Sunday, March 30, 2008


If Beethoven had gone deaf all at once, he might not have developed into Beethoven. He might simply have adapted to the loss, as many others have.

But Beethoven's hearing gradually slipped away over 25 years, coming and going unpredictably. It faded tantalizingly in and out of reach as he was trying to realize his artistic visions. This slow torture caused him daily anguish. He could never be certain whether he would be capable of conducting a concert. Worse, he never knew which precious sound would be his last.

Beethoven didn't dare tell the world about his disability but he wrote of his despair in a private testament, agonizing that when other people heard a sound,

I heard nothing... such incidents brought me to the verge of despair.... I would have put an end to my life -- only... it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence.
Historians such as Robert Greenberg and Maynard Solomon believe Beethoven was able to reach new heights because of the spiritual and physical isolation he suffered during his prolonged struggle with his hearing. Perhaps his seclusion from the sounds of the world freed him from convention and allowed him to create new musical forms.

Beethoven's tragic burden is an example of what Peter Viereck calls "the weight that tortures diamonds out of coal."

Which brings us to the artist Degas.

Degas started out as a meticulous craftsman, carefully trained in traditional drawing and painting methods.

However, he suffered from increasingly poor vision his entire adult life. As John Updike reported, "by his forties he was virtually blind in his right eye; and by the 1890s he periodically donned corrective spectacles blacked out except for a small slit in the left lens."

Over the years as his eyesight dimmed, Degas developed a looser, more energetic style:

He lived in dread of his oncoming blindness, but as the artist David Levine noted,

It didn’t stop Degas.... He went on to change his way of seeing. He just moved into a rhythm of color and bigger generalities in the way he saw things like hands or faces.
Just as with Beethoven, some of Degas' most beautiful work resulted from his enormous talent twisting and turning to escape being smothered by the artist's physical disability:

Green Landscape

Wooded Landscape

Tantalus was the character from Greek mythology who stole ambrosia from Zeus' table and brought it back to his people, revealing the secrets of the gods.

His punishment was terrible: he spent eternity in a pool of water beneath a bountiful fruit tree. But whenever he reached for the fruit, the branches raised above his grasp. Whenever he bent down to try to drink, the water receded. (We get the word "tantalize" from poor Tantalus.) And while all that food and drink hovered beyond his reach, the gods placed a threatening boulder over his head.

The price of ambrosia comes high.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Many people say that the illustrator Willy Pogany (1882-1955) reached the pinnacle of his career with a series of lavish, ornate books including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1910), Tannhauser (1911), Parsifal (1912) and Lohengrin (1913). These books feature spectacular gilt designs on sumptuous leather bindings, elaborate borders on each page, and illuminated initials with hand calligraphed text.

Personally, I find them exhausting.

I don't think Pogany started getting interesting as an artist until he shed all the regal trappings and learned to simplify.

Left alone with just a line and a blank page, Pogany began to produce work of enduring value. Each line becomes more important when you don't have fancy textured paper and intricate borders to rescue (or obscure) the quality of your work.

Here are a few scans of Pogany's original drawings so you can see his line up close:

Even his small, "simple" drawings weren't that simple.

Surrounding a picture with fancy borders can enhance its appearance, but only to a limited extent. Ultimately, the picture pays a heavy price for that boost; it is harder for a picture to achieve greatness when encumbered with ornamentation. One of the most important things for an artist is knowing when to stop.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


William Oberhardt (1882 -1958) was like a 20th century version of Hans Holbein the Younger. Just like Holbein, Oberhardt had an astonishing gift for rendering the human head. "Heads are my preoccupation," he said. "To me the world is full of heads." Both Holbein and Oberhardt were summoned to draw the most famous people of their day. Holbein drew portraits for the court of Henry VIII while Oberhardt drew portraits for Time magazine.

Cover of the first issue of Time magazine, by Oberhardt

Portrait by Holbein

Both artists could paint, but both found their highest expression in the medium of charcoal drawing, which enabled them to display great freedom and sensitivity.

Oberhardt was a very traditional, almost old fashioned artist. He was appalled at his fellow illustrators who used photographs, emphasizing that an artist's job was not to "copy form" but to "strive for interpretation of personality through form."

He advised young artists:

Avoid haste, and don't take pride in hectic activity...Technique evolves gradually. It is the blossoming forth of years of intelligent study, not surface imitation of accepted mannerisms or formulas. Do not waste time on cleverness which might develop into mere facility.
Despite his traditional approach, you can find great, almost abstract designs in Oberhardt's portraits. Once he gets beyond the subtle nuances of the face, he allows himself to go wild with bold surrounding marks that play an important role completing the design:

In discussing "the distribution of blacks in the background," Oberhardt the traditionalist sounded surprisingly modern: "I follow only my feeling of harmony."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


For fifty years, cartoonist Don Trachte made an excellent living doing uninspired, simple minded drawings.

Nothing about these drawings hinted that behind closed doors, Trachte was so talented he could paint a major Rockwell oil painting well enough to fool all the experts:

Similarly, the cartoonist James Swinnerton had a long, successful career making mediocre drawings that revealed no particular artistic ability:

Yet, in his spare time Swinnerton painted powerful, sensitive landscapes:

Rose O'Neill was another artist who made a small fortune with bland, inferior drawings. The public just loved her cute little imps, called Kewpies:

Nobody guessed that behind the scenes, O'Neil drew intense, erotic drawings and wrote steamy poetry. Her real drawings look like the work of Brad Holland, who came along 50 years later.

When a reporter asked O'Neill about the striking contrast between her professional work and her personal drawings, O'Neill refused to comment, saying "these things were made for the maker's own delight."

I'm not suggesting that every one of these private pictures is a work of genius. However, it is interesting to me that so many artists could not find a market for quality art, and survived only after they dumbed down their work.

I would never have guessed from their public work that these artists were capable of creating such pictures. I think their best work, the work they did for their "own delight," deserves some exposure.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


There are millions of drawings out there with a claim on our attention, but that doesn't mean we can't pause for a moment over one lovely example.

When you stand in a meadow full of daffodils, your eye may settle by chance upon just one. Not the Best flower, not the worst, but by looking at it and smelling it up close you learn something about every other flower in the meadow.

Today's flower is from the great Ronald Searle. Here he does what he does best-- dips his pen in his DNA and comes up with a brilliant, caustic, insightful drawing.

Searle's line is a joy to behold.

In the following detail, note how Searle applies his trademarked approach to three completely different surfaces; the hard geometry of architecture, the soft folds of a curtain, and the natural lines of flowers have all been humanized by Searle. This is what great artists do.

Searle's editorializing is as sharp and wise as his line. Look at the marvelous way he conveys these gelatinous corporate "yes" men:

It's hard to overstate Searle's influence on generations of artists that followed him. (Obvious examples include Pat Oliphant, Jeff MacNelly and Mort Drucker).

His drawings are always worth revisiting.

(PS: for more about Searle, check out this great tribute blog dedicated to Searle.)

Saturday, March 08, 2008


An artist designed pretty flourishes into this little piece of metalwork ...

... on an instrument of torture which was inserted into a victim and expanded by means of a screw device to tear through the victim's internal organs, causing an excruciating death.

Not only did artists design this object with an aesthetically pleasing look, they updated its design over the years to keep up with the latest fashions.

An aesthetic object such as this poses interesting questions at each stage of the production process:

  • The client who commissioned it could have settled for a plain, functional tool. He was sensitive enough to desire a pretty design, yet totally insensitive to the piteous howls of his victim;

  • The artist who designed it summoned all his taste and talent to put the most beautiful design on a tool for mutilating human beings;

  • The victim of the torture was faced with a most inhuman death which his tormentors took special care to package in a stylish, civilized form.

But this week, we don't care about any of those questions because after all, this is a blog about illustration art. Instead, we care about the question: Does the sponsor affect the quality of the art?

We often hear that illustration is an inferior art form because it is commissioned by corporations to serve commercial interests. Here are some pictures from the 1960s by the great Bob Peak. They were bold, innovative, well designed drawings but they helped to sell cigarettes.

Does the morality of the sponsor's goal affect the aesthetic quality of these images?

If you are fortunate enough to visit the Spanish town of Santillana del Mar, you should spend time in their Museum of the Inquisition. Seen from one perspective, it provides a blood-curdling record of fiends who tortured in the name of religious piety. But it can also be viewed as a conventional sculpture museum, displaying the beautiful work of very talented silver smiths, iron workers and artisans in wood. You can be horrified by the content and still be impressed by the form.

I've never found a rule that governs all art, but a good starting point for some serious thinking might be:
There should be no argument in regard to morality in art; there is no morality in nature.
Rodin said that. And here's an additional perspective:
Many mediocre pictures of lofty subjects hang in art museums. Many brilliant pictures of dishwashing detergent can be found in magazine ads. Nobody has yet established a clear connection between purity of motive and quality of art.
I said that.

Monday, March 03, 2008


This famous portrait by Gustav Klimt was displayed for years as a "national treasure" in a public palace in Vienna.

Nations fought over it. Teams of lawyers, diplomats and politicians debated the painting's ownership in front of international tribunals. The US Supreme Court analyzed its status under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Eventually, the picture was purchased for $135 million, the most expensive painting in history up to that time.

But circumstances were very different when the painting was first created.

100 years ago, an 18 year old girl named Adele Bauer was pressured by her mother into an arranged marriage with a wealthy older man. Adele had hoped to pursue her education, but her mother insisted on a high society marriage to corporate mogul Ferdinand Bloch. Adele seemed condemned to a life as a bored society wife, childless and neglected by her husband (who was preoccupied with the family banking and sugar enterprises).

Adele stumbled across Vienna's local Jugendstil art movement and wanted to learn more. She purchased work from promising young artists and promoted their art to her wealthy friends.

One day, Adele summoned the courage to call upon the local artist Gustav Klimt to ask him to paint her portrait. Klimt had a reputation as a brilliant but coarse man who often scandalized polite society. Raised in poverty, Klimt spoke with a thick accent and apparently did not bathe as often as he might. He reportedly wore nothing beneath his artist's smock. Models lounged around his studio, naked and available for artistic or any other kind of inspirational activity.

The shocked citizens of Vienna accused Klimt of being a "pornographer" because of his blatantly erotic drawings.

Adele soon formed a close relationship with Klimt. Her husband discovered just how close that relationship had become when he saw Klimt's first portrait of Adele displayed at the Secession Exhibition of 1901. She was wearing the gold choker her husband had given her, but little else:

Biographer Salomon Grimberg pondered:
Was Klimt aware of what he was doing when he chose to exhibit the painting?.... displaying a defiantly staring half nude woman...could be both damaging to Adele and an insult to her husband. The Bloch-Bauers received the exhibition in silence.
Adele's friend Alma Mahler hissed, "I always knew Adele was no holy one." But no matter how much polite society clucked and gossiped, Adele continued her relationship with Gustav for nearly a dozen years. Klimt was reportedly fascinated by Adele and helped to introduce her to Vienna's cultural avant garde. She educated herself and established an important salon where leading intellectuals would come and talk. Together with Klimt, she broke out of the cage that society had planned for her.

When Klimt painted the famous "golden portrait" of Adele, above, he covered her dress with these mysterious symbols:

I do not claim to understand these symbols, but an observer might be forgiven for concluding that Klimt was really, really fond of Adele's vulva, and did not care who knew it:

I'm sure that during their private moments together, neither Adele nor Gustav dreamed that Adele's "national treasure" would one day end up in the geopolitical spotlight.
Over the past century, the portrait's sweaty human origins were forgotten in a tide of bankers, lawyers, accountants and politicians. Respectable elements of society who once felt threatened by Klimt's unruly lusts now acclaimed his painting as "our Mona Lisa." Aging dowagers in elegant ball gowns posed for photographs in front of the painting, proud to be associated with what had now become "high art."

As they toasted the painting with expensive champagne, they seemed totally oblivious to Klimt's symbols, or to the human wellspring of art.