Sunday, June 18, 2006


Don't feel bad that you've never heard of Ervine Metzl. No one else has either.

In the 1920s, the Chicago Rapid Transit Company employed a small staff of artists to create subway posters to encourage ridership. The audience was mostly harried commuters who were fighting their way through crowded stations coated with soot and grit. Most of the posters were predictably mediocre. But one of the artists, Ervine Metzl, sat at his board and created timeless designs that transcended the narrow limitations of his forum and his assignment.

Metzl later found work illustrating for Fortune Magazine. He wrote a book which no one reads anymore about illustrating posters. Then he trundled off to oblivion. But while he was working on art like this, he connected with something far larger and more permanent than himself. No matter how little he got paid, and no matter how little he is remembered today, there is something perfectly True about these wonderful designs. This process may be the best shot any of us has to, in the wonderful words of Arthur Koestler, "catch a glimpse of eternity through the window of time."


Anonymous said...

Mr. Metzl may have only written one book but it seems he illustrated dozens of others. Boy! You gotta love Google.

David Apatoff said...

Before you think about getting one of those "dozens of other" books illustrated by Metzl, I should share with you the one remaining fact I know about him. In a 1957 article about "Current Illustration," American Artist magazine cited Metzl as an example of an illustrator who had managed to re-invent himself. The article says that the 1920s poster artist "is quite a different Metzl than we see today [although] the Metzl of today may not be entirely happy about it." Metzl at the end of his career was "doing all right" by churning out humorous line drawings in the 1950s "free-wheeling" style for joke books. I did not care for the example of his work shown, and apparently neither did Metzl. He offered the following rather forlorn quote:

"Howard Pyle, Harvey Dunn and Edwin Austin Abbey, great draughtsmen as they were, wouldn't get to first base in today's art market.... Everything we see happening now is conditioning the younger generation [of illustrators] for a life that you and I couldn't possibly endure."

I suspect that it was hard for Metzl to abandon his glorious past for the dictates of 1950s art directors. That's why I wanted to say that he had been to the mountain top with his original work and in my mind, that validates him, no matter what he later had to do to feed his family.

Anonymous said...

Isn't that all to often the way?The great commercial artists drift toward the mediocre, and who can blame them if they pour their souls into something and receive for their efforts, the same page rates as someone half as talented and the criticisms of art directors or editors or clients who say 'yeah..but it needs more blue,or maybe a yellow duck in the foreground.Bernie Wrightson poured his soul into Frankenstein and what was his reward? Probably less for the entire work than a very average artist gets for page of Spider-Man today.In some ways it seems that the world of commercial illustration has the exact opposite effect on artists that the world of 'fine art' does.Is this an astute observation on my part or am I just plain wrong? Craig

Anonymous said...

Ervine Metzl was my father's cousin. He ended up his carreer headingthe stamp design departmetn forhte Post Office under Eisenhower (I think--it's family lore)

He wrote a wonderful book on the History of Posters,

Brad said...

Here's that last one in color. The original is for sale on eBay this week, but will probably fetch between $4 to $8 thousand, based on the sales figures I've seen recently of similar posters.

Anonymous said...

I first met Ervine Metzl when, as President of the Society of Illustrators, he conducted Saturday morning scholarship classes at the Society. I was lucky enough to be given this gift by J. I. Biegeleisen, Chairman of the Art Department at the High School of Industrial Art. Mr. Metzl enjoyed my humor and predicted that I'd either "wind up a millionaire or in a mental institution." He was a better artist than a fortune teller. He became my mentor, invited me into his professional life, and shared his warmth, acerbic wit and wisdom freely. He seemed to regret his illustrator's life and said if he could do it over, he'd have been an art director. But this lucky kid is very glad he didn't. I knew him until he passed on, ever an inspiration.
Thank you, Mr. Metzl!
—Ron Barrett

David Apatoff said...

Thanks so much for your comment, Ron. I always wanted to know more about the person behind these pictures.