talent such as Degas, I'd have at least a rebuttable presumption in his favor). All it does prove is that these aren't scribbles from his trashcan. I think that your point about the difference between mountains and flowers will really come out in the next post. Each has its own perfections.

Aleš wrote: "I think I know what signatures and the fact that they were sold by an art dealer can generally imply, but I don't have definite knowledge why Degas signed these sketches. To me the real proof of value is what I can actually understand when it comes to drawing's visual formulation."

I don't disagree with your basic point but I want to make sure we follow it through to its logical extension. You're right, we "don't have definite knowledge why Degas signed these sketches" but we also don't have definite knowledge why Degas tightened up the hands in those final pictures you've shown. For all we know, Vollard said to him, "Look Edgar baby, I know you hate having to indulge those bourgeois art collectors who insist on counting all the digits on the hands before they buy a painting. Yeah, yeah, I understand that if I make you get too definite with the hands, it forces you to get definite about other aspects of the painting that you are fighting hard to keep indefinite. But I tell ya, sweetheart, if you want to sell these damn things ya gotta give the yokels what they want. If ya like those floppy hands so much, do them on your own time, in personal sketches. If your theory about painting is correct, maybe a hundred years from now art critics will finally be capable of recognizing when your forms are distorted out of expressive necessity rather than technical ignorance. But right now, in 1917, my customers are philistines who say they ain't gonna shell out good francs for the work of a pretentious cartoonist."


(CONT.)

David Apatoff said...

(CONT. FROM ABOVE)

Aleš-- So while I agree with you that at heart, "the real proof of value is what [we] can actually understand when it comes to drawing's visual formulation," I'm not sure what the sequence of the pictures you've tracked down tells us about the value or quality of the respective images. (See Tom's point about how mountains and flowers each have their own perfections.) I appreciate the work you went through tracking down later versions of those images, and I found the exercise very interesting, but I think if you insist on drawing inferences that Degas was "fixing those hands," then to be symmetrical we must also be willing to infer from Degas' signature on those sketches that he was proud of the original hands and wanted his name to be associated with them.

You say, "My investigation was simple," but if you think confirming the date of each artwork will tell you which was the best, and that preliminary drafts were inferior, how does such a test account for an etching with twelve previous versions (more drafts than most of his paintings, I'd wager) but where the hands are still as simple as Mowat's? How does it account for those more finished color pieces I sent as a follow up?

Finally, I think it's important to recognize that the phenomenon we are discussing is not confined to Degas. No one would question that Rodin's sculptures demonstrated his profound and very specific understanding of the human form. Yet, the hands on his drawings and watercolors were less articulated than Mowat's and Rodin loved them dearly.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "I never said that [I was unable to find examples of "bad" hands by Degas]! I said that the first twenty Degas I saw on google image search (which everybody should know by now, generally corresponds, albeit loosely, to some of the most popular Degas 'hits' on the internet, thus probably his better known work) had quite beautifully done hands."

Got it. If your defense is that you might've found examples of "bad" hands by Degas if you'd looked at more than 20 examples, but it wasn't worth your time to expend more than 12 seconds, I'll let it rest at that. But you really ought to go back and read that line from Seneca.

"...you can dig out any scribble from Degas' trashcan where he doesn't finish a hand..."

Well, we've already established as an empirical fact that these are not "scribbles from Degas' trashcan," and I don't think repeating the charge at a higher decibel level will do anything to change that. But the more interesting difference of opinion is not just whether these Degas drawings are "shitty scribbles" but whether they are "unfinished." I'd like to discuss that.

I think I've previously quoted the poet Rabindranath Tagore on this blog: “Perhaps the crescent moon smiles in doubt at being told that it is a fragment awaiting perfection.” That will give you a sneak peek at one of the themes of the next post.

kev ferrara said...

If your defense is that you might've found examples of "bad" hands by Degas if you'd looked at more than 20 examples, but it wasn't worth your time to expend more than 12 seconds, I'll let it rest at that.

The actual issue here is that I did not read your initial assertion that you could "find a dozen hands by Degas (at his worst) that are indistinguishable from Mowat (at his best)" as a literal statement of your argument. I immediately assumed you would not believe I would find such a fallacious comparison convincing or appropriate. And thus I assumed what you said is not what you meant. So I transposed what you wrote to an apples to apples comparison; that if you look at the best of Mowat and the best of Degas, you would see similar fudging. Or lets be charitable and put it thusly: that if you look at the common quality of Mowat's work and the common quality of Degas' work, you will see equal fudging of anatomy.

Obviously, if I believed you thought strawman arguments were legitimate, I would have immediately granted the point that Mowattian levels of fudge could be a common feature of the shitty scribbles from Degas' trashcan.

Aleš said...

David wrote: "You're right, we "don't have definite knowledge why Degas signed these sketches" but we also don't have definite knowledge why Degas tightened up the hands in those final pictures you've shown. "

Yes, but to me these two points don't really belong to the same process of finding a valid conclusion. You can try and guess a possible reason why an artist signed his sketches and any guess might be as good as the next one. But when it comes to the artistic content there are clues written in the visual formulation, like balance or aesthetic harmony. Aspects that ruin the coherence of visual unity are probably not preferred/intended, I conclude that from so many wonderful Degas paintings.

I sadly don't know much about Degas, so I can't test the possibility of your Vollard's hypothetical statement. There might be facts about his life or his character or his way of working that would make such statement unlikely to happen. Maybe he wouldn't alter his art for the bourgeois art collectors (wasn't he rich?), maybe his buyers didn't "insist on counting all the digits" since his mature style already was full of unfinished passages, maybe the quality of his work varied because of a predilection to begin a hundred things and not finish one of them. Maybe there are other reasons and explanations.

Regarding your Vollard statement: "... if I make you get too definite with the hands, it forces you to get definite about other aspects of the painting that you are fighting hard to keep indefinite." It's not the definiteness or detailed exactness that's the problem. A foot can be nicely suggested as a single brush swing, but it can feel wrong if it doesn't fit the rhythmic, gestural or stylistic structure of the whole.

David wrote:... but I think if you insist on drawing inferences that Degas was "fixing those hands," then to be symmetrical we must also be willing to infer from Degas' signature on those sketches that he was proud of the original hands and wanted his name to be associated with them.

This does not seem to be logical to me. Degas might sign those sketches just in order to authenticate them. Since the Romantics embraced the sketch aesthetic in the 19 century, sketches began to be considered works of art in their own right. Maybe Degas liked those sketches except the hands (I like for example the Dancer on pointe sketch (image7), except the hand which is too long). Maybe he didn't want his sketches to get falsely attributed in the future after his death. I don't know. To me this is all guesswork. I don't consider my view (that he was fixing those hands) a guesswork because as I said the visual formulation of those finished works fit the qualitative aspects I see in other great artworks through history.

Aleš said...

David wrote:... but if you think confirming the date of each artwork will tell you which was the best, and that preliminary drafts were inferior, how does such a test account for an etching with twelve previous versions (more drafts than most of his paintings, I'd wager) but where the hands are still as simple as Mowat's? How does it account for those more finished color pieces I sent as a follow up?

Just to be exact, I don't think confirming the date will tell me which version is the best because such statement implies that I blindly follow the dates. I follow my internal capability to sense the aesthetic content, so my mistakes reflect my incapabilities in that department.
The etching with twelve previous versions has better versions too (the version you mentioned is 12/22), I don't know which one is the last one (maybe neither):

http://www.impressionism.org/images/leaving-the-bath.jpg

http://media.clarkart.edu/Web_medium_images/1969.19.jpg

Aleš said...

David wrote :"How does it account for those more finished color pieces I sent as a follow up? "

Those three images don't have additional versions for me to check whether Degas improved the hands. So again, I can only rely upon my own senses and knowledge. Even tho they are "unquestionably finished Degas" as you said, that doesn't definitionally mean that they are free of mistakes or poor anatomy. Every artist produced some finished work that is of lesser quality. All those artworks where Degas masterfully composed all the elements demonstrate where the distinction lies. So even tho the finished painting might be very nice, it could be even better without the little mistakes.