Wednesday, August 29, 2007


In 1913, a pernicious little busybody named M. Blair Coan spied on visitors to an art exhibit in Chicago. Coan, an investigator for the State Vice Commission, was upset by the "immorality" of modern paintings and suspected that Matisse's painting of nude dancers might even be "attracting the gaze of young girls."

Coan stirred up a great public outcry against immoral art. He then turned his talents to spreading alarm about the imminent communist takeover of the United States. In one of his books, The Coming Peril, Coan warned that socialism would ruin society by encouraging free love and giving women the right to vote. For Coan, the most "monstrously immoral" threat was that socialism might permit white women to consort with men of other races:

The negro and the white woman, the white woman and the Chinaman, They draw no race line or color line in the [Socialist] party.
Each new generation must battle its own versions of Coan. Personally, I wouldn't know "immoral art" if I saw it. Rodin used to say, "There should be no argument in regard to morality in art; there is no morality in nature." But even if we all agreed on one standard for morality in art, the law is just not well suited to prevent people from drawing dirty pictures. Author Stephen Becker wrote about the futility of using law as a tool to shape human nature:

Man comes first with his lusts, and then the law, usually in the form of an infinitely reticulated mechanism that serves variously as strait jacket, leg iron or chastity belt. Or that should so serve; but in its preventive function it usually fails and thus becomes merely punitive, the rationale for thumbscrew or dungeon or guillotine.
Today, organizations such as the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund do excellent work helping to keep that punitive function from getting out of hand.

That's the easy part.

Now let's turn back to the gaze of young girls.

I may have trouble recognizing when art is immoral, but I have no trouble recognizing when art is coarse, shallow or laughably immature. A number of popular artists such as Serpieri, who is an able draftsman, have a penchant for drawing beautiful women being gang raped by monsters.

Dozens of other best selling artists, such as Manara or Noe, make a fine living selling highly explicit pictures of adolescent male fantasies. And these are the best of the bunch. There are hundreds of artists out there who, judging from their work, seem to be training to illustrate gynecology textbooks.

I am not morally or legally opposed to this kind of art. I sometimes have aesthetic objections, but not enough to merit burning the books or jailing the artist.

At the same time, we let ourselves off too easily if we deny that there are gentle young things in the world (girls or boys) that deserve a chance to find their footing unmolested. And you don't have to be Coan to conclude that easily accessible extreme images from books, magazines and the internet can distort that process.

That's what I would like to chat about in the next few postings: the artistic quality and social impact of this kind of art, the virtues of extremism and the virtues of moderation. I trust that, as usual, you will have some strong opinions to express and some good artists to recommend.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


These pictures by illustrator Ashley Wood are a cross between drawing and knife fighting.

Wood is one of those artists whose drawings benefit from controlled accidents. His slashing lines and spattered ink are part skill, part chance and part hydrological experiment. When you work that way, you can't be too picky about your materials. The reverse side of the above drawing shows how some of Wood's more fortunate accidents take place on stray scraps of paper:

I like Wood's work. I like that he seems to draw on every available surface, from the backs of envelopes to waste paper, sometimes taping pages together when his experiment runs out of room.

I find his emphasis on telephone lines in these drawings worth noting for two reasons.

First, they show the importance of individual perception in composing an image. In most photographs, phone wires are so thin and insubstantial they don't even show up. In the following painting Edward Hopper ignores the phone wires:

They are almost never an important compositional element such as Wood has made them. It takes a human brain to fix upon a physically insignificant object and amplify and distort it into a major part of the drawing.

Second, Wood's awareness of the telephone lines reveals the sensitivity necessary to make a "spontaneous" style effective. Despite the vigorous, almost violent appearance of these drawings, it required a subtle eye to notice a detail like telephone lines and a thoughtful mind to play them up this way.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


I recently posted some illustrations by the great watercolor artist John Gannam, who had an astute eye for color.

But before he became famous for his use of color, Gannam did hundreds of black and white spot illustrations in the 1930s and 40s for lesser publications.

Many artists treated such assignments as hack work to rush through. However, Gannam applied himself and learned valuable lessons from black and white pictures which served him well when he later painted color illustrations.

Specifically, he learned from black and white illustrations to master value, which refers to the darkness or lightness of a color. Working in black and white, Gannam taught himself to control the "value structure" of his pictures, balancing blacks and whites and grays. He mastered tonality and contrast and learned to make his pictures eminently readable.

I find Gannam's control over the value scale in pictures such as this one absolutely astounding:

If you don't think this is hard to do, try it sometime.

For years, Gannam refined his color skills by doing black and white pictures.

As Gannam's career advanced, color slowly crept into his illustrations:

When Gannam later graduated to full page color illustrations, he had great appreciation for the values of the colors he used. Much of the strength of his color paintings came from the lessons he learned during that long apprenticeship doing black and white pictures.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

ARTISTS IN LOVE, part eleven

James Montgomery Flagg had an ugly view of beauty.

"I have never had any slight interest in homely ladies," he said, "no matter how charming and intelligent they are reputed to be. They do not exist for me." And even if a woman satisfied his standards for beauty, she'd better not nag or be jealous about his many infidelities:

[I]f I ran the world...I'd have my FBI corral all the ugly people [along with] all nagging and jealous women,...and take them out to Death Valley and drop an atomic bomb on them.
He also believed that beauty, at least in women, diminished as they approached middle age:
Usually former models of mine whom I don't see for a quarter of a century have become distinctly middle aged.... in an almost invariably shocking way....I occasionally tell these dames they look like zombies. They naturally resent it and usually come back with "Well, you don't look so hot yourself!" But that has no sting whatever....
Flagg never ran out of of girlfriends to mistreat (will some kind female reader puhleeze write in and explain this?), but toward the end of his long career, Flagg fell head over heels in love for the first time.

In his autobiography Flagg described Ilse Hoffman, a young model and photographer, as "the most important thing in my life." Newly humbled, Flagg admitted, "I shall have to testify that there is such a thing as love at first sight. And I do mean love." The two had a passionate romance. He painted her as often as she would permit.

Ultimately, Flagg was too much of an emotional miser for a successful relationship:
After about three years there came a change in our relations-- a shadow hard to define... a contributing cause may have been ...a growing feeling on her part that she wanted to get married. I didn't....Gradually Ilse's attitude toward me began to change.
Ilse moved into an apartment of her own.
When I asked if she'd give me an extra key, she refused with obviously false excuses. I reminded her that she had a key to my place that made her welcome at any time, night or day. I told her I had no notion of using it, that I wanted her to make the gesture. Nothing doing. Then I knew.
Flagg became deeply despondent over losing the love of his life. "I walked and walked, uptown, not really knowing were I was going. I was hurt to death." One would hope that this painful experience caused Flagg to know moments of thoughtfulness. However, all evidence points to the contrary.

When Ilse found another man who was willing to commit to her, Flagg had a bitter and typically clueless reaction:

I was saturated with disgust for Ilse...I said to myself: 'I truly loved Ilse. No other woman has meant a thing to me-- from the moment I saw her.' Eventually she married this young man, who was some sort of stock market runner. Yes, she was a married woman. She'd got what she desired. A wedding ring.

Flagg never loved again. He had a sour and lonely old age. He said at the end of his life,
I can't stand the look of my present age. All my life I have been a worshipper of that beauty of the human form you see in some men and women....Is it any wonder that I don't like to look at the physical mess and mental dullness that has set in for me? As far back as I can remember, I have been in the limelight; now I'd rather be dead than be passed by, ignored.

Flagg's final self portrait is haunted by the painting of Ilse over his shoulder, and the life that might have been. The old man ruminated, "A roll in the bed with honey isn't love. And the tragic part of it is that you never learn this until you're past the age for it to happen to you again."

We sometimes like to believe that art sensitizes us and heightens our awareness of the beauty around us. But Flagg had a circle of compassion no wider than one of his pen nibs, and he paid the price for it.

Saturday, August 04, 2007


James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) drew the same way that he lived: brash and arrogant.

Flagg's confidence was understandable. He worked at a time when illustrators were national celebrities. His famous poster, Uncle Sam Wants You, made him a household name. The press sought him out for his strong opinions. He consorted with hollywood stars, judged beauty contests, seduced young and impressionable models, frolicked at bohemian parties, and traveled back and forth to Europe with the beautiful people.

I like his work a lot. My biggest complaint is that Flagg rarely let a single well-considered line suffice where five additional lines might fit:

In this way, his style reflected his personality: never waste a minute reconsidering your initial line-- just keep underscoring it again and again.

Flagg led a privileged life and had little understanding or sympathy for those who did not. He was a member of exclusive men's clubs from whose barricades he merrily indulged his sexist and racist views. His invitation to the annual minstrel show at the elite Lotos club in New York was a beautiful painting of an odious subject:

No fan of government welfare programs, here is Flagg's sketch of the government after sodomizing the people.

Life was mighty fine for Flagg. But like many people who happened to be born at the right time, it never occurred to him that luck might have played a role in his success, or that the conditions that catapaulted him to fame might someday change. Flagg began his career when technical improvements in the printing process and the rise of popular magazines created a huge new market for his work. But his pictures that once commanded the public's attention were eventually eclipsed by Hollywood pictures that moved and talked. Flagg found himself on the wrong side of history. He did not respond well to public neglect, and died a sour and bilious old man. But his terrific drawings from his peak period stand alone and untarnished.