Sunday, June 11, 2006


Australian war illustrator Ivor Hele painted jungle fighting in New Guinea during World War II. One day, three men in his unit were killed. Their bodies were left sprawled in the mud while the remaining troops scrambled to dig foxholes. Hele, who felt the tragedy must be recorded, crouched by the bodies to draw them. The soldiers watched him in grim silence.

Then it began to rain.

Without a word, several soldiers left the safety of their foxholes to build a makeshift shelter over Hele with sticks and a tarp so he could finish the precious drawing. These soldiers, who were in the midst of battling for their own lives, felt that Hele's drawing of their fallen comrades was so important that it was worth the risk. Hele later recalled their gesture as "my most moving event in New Guinea."

I would guess these soldiers did not have highly refined taste in art. They would probably flunk a quiz on the difference between modernism and postmodernism. Yet, Hele's experience shows how important and meaningful art can be to human life.

Art used to matter a lot. It is sometimes hard to remember art's original honesty and purpose over the din of today's petty rivalries and internecine squabbling between patrons, collectors, critics and artists.

Art first appeared with the Cromagnons who were barely surviving in the midst of an ice age. They had no spare time for cultural luxuries. Yet, to make their paintings, these prehistoric artists would crawl and climb as far as a mile into dark caves carrying charcoal and the red earth which they used for color. The only light came from flickering grease lamps and pine torches which didn't cast enough light to detect the bears and other dangerous animals living in the caves. It was a very risky occupation to be a cave painter, yet something compelled them to do it anyway.

Art of this vitality and relevance seems pretty remote from most art today.



Anonymous said...

I'm glad you posted Hele, of whom I knew nothing until your prior post, and still no little. The posted drawings somehow simultaneously remind me of the very different styles of John Singer Sargent and Dean Cornwell.

Wartime drawings often have a great vitality. I've been looking recently at Steve Mumford's The Baghdad Journal. Ronald Searle's Kwai PoW sketches are quite powerful. And do you know the work of USMC artist Charles Waterhouse? (Readily accesible through the internet).

None of this is responsive to your larger point, for which the wartime drawing and anecdote was an exemplar. About that I have little to say, beyond registering my agreement.

Anonymous said...

"no little"--apparently about proofreading as well!

Anonymous said...

This blog is tremendous! I happened upon it looking for Leyendecker images I could download, and checked out every post. I look forward to more from you, time permitting.

As far as war art and Illustration, there is a long tradition going back which includes many greats, from Alfred Waud to Howard Terpning, and many others who did posters to raise money for the war efforts. This could be a great subject for a book!

Also, don't forget that art still is very important to many, many people, including visual art. We all argue over money. Its the quality of the art that matters most, in the long run. This blog is a testament to that.

I also look forward to some of your other posts about how the literati have taken over visual art, and also modern art (which is really just a modern advertising phenomenon). But I will wait until you post more on those topics.

Until then, a hearty thanks for your excellent work!

Anonymous said...

There is a story, apocryphal maybe, that Picassos agent on a visit to the great ones studio, discovered the wastebasket filled with rough and unfinished drawings.The agent salvaged everything, instructed Picasso to get rid of the wastebasket, and went out and sold all the garbage. Maybe this is where art began to go wrong. I've been arguing for years against the mass produced Van Goghs' and Renoirs that are sold in malls. you know, the ones where the painting is dominated by a huge title block and the artists name. It show a lack of faith in both the artist and the consumer.As if 'Starry Night Over the Rhone' is not good enough to sell itself without VAN GOGH prominent and dominant below the painting. But it's no use pretending that names are not brands because they are. Did you see where a Klimt sold for one hundred and thirty five million dollars???? And that beat the recent record where a Picasso sold for one hundred and four million dollars!! I wish I knew whether or not you allow profanity on this site because there are certain words I'm just dying to type right now. All that said, I disagree with you, I really really think art still matters, at least it does to the individuals, and especially to the common folk. I have friends who think impressionist means Frank Gorshin and Rich Little but they genuinely appreciate art. They may not know what art is but they know what they like and maybe that is enough. Craig

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Brian, for your kind comments and your most welcome input. I really like the war illustrators you mention, as well as Ronald Searle mentioned by Bob Cosgrove above.

I agree that art can still matter very much, but I fear that much of gallery art has degenerated into self-indulgent irrelevance. For a while it was interesting to see how far art could go, and I am second to none in my admiration for the pioneers of modern (and post-modern) art. As T.S. Eliot observed, "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go."
But that path ultimately led to a dead end. "Art for art's sake" turned out to be a thin art, stripped of purpose and separated from human experience. Let the auction houses and gallery owners continue to beat that drum for the investment bankers who don't know any better. People with some seriousness of purpose began looking in other directions for more meaningful art some time ago. Outsider art, religious art, war art, folk art-- in the words of Bob Dylan, "gotta serve somebody."

That's why I have such a soft spot in my heart for illustration-- art in the service of a robust commercial purpose. Prehistoric cave paintings were probably totem art designed to help people hunt mastodons. Today's advertising illustrations may be designed to aid with a different kind of hunt (perhaps for the the right hemorrhoid cream). But that's OK with me, they still have more relevance to human experience than much of the art we've been talking about.

David Apatoff said...

Craig, in my mind the one redeeming thing about that Klimt painting selling for $135 million is that, while diplomats and museums and aristocratic families struggled for years over the painting and scholars wrote long treatises about its sublime cultural importance, the painting itself was a product of illicit sex.

Austrian aristocrat Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer commissioned Klimt to paint a portrait of Bloch-Bauer's lovely new (and much younger)wife. While the workaholic Bloch-Bauer was focused on his many properties, Klimt (who was extremely ugly and was reputed to have an unusual odor) had a rip roaring affair with his young subject. He audaciously decorated her painting with abstract symbols denoting breasts, pubic hair and enough pudenda to fill a gynecological textbook. Apparently Klimt was one happy guy that summer.

A century later, when I see regal matrons and dowagers posing unknowingly in front of the painting and sniffing about the elevating value of fine art, I get a big kick out of the fact that this $135 million cultural icon resulted from a tawdry, hot blooded affair in Klimt's studio. The human pulse triumphs again!

Anonymous said...

See, I thought the one redeeming feature of the high priced Klimt was that it is to be hung in a musuem and not in a private collection, but I like your answer much better. It kind of reminds me of Duchamps urinal and all the stories I've read about the original urinal being lost and that if it ever did turn up it would be near-priceless. Craig