Thursday, March 04, 2021

THE VIEW FROM BEHIND

     "Oh the things you can find if you don't stay behind!"  

                                            -- Dr. Seuss

When Raymond Sheppard drew animals at the zoo, they'd often turn their faces away.  Most artists would then move for a better view of the face but Sheppard stayed behind.  He found the forms and details from the back to be worthwhile subjects.  

It's an impossible angle to draw-- no eyes, nose or mouth.  No facial expressions, no standard guidelines, formulas or conventions for capturing faces from behind.  What art school teaches how to draw the south end of a northbound horse?



You can't draw pictures like this on automatic pilot; they require pure and honest observation from the very start:



The rear view of a rhinoceros head turns out to be an astonishing landscape of bumps, ridges and knobs.   By "staying behind" Sheppard found a reality more phantasmagorical than anything produced by Dr. Seuss's 's imagination:




The back of a tiny dormouse head was far subtler.  Without conspicuous landmarks and features, its extreme simplicity required the most sensitive line.  

 


Birds were of course among the most uncooperative subjects, but Sheppard still found details worth recording:








Sheppard's honesty when drawing heads from behind is all the more impressive because, when deprived of facial features, many artists have a great temptation to cheat.  

For example, in the following drawing artist Neal Adams cheated by sliding features over from the front of the face to make them visible, and faking details and lines that don't exist:


Worse, there is a tendency by critics, when viewing a faceless portrait, to cheat by imputing all kinds of things to the picture.  New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl bewilderingly wrote that Gerhard Richter's painting of Richter's daughter Betty is "the single most beautiful painting made by anyone in the last half century."
  

Washington Post art critic Sebastian Smee chimed in that “Betty is arguably the most famous painting by the most influential artist alive."  Like a Kuleshov experiment run amok, Smee gives the artist a helping hand by fantasizing all kinds of significance to the painting:
“Betty,” twisting away, evokes for me an impossible yearning: a desire to turn away from the din, the debacle, of political life and to dissolve instead — to bleed, to blur — into an intimate, apolitical present.
This kind of mendacity makes me value Sheppard's brand of honesty even more.  In the following quick sketch of a leopard, Sheppard draws just enough of the spots to show how foreshortening individual spots can reveal the structure of the animal.  They help make sense of the rear view.


What wonderful economy (a necessity when your subject might get up and move at any moment).

With all due respect to Dr. Seuss, there are wonderful things to be found behind the ear of a rhinoceros or in back of the jaw line of a sow.  These sketches are not flat recitations of fact, they are tests of our vision, our imagination, and our appreciation for the world in which we live.






Tuesday, February 23, 2021

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 65




Last year I wrote about the great English illustrator of wildlife, Raymond Sheppard, who spent years haunting the public zoos in London, studying and drawing animals up close.  Despite the fact that his life was tragically cut short by cancer, he had astonishing patience when it came to capturing the details of nature, as if his time was unlimited.  His great devotion earned him a level of understanding that few artists shared.

You can't appreciate the magnitude of his accomplishment until you experience his drawing up close.  The above study from one of his sketchbooks is not very large...



... but it is large enough for  Sheppard to learn the different directions, lengths and characters of the fur, which he expertly records to reveal the structure of the face.  

Compare the long, soft fur on the ears and throat with the short, bristly hair around the snout or the fur above the eyelids.  In this compact space he even teaches us about the sandpaper texture of the nose or the liquid smoothness of the eye.   Note how Sheppard uses dark accents sparingly, to create essential forms such as that mouth.

In this second attempt on the same page, see how Sheppard takes pains to capture the structure beneath the fur, rather than relying on the fur to camouflage the muscle and sinew, the way lazier artists might.  Sheppard's admiration for this creature radiates from his drawing.


Look especially at the place where fur meets antler, and see how Sheppard's pencil understands the different texture of each.



This is one preliminary drawing that really lives up to the term, "study."  There is so much honest observation and work here, it truly qualifies as one lovely drawing.



Friday, February 19, 2021

NEW BOOK ABOUT T.S. SULLIVANT

 After a delay of 100 years we can finally celebrate the arrival of a compilation of work by the brilliant T.S. Sullivant.


Sullivant was part of that blessed generation of ink worshippers that included A. B. Frost, Heinrich Kley and Charles Dana Gibson, and he was as good as any of them.

At 400 pages, this book provides a large, juicy selection of Sullivant's work.  Here Sullivant shows us how the very first cartoonist got his inspiration:



And note how beautifully Sullivant portrays the kaiser dangling from the devil's pitchfork




One of the many delights of Sullivant is how he played with weight.  He could make a pig as heavy as a sack of concrete or as light as a football:




He specialized in drawing massive dinosaurs, elephants and hippos that tripped lightly along:


I was thinking about writing an appreciation of Sullivant's work for this post, but the new book contains such excellent and insightful essays that they'd put my humble observations to shame.  Working artists such as John Cuneo, Peter de Seve and Steve Brodner write loving tributes that demonstrate they are as adept with words as they are with pictures.  

Cuneo writes: 
It takes a second to figure out what's going on.... There's an extra beat of discovery as the viewer is compelled to pause a moment and look a little harder to earn the reward of recognition.  A lesser exaggeration would offer a much quicker "read" but Sullivant will have none of that.  In an age where every image on every page or online platform competes with a trillion others to catch even the most fleeting of glances, I find great pleasure in the drawings of an artist who trusted his skill enough to know that the viewer would accord his work the extra scrutiny it demanded.      

What a wealth of talent and imagination are on display in the pictures and essays of this book.  



Sunday, February 14, 2021

Friday, February 05, 2021

THE JOURNALIST ILLUSTRATORS: HARVEY DINNERSTEIN

 Harvey Dinnerstein had some interesting things to say about the relationship between art and journalistic illustration.

Like his friend Burt Silverman,  Dinnerstein was a "fine" artist who earned money on the side drawing reportorial assignments for news magazines.  Like Silverman, Dinnerstein specialized in portraits:






Dinnerstein's paintings were more overtly allegorical than Silverman's.  Here is Dinnerstein working on his magnum opus, "Parade," inspired by seeing Delacroix's Death of Sardanapalus at the Louvre.







Detail from Parade

Detail from Parade

Like Silverman, Dinnerstein had an active social conscience and was interested in capturing the political events of his day.  After reading about the young Martin Luther King in 1956, Dinnerstein accompanied Silverman to Montgomery Alabama to draw the bus boycott at the start of the civil rights movement.




The drawings were historically important but looking back, Dinnerstein found them artistically lacking.  "The drawings were frankly reportorial, concerned with the individuals involved, church meetings, courtroom scenes, and the general locales.  In retrospect, the drawings seem limited and anecdotal...." 

Over the years Dinnerstein reflected on the balance between reporting the facts of an event and serving the timeless values of art.  He wrote about the tension between the "specific and universal aspects of the subject:"
A major element in developing a pictorial image is the integration of particular information with a generalized concept.  This is a most difficult question to resolve. If the artist is only concerned with incidental information the image will lack significant form.  However, if the generalization is a mannered abstraction, it will become an empty stylization that will lack the organic quality of life.
As he developed as a journalistic illustrator, his approach evolved:
A decade later, in the wake of the assassination of King, and the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam, a protest movement containing many different elements swept across the country.  I was commissioned by Esquire magazine to cover these events, and in depicting the demonstrations of the sixties I tried to get beyond the incidental nature of various events, and grasp a larger context of the movement and its implications. 
Dinnerstein said he drew his inspiration from Kathe Kollwitz's drawings of the revolt of Silesian weavers in 1524:

Kathe Kollwitz

Dinnerstein wrote, 
There were amazing events in that period.... Candlelight procession at night, outside of St. Patrick's Cathedral.... Moratorium vigil, that presents aspecys of ritual and reminds me of paintings by Georges de La Tour.... Fort Dix, New Jersey: A protest march onto the military post, past barbed wire barricade, calling on G.I.'s to refuse to obey the orders of their officers.  The march is dispersed with gas.... Chicago: An explosion of terrorist violence leaves a tail of shattered glass along the elegant streets of the city's gold coast.... after  the killings of students at Jackson and Kent State there is a massive demonstration in Washington.... Communication seems impossible.  Suddenly a group of  demonstrators remove their clothes and charge nude into the reflecting pool before the Lincoln Memorial.  As they are joined by others , an old black woman on the embankment sings the spiritual, "Wade in the Water."  It happened! I saw it, and though I did not comprehend everything that was going on, these were remarkable events.... 
 
Burning shack in the Poor People's Encampment near the Washington monument 


Candlelight vigil for casualties of the Vietnam war



Dinnerstein conflates a death at a riot with his memory of a Roman sarcophagus


Protestors at St. Patrick's Cathedral remind Dinnerstein of a de La Tour painting

Dinnerstein's journalistic pictures tended to be less literal than those of many other illustrators who were eyewitnesses to history.  He took less pride in capturing specific details because he felt that he captured more of the spirit of these events by staging pictures more consciously with reference to older artistic traditions.

Monday, February 01, 2021

THE JOURNALIST ILLUSTRATORS: PAUL HOGARTH

The best journalistic illustrations seem to combine an enthusiasm for facts, a love of drawing, and a third element-- a personality or character which presents the subject matter in an interesting manner that a photograph could not.

Noted illustrator Paul Hogarth (1917-2001) described the third element this way: "The problem is how to make an image compelling, even in an aesthetic way – not just to sit down and make a record."



Hogarth grew up poor and his father, a butcher, tried everything to dissuade his son from becoming an artist.  He cursed the art school where Hogarth earned a scholarship and he refused to even enter the art gallery where his son had his first exhibition. 

A fiery young communist,  Hogarth went off to fight Franco's fascists in the Spanish Civil War at the age of 17.  His close friend Ronald Searle described him as "the original angry young man." 

Following World War II, Hogarth started his career traveling and illustrating different locations.  The communist party invited Hogarth to travel to  Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria to document the improvements made under communism.  With Ronald Searle, Laurence Scarfe and Percy Horton he traveled to a remote part of Bosnia to draw the building of a new railway.  In the 1950s he became the first British artist to go to China after the war.  He wrote and illustrated a book, Looking at China, as a report to the rest of the world.

Traveling and drawing on the spot, Hogarth developed his personal style: "I developed a very strong sense of composition and design and the ability to extract elements of significance. Editing and exaggeration are also important." 


Hogarth's view of a Las Vegas casino


Detail

Hogarth populated his travelogues with light, whimsical drawings of local people:



Hogarth teamed with many of the leading writers of his day to prepare his reports from around the world.  He illustrated Alistair Cooke's writings about America, Robert Graves' writings about Majorca,  Laurence Durrell's writings about Corfu,  Brendan Behan's writings about Ireland.  Most famously, his long partnership with Graham Greene took Hogarth to more than 20 countries. 





Hogarth was elected to the Royal Academy in 1984 and in 1989 was appointed to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire-- rare honors for an illustrator.  



Monday, January 25, 2021

THE JOURNALIST ILLUSTRATORS: DANIEL SCHWARTZ

 

Daniel Bennett Schwartz had a dual career as a fine artist and an "artist-reporter." 

As a fine artist, he had over fifteen solo exhibitions at galleries and museums in New York, and his work resides in the permanent collections of the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, and several other important institutions. As an artist-reporter, he was given journalistic projects of national significance, such as covering the My Lai massacre trial for Life Magazine and the "New Wave" in Paris for Esquire Magazine.  

He lived with Mississippi river pilots for an article chronicling their lives.   

 




He was also assigned to chronicle the production of a television drama for CBS.


 



But much of what he did as an "artist-reporter" was to imagine and reconstruct crime scenes or political events for which there was no camera present.  The following are illustrations for a series about flawed drug busts in New York City:









Schwartz's illustrations about the Watergate scandal helped readers visualize and understand the complex web of events. 




He had a realistic drawing style in the tradition of Silverman and Dinerstein but his fine art orientation added an interesting extra flourish to even the most technical subjects.