Monday, March 30, 2020

PLAGUE ART, part 2

The last post suggested that when it comes to depicting a plague, a literal, realistic approach usually falls short.  The examples I posted, and the better examples suggested by commenters,  suggested that mere accuracy is not the best tool for a topic such as this.

As one commenter suggested, imaginative symbolism seems better suited:

Edgar Allen Poe's Masque of the Red Death provided ample inspiration for illustrators such as Harry Clarke to anthropomorphize the concept of death:

The talented John Hendrix also used pen and ink, but with touches of color, to create this different and interesting approach: 

Note that although Hendrix labels his symbols with words...

... his drawing is still thoughtful and interesting:

I've often criticized today's illustrators who resort to words because they are incapable of drawing.  In my view, Hendrix is an illustrator who gets it right.  His words aren't a crutch, they are an enhancement.  They don't make his pictures more literal, they add an element of mystery and obscurity.

In the following illustration of the plague in Manchuria for a 1911 cover of Petit Journal,  the inclusion of a lot of unnecessary details (such as folds in clothing and rocks on the ground) distracts from what might otherwise have been a dramatic image of the plague personified:

Arnold Bocklin had a better sense of priorities.  With fewer details and less precision, his vision of the plague nevertheless seems more creepy and chilling :

But when it comes to anthropomorphized death, few can compete with the famous Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who lived through the black plague in the 16th century.

Friday, March 27, 2020

PLAGUE ART, part 1

Stanley Meltzoff painted this excellent image of the plague in Athens for Life Magazine in 1963.

Was there ever a plague with a greater cultural impact in all of history?

In the fourth century BC, Athens was busy inventing western civilization.  It was in the middle of creating the foundation for philosophy, science, art and politics when it was interrupted by the plague.

The plague in Athens by a Neapolitan artist
 A century earlier, the Greeks had the great epiphany to tie mathematics to reality and fashion an objective science that would alter the relationship between humanity and the world.  As one historian noted, this inflection point was
the point of departure, where it was decided which direction the road will take.  Before that decision, the future orientation of Greco-European civilization was still undecided: it may have taken the direction of the Chinese, or the Indian, or pre-Columbian cultures, all of which were still equally unshaped and undecided at the time of the great sixth-century dawn.
With that choice behind them, Athens blossomed into its golden age, with the great Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, Pericles, Sophocles-- and an array of brilliant innovators the like of which the world had never seen.

Who knows where Athens might've gone if the plague hadn't intervened? Devastated by the plague, Athens lost the Peloponnesian War.The plague wiped out Pericles (whom historian Rufus Fears called one of the three greatest democratic statesmen in the history of the world) along with 1/3 of the Athenian population.  Thucydides wrote, "the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.” The trajectory of Athens was altered by panic, disintegration and military defeat; great minds such as Plato's took a turn toward the authoritarian.  Concepts such as "honor" assumed a different meaning in a society where life was so perilous and unpredictable that reputation no longer mattered.

Thousands of years later, we are still poorer for what the plague did to Athens.

How can art possibly capture the character and magnitude of that loss?  In this 1652 painting of the Athenian plague, artist Michiel Sweerts attempted to use the tools of realism to convey the horror.  

The Plague in Athens by Michiel Sweerts
Despite Sweert's obvious technical skill and attention to detail, I find this painting a sterile and unsuccessful effort.  Over the next few days I'd like to discuss better attempts to use art to react to the plague.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020


Dan Zimmer at The Illustrated Press has just released an excellent new book on the legendary Stanley Meltzoff.

Meltzoff was unique among illustrators.  A fierce intellectual, he wrote a 400 page, carefully researched book entitled Botticelli, Signorelli and Savonarola; Theologica Poetica  from Boccaccio to Poliziano for Biblioteca Di Lettre Italiae Studi E Testi XXXIII.  He also wrote scholarly articles such as his "Rhetoric, Semiotics, and Linguistics Look at the Strolling Actresses of Hogarth" in New Literary History, A Journal of Theory and Interpretation.

Yet, Meltzoff was no mere academic.  He initially became famous for his steamy covers for potboiler novels. 

Below, a preliminary study for Act of Passion from the new Meltzoff book.  (Note how in the final version the man's hand has been removed from her throat and her hand now pulls him toward her rather than tugging him away). 

He later moved on to illustrating exciting science fiction and historical novels.  Below, two paintings of courtesans, one from ancient times and one from a New Orleans bordello:

As far as I'm concerned, the apex of Meltzoff's career was his historical series of paintings for Life Magazine, National Geographic and other premier publications:

But Meltzoff continued after this phase to become the country's leading painter of fish:

I wasn't sure how any author was going to do justice to a roving intellect such as Meltzoff's, so I was especially pleased to see that the text of the book is a series of essays by Meltzoff himself.  Especially rewarding is Meltzoff's essay at age 89, "Metamorphoses of a Fishpainter."

This book is a well deserved and long overdue monument to a substantial talent.  

Saturday, March 07, 2020


India ink is an Old Testament god.

It is unforgiving and irrevocable.   Artists may plead for mercy, but ink permanently records their every shortcoming and uncertainty.  Watercolor will let you renegotiate your choices.  Photoshop will let you reduce the opacity of that layer, guilt free.  But ink obliterates everything, everywhere it goes.

That's why beginning artists, if they are wise, fear ink and try to control it with a rapidograph or a no. 3 brush.  That's also why experienced artists who can draw quickly and confidently with ink are so inspiring.

Consider the terrific drawing by Joe Kubert, above.

In his 70 year career Kubert drew many thousands of pictures under tight deadlines.  During that long apprenticeship he and ink grew to become close friends; he learned how to make the most of ink's liquid qualities and to achieve powerful effects with its dense blackness.  Look how beautifully he controls the structure of this face with just a few loose dabs:

You can't work with that kind of speed and simplicity unless you've already thought out the concave shadows of cheekbones, the receding plane of the chin and the unity of the shadow on the neck and face.  These were strong choices and once made they could not be revisited because the choice wasn't there any more.

I also love the marvelous ink on that skirt--

What character! What personality! What a facility for hydrology! That free flowing ink captures the free flowing skirt in a way that a rapidograph or dip pen never could. Notice Kubert's courageous decision to completely blacken both arms and the shawl.  Turning them into silhouettes was a key dramatic choice for the picture.

And speaking of staging, it was smart to convey a dead body by showing only the feet projecting from the back of a cart, but it was brilliant to direct our attention to the woman by placing her face between those two feet: 


These are the choices of a master who has spent decades figuring out how to make the most out of the limited space in a comic book panel.

 Each of these choices could've easily gone awry as the result of a misplaced brush stroke or even a last minute failure of nerve. Yet Kubert pulled it off like the pro he is.  Ink may seem like a simple binary choice-- black or white-- until you experience its richness in the hands of an artist like Kubert.

Saturday, February 22, 2020



 I think Kathe Kollwitz is one of the most powerful and commendable graphic artists of the 20th century.

She faced a difficult life with courage and purpose, and became famous for her compelling images of injustice, war and poverty.  

This week I'd like to showcase this lovely etching, which was the model for the cover of William Faulkner's 1929 novel, The Sound and The Fury:

Recently we discussed the 20th century move away from representational, narrative art and toward conceptual art which aspired to a higher role: capturing "abstract meaning and phenomena not easily described by literal representations." Conceptual illustrators usually lack the technical skills of their predecessors; they tend to deal more in flat, simplified visual metaphors and other nonliteral approaches which don't compete with a camera.  The conceit was that these new styles were more suitable than traditional skills for depicting today's "sophisticated concepts"

As far as I'm concerned, this lovely drawing by Kollwitz single handedly proves there is no reason why technical skill can't play a key role in grappling with the most profound concepts.

Kollwitz doesn't show us a mere cliché of a skeleton as the grim reaper. With brilliant staging, she shows us the methods of the grim reaper: coming from behind, attaching itself like a barnacle and slowly weighing down-- and wearing down-- its victim.  It pulls her backward into the darkness while her muscles strain futilely for life. 


In front of her, oblivious to the existence of death and insensitive to the mother's pain is young life-- selfish, grasping and also weighing down the mother caught between them.  This is no candy coated vision of children for a popular fiction magazine, this is the greed of new life, doing what nature instructs it must do to preserve itself.

Here Ms. Kollwitz's drawing skills contribute important subtlety and complexity of staging that could never be achieved by a conceptual artist from, for example, the renowned Pushpin Studio.  In addition, her drawing skills contribute immediacy and emotional poignancy to the drawing which I simply haven't seen from her conceptual illustration counterparts.

If any of you fans of conceptual illustration out there can offer examples to prove me wrong, I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Wednesday, January 29, 2020


In the 19th century, croquet was considered a flirtatious game. One scandalized observer, incensed by the erotic symbolism of the game, ranted:
The brute beast which underlies the thin polish of civilization is unchained by the game. Goaded to fury by each corrosive click of the croquet balls, the hoop which beckons so temptingly is the gaping jaws of Hades.
Today we don't see it.  We look at Winslow Homer's painting, The Croquet Game, and see there's no nudity so how could it be erotic?

Only an imagination borne of constraint could find hidden meaning in driving balls through hoops. Male hearts would flutter when women, bound by corsets and concealed behind hoop skirts, lifted those skirts to expose a foot or even an entire ankle to place it on their opponent's ball.  Homer's painting shows the recently introduced "elevator skirt" which enabled daring women to raise or lower their outermost layer as needed to play the game.  And art historian Randall Griffin explains the man kneeling down:
Hoop skirts look archaic today in part because they, along with corsets, limited their wearer’s mobility. It would’ve been impossible to bend over decorously while wearing a hoop skirt. This explains why men often had to bend down to see if a ball was legally through a hoop, or to set the balls for a croquet shot.
On the croquet field young couples stood safely out of earshot of their prying chaperones, seizing   precious moments to negotiate the tantalizing boundaries of hemlines and relationships.

Whether we're talking about paintings or petticoats, today we seem to have less patience for the process of lifting veils and parting layers.  As a result we miss the undercurrents in Homer's painting of a boring lawn game, so we move on to the next picture in the museum.

Let's say the next picture is Homer's 1865 painting, The Veteran in a New Field

Is this just a boring scene about farming? Mature audiences in 1865 would've looked at Homer's painting and seen something far more poignant.  The year the Civil War ended, the entire country lay devastated.  Hardly a family was left untouched by the slaughter, and maimed veterans limped back to their farms in search of renewal.

Instead of the scythe of death mowing down a wall of troops charging across a field, this veteran's scythe is mowing a wall of wheat in what Homer calls a "new field."  The veteran works alone, despite the fact that harvesting was usually a communal job, because he has been isolated by his traumatic experiences.  The cycle of harvest might possibly be a path to restoring his scorched soul.  What today's viewers might dismiss as a boring scene, Griffin calls "a psychologically acute meditation on the effects of war."

Fifty years ago there was a tectonic shift away from representational, narrative illustration.  As pointed out in the definitive History of Illustration text book, photography and television invaded the traditional narrative role of art and "left illustration to capture abstract meaning and phenomena not easily described by literal representations.... Conceptual illustration [relies on]... visual metaphors and other nonliteral approaches."

For example, conceptual illustrations for an article about the psychology behind a "change of heart" effectively convey the subject this way:

If a magazine such as Psychology Today wanted to visualize such a sophisticated topic, it could scarcely rely on old fashioned narrative realism, could it?

Well, look at how beautifully Saul Tepper handled the very same subject in 1933:  a young woman decides at the last minute not to take that cruise, and turns and bolts down the gangplank.  It's a story, yes, but as we've seen from the Homer paintings above a story can mean so much more to the receptive mind.

Like the  Homer paintings, Tepper's literal narrative is not incompatible with abstract meanings or sophisticated concepts.  It can "symbolize" a change of heart just as effectively as conceptual art.  All that such art requires is a little patience and intellectual engagement.  That requirement (as well as competition from photography) may have played a role in the public's turn to conceptual illustration.