Monday, May 26, 2008


Nearly 1,000 years ago, Lambert of St. Omer summarized all of human knowledge in a book called the Liber Floridus (Book of Flowers). Lambert spent 30 years filling his book with fabulous illustrations of beasts, plants and subjects "biblical, chronological, astronomical, geographical, theological, philosophical and natural."

The Liber Floridus even explains how the world will end: when a descendant of the Emperor Charlemagne climbs Mt. Zion, the antichrist will appear and do battle, triggering the Second Coming.

This is where I first learned that the antichrist owns a pet, the antidog.

Today, a modern equivalent of the Liber Floridus is being compiled. The scientist E. O. Wilson is working with the Smithsonian Institution to compile the Encyclopedia of Life, a database of all knowledge about the world's 1.8 million known species of plants and animals (including several hundred species of ants).

You may note that the illustrations in the EOL look different from those in the Liber Floridus. Rather than painting illuminations with gold leaf and pigments from crushed precious stones, the EOL has decided to go with digital photography. (Another damn market that illustrators have lost to photography!) The EOL also uses new mashup software to combine multiple sources of information, including genetic code and the latest scientific data bases.

A comparison of these two magnificent accomplishments shows how our perception of the world has changed. The mechanical clock and the magnetic compass eliminated much of the mystery in the world by making time and space concrete. Other instruments of precision have similarly brought the world into sharper focus. We have rolled back the domains of folklore, magic and astrology that were so central to the explanations of the world in the Liber Floridus.

Today it's safe to conclude that the EOL is more "true" than the Liber Floridus. But we should keep in mind the warning of the great H.L. Mencken:
Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.
As we distract ourselves by inventing increasingly accurate ways to measure time, time inexorably continues to chew up our brief lives, undeterred and unimpressed.

Which brings me back to the abiding message of the Liber Floridus. Lambert had 30 long years while he was working on his encyclopedia to think up an appropriate title. He chose to call it the Book of Flowers rather than the Book of Truth or the Book of Facts. It seems that Lambert was less concerned with what the clock indicates than with what eternity indicates. As a result, even after the Liber Floridus ceases to be factually true, its beauty continues undiminished.

PS-- for those who enjoy illuminated manuscripts as I do, I cannot recommend highly enough the great BibliOdyssey blog.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


The legendary Will Elder passed away last week at age 86. He had a long, glorious career as a founding artist for MAD Magazine, TRUMP, Humbug and Little Annie Fanny. Working from these platforms, he made a deep impact on the youth of America (especially teen age boys).

For me, Elder's great contribution to humanity was not an original style or a sensitive line or brilliant designs. His work offered no profound insights into human comedy or tragedy. Instead, his strength was slapstick. Note how Elder equipped the menacing space creature with a glass cutter to get access to the space cutie:

Look closely and you will see that her helmet is also a gum ball machine. Elder's unruly imagination wouldn't have been effective without the technical skill to draw so convincingly. Yet he never gets bogged down in the detail; his gags never interfere with the fluidity of the picture.

Here you can see Elder's craftsmanship close up:

In order to keep a consistent value on the girl's thigh, he painted out and redrew individual dots. Was it worth the effort? All I can tell you is that those legs were extremely important to boys all across America who would have noticed if even a single dot was out of place.

Many of those boys were motivated to become artists just so they could draw girls the way Elder did.

I speak from experience.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


Henry Reuterdahl (1871-1925) painted this lovely illustration for one of the earliest science fiction stories:

Just months after the Wright brothers made the first airplane flight in 1903, Rudyard Kipling wrote "A Story of 2000 AD" predicting a world of huge flying airships. In this scene, a ray of light strikes an airship over the ocean at night: "She falls stern first, our beam upon her; slides like a lost soul down that pitiless ladder of light, and the Atlantic takes her."

Reuterdahl worked in an era when artists still painted machines as if they were a new kind of flower.

Turner's painting of an early locomotive: " Wind, Rain and Speed"

But the world was changing. The scientific revolution had spawned the industrial revolution, which would soon lead to the technological revolution. The breath of robots was beginning to be felt across the world.

As machines became more familiar and less mystical, they lost much of their organic beauty in the eyes of artists. With a few exceptions (such as the late lamented Stanley Meltzoff or John Berkey) illustrators soon depicted machines with a sharper focus and a harder edge.

Fifty years after Kipling, the great poet Peter Viereck was no longer mistaking machinery for a new kind of flower:

During the fourth and fifth world wars, the tanks
Will still obey, still seem to serve their humans...
The sixth war they will serve more sullenly--
And suddenly will know their day has come,
The birthday of the Prince of all the tanks

And then will humans all be jitterbugs,
Migrate like locusts from their dance-hall doors,
And sing with insect-voices metal-shrill:
"Our god is born!" and roll to him like grapes
Till all their frenzy begs His metal treads:
"Love us to death, love us to death," the day
Creation's final goal, Prince Tank, is born.

Some people will be tempted to look back at Reuterdahl's early concept of science as a naive moment before childhood's end. That would be a mistake. These lyrical images continue to retain an important wisdom of their own.

Monday, May 12, 2008



The artist's dilemma: you can't accomplish anything without compromises, but compromises distort what you hoped to accomplish.

One heartbreaking example of this is animator Richard Williams' 25 year struggle to bring his masterpiece, The Thief and the Cobbler to the screen.

Williams was the artist behind such films as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and A Christmas Carol. An uncompromising perfectionist, Williams set out in 1964 using his own money from commercial assignments to make a complex and sophisticated animated film based on ancient Arabian stories. As one web history reports:

Williams had a fearsome reputation for doing things his way, more so now with a pet project designed to showcase the intricate possibilities in hand-drawn animation. He was ferociously dedicated to his dream. Each and every element which could be animated would be animated. And he was ruthless with his newly-expanded crew, hiring and firing incessantly. He had a vision and only the very best would be employed in its creation.
Williams' funds soon ran out, but in the 1970s he obtained additional funding from Prince Mohammed Faisil of Saudi Arabia. After years of delays and editorial disagreements, the Prince withdrew funding. A few years later, Williams found new funding from Warner Brothers. However, the studio made him sign a guarantee that he would complete his film in 18 months.

Williams could not resist perfecting his project and missed his deadline.

To make matters worse, while Williams obssessively worked and reworked his drawings, the Disney corporate machine beat him to the box office with its own animated Arabian stories, Aladdin. As one commentator notes, Disney's heavily promoted feature "vacuumed up the market for animated Arabian adventures."

With only 15 minutes of material left to shoot, Williams' investors confiscated his masterpiece and turned artistic control over to a Completion Bond Company. The Bond Company re-dubbed and re-cut the movie, adding songs and bringing in new voices that sounded more "American." When the flawed version was finally released by Miramax, it sank like a stone.

Now, grieving co-workers and die-hard fans are like beachcombers salvaging remnants of a shipwreck that have washed up on shore. Fragments of Williams' original vision, lovingly reconstructed, can be found all over youtube and the blogosphere. They give us a glimpse of Williams' brilliance and tantalize us with what might have been.

So much of art today is a corporate effort, dependent upon teamwork, institutional funding, and an electronic infrastructure powered by utility companies and implemented with hardware and software from multinational corporations. Each new element has the potential to add new dimensions to art, but each requires fresh compromises as well.

Many of the talents required to complete this type of art are not artistic talents. That is why, time and again, I find myself returning to the mark of a humble pencil on paper to find the essence of an artist's talent.


Monday, May 05, 2008


One reason to take a second look at the great Russian illustrator Illya Repin is that art critic Clement Greenberg didn't think Repin was worth a second look.

Scene from the underwater adventures of the Russian hero Sadko

In his famous essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch, Greenberg sneered at Repin's art, explaining that an "ignorant peasant" prefers Repin while "cultivated" people prefer abstract artists such as Picasso:
[W]hen an ignorant Russian peasant... stands with hypothetical freedom of choice before two paintings, one by Picasso, the other by Repin....[i]n the first he sees, let us say, a play of lines, colors and spaces that represent a woman.... He turns next to Repin's picture and sees a battle scene.... Picasso [is] austere and barren in comparison. What is more, Repin heightens reality and makes it dramatic: sunset, exploding shells, running and falling men.... Repin is what the peasant wants, and nothing else but Repin. It is lucky, however, for Repin that the peasant is protected from the products of American capitalism, for he would not stand a chance next to a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell....
I must be a peasant, for when I saw Repin's originals in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, I found them staggeringly beautiful.

The Volga boatmen

Cossacks writing a mocking letter to the Sultan of Turkey

Raising Jairus Daughter

Portrait of Tolstoy

Greenberg's essay has been described as "one of the important theoretical documents of 20th century culture." Greenberg proceeded (over the bodies of excellent painters such as Repin and Rockwell) to become the primary cheerleader and intellectual architect for abstract expressionism.

Me, I like both Picasso and Repin. I even like Clement Greenberg, who was a brilliant writer and theorist. There's just one little problem with Greenberg's argument...

As Svetlana Boym of Harvard notes,
Greenberg's example of kitsch is Ilia Repin's battle scenes which, he claims, merely imitate the effect of artistic battles.... however, the fact is that Repin never painted any battle scenes. Possibly Greenberg is confusing Repin with another painter or rehearsing someone else's cliches...
This is the kind of careful analysis which led to "20th century culture." Greenberg concludes his criticism of Repin this way:
Repin predigests art for the spectator and spares him effort, provides him with a short cut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art. Repin, or kitsch, is synthetic art.
Apparently, the "difficult" part of art does not include bothering to look at the pictures you criticize.