Saturday, July 19, 2008


I love Mort Drucker's drawing of General Patton:

Drucker clearly owes a debt to Arthur Szyk's famous portrayals of Nazi generals from the 1940s:

Yet, as much as I love Szyk's paintings, for me Drucker's is the stronger work. Compare these two details to understand how differently the two artists make decisions:

Szyk makes thousands of tiny choices, shading with color and small feathering brush strokes. None of these lines is particularly insightful or descriptive by itself, although the cumulative effect is splendid. By contrast, Drucker's bold line is an act of supreme confidence. Every time Drucker's brush touches the paper, he is making a thoughtful observation about an object in the world.

The great illustrator Austin Briggs offered the following wisdom about the benefits of working with the restrictions imposed by line:
Line ... is the most limited medium.... [I]t's necessary to know the limitation one is dealing with in order to use its positive qualities to the fullest advantage....[O]nce we know what drawing cannot do, we are on the way toward expressing [a subject] in the marvelously simple way a line can function....[I]ts real shape reveals itself because we must speak with such limited means.


Jeffrey Meyer said...

Drucker is good, but c'mon...

First of all, I don't think the two drawings are of a similar style: The Drucker piece is a B&W line drawing with a simple wash (basically two values) whereas the Szyk pieces are full-color -- essentially paintings with a lot of linework.

Secondly, Szyk's interpretive distortions of the subjects' characteristics and body language - an essential aspect of caricature - are simultaneously subtler and more extreme than Drucker's. Drucker's Scott/Patton is stiff and lifeless, as well as oddly cropped above the knees -- obviously drawn from a photo (?). Syzk's Nazis are fully-figured and carry their indulgent weight with slovenly strides.

Finally, the abundance of rendering detail in the Syzk is conistent enough and so well done that it is clearly a chosen style, not a crutch. The guy knew exactly what he was doing.

This sort of strikes me like comparing Risko with Covarrubias -- there's no contest.

Jeffrey Meyer said...

"as well as oddly cropped above the knees"

Excuse me, I meant to say "above the ankles".

David Apatoff said...

Jeffrey, as I have confessed before on this blog, I usually prefer drawing as an art form over painting (hence this recurring theme of "one lovely drawing.") I know there are many people who don't share my personal preference, but I think this comparison of Szyk and Drucker offers a good example of why I feel the way I do.

Despite the difference in medium, it seems fair to compare these works because they are the exact same subject-- caricatures of bloated, pompous self-important military men bespangled with medals and ribbons.

Drawing (and in this case, Drucker's drawing) obviously conveys information in a different way than painting. Drucker's line on those pants legs establishes his priorities. It finds design in nature and conveys structural information and, by its variety, conveys a 3 dimensionality that (in my opinion) Szyk's picture does not. In Szyk's painting (like Szyk's drawings), the artist strives to accomplish with a lot of tiny cross hatching what Drucker ably accomplishes by applying more or less pressure on a single brush stroke. Notice that all of Szyk's brush strokes are a uniform thickness and length. No one of them requires the strong commitment-- or displays the wisdom-- of Drucker's line. In fact, Szyk allows himself plenty of room to retreat from any fifty brush strokes just by adding more cross hatching.

It is true that Drucker used reference photos, just as Degas, Lautrec and Gauguin did. I don't know whether Szyk did. But the important point, as Briggs also noted, is to relegate the camera to its proper role: "a gatherer of information which has not yet been digested." I guarantee you that you won't find any photograph anywhere that looks like those Drucker legs.

As for the odd cropping at the ankles, that is my fault. The printed version in MAD magazine is cropped higher. Drucker drew his original to extend beyond the panel border with a margin for error.

Finally, I should add that I agree with you that Szyk was an artist who knew what he was doing. I have written about his work before on this blog and I collect it avidly. I think Szyk is generally a better painter than Drucker. But here I think that Drucker's is a stronger display of artistic skill.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

A higher degree of artistic skill, perhaps, but it's still apples and oranges. A really good apple and a so-so orange. There's no attempt with Szyk to use that kind of simplification to line in his drawing, so we can't compare his skill in that field to Drucker's performance here. There's really no reference point between both pictures aside from that they're caricatures of a similar subject matter. And in that field I feel Szyk makes the more clear statement. The composition of Drucker's drawing just keeps my eyes at the tension between the face and hand, instead of the medals, where they should be. In Syzk's it moves around from face to the medals and back and back again.

David Apatoff said...

Benjamin, I wouldn't fight a pitched battle over our differences because I hold both artists in such high regard. I hope it doesn't seem like I am trying to hand out a trophy for which is the "best artist" as I don't think of that as a productive way to look at art.

What I hope to do is to illustrate Austin Briggs' point that a line is the "most limited" artistic medium but that those very limitations create countervailing "positive qualities" in a drawing. Reducing everything to a line forces an artist to evaluate (that is, assign value to) his subject in a way that a painter does not. When Szyk draws in pen and ink (I have now created a link to my earlier Szyk post) he draws in a monotone--his line does not seem to prioritize, and it lacks the kind of commitment that demonstrates the judgment of a mature artist. When an artist is already working with the "most limited" medium, it's hard to dispense with such tools.

Here, Szyk's picture may be made up of lots of colored lines (click on the detail) but it seems to me that his uniform cross hatching shows less character, boldness and knowledge of his subject than Drucker's.

Some people instinctively think that grand, full color pictures must be better than simple line drawings just as some people prefer symphonies to chamber music. I don't happen to be one of those people, and what I am trying to explore here are the quieter virtues of the line. For that reason, I do appreciate your response and Jeffrey's as well. I have a lot of sympathy for your positions.

joe ackerman said...

i have always been a great fan of mort drucker's stuff. i remember as a kid learning how to draw hands by copying panels from drucker strips, over and over. i don't pretend to have the understanding of drawing that yourself and mr. meyer obviously have ( " i don't know art, but i know what i like " ), but from a purely personal point of view i am drawn ( no pun intended ) towards the drucker picture more because of it's simplicity. i remember, when i was younger, my dad explaining to me that the larger struggle in the production of any picture was knowing what to leave out rather than what to put in, and i think that drucker pretty much had that idea nailed, in much the same way that, say, al williamson or alex raymond or milton caniff did.

terrific blog, by the way, sir. always a joy.

Jeffrey Meyer said...

Just to clarify my position, David: Line drawing is, without a doubt, my favorite form of illustration as well -- and for the same reasons you attribute to the Drucker example (judicious economy, etc.). I mean, I could look at guys like Toth, Rackham, etc. all day...

I wonder if someone else from the "Mad" stable - Will Elder? - would have been a better comparison to Szyk.

At any rate, a thought provoking post as always - thanks!

Alison said...

I really love your blog. I have been trying to convince my students of the power of a single line, mostly using Matisse's line drawings-they are fantastic. I plan on showing them your example today. Sure both works are great, but Drucker's lines, each isolated, are great all on their own. As you say, it is the confidence in which they were drawn.
I'm hooked!

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

"I hope it doesn't seem like I am trying to hand out a trophy for which is the "best artist" as I don't think of that as a productive way to look at art."

Oh no, not at all! Nor am I trying to do that. There are certain elements I prefer in the Szyk, and other qualities I prefer in the Drucker. I was just agreeing with Mr. Meyer that it seemed like a strange comparison. But I too fully agree with what you talked about concerning quality and economy of line. I've recently been looking at a lot of Schiele, and in his case there's no way around how powerful economy of line can be (especially, in my opinion, in his last few years, where his tendency was more realist).

Anonymous said...

While I like the Szyk, aside from its political statement, it is a rather shallow picture, in my opinion. It is a shallow caricature (especially compared with Drucker's nuance) showing little personality and little emotional "life" and it is weakly observed in terms of its anatomy and cloth folds, for instance, as well as its pose, which is awkward and off balance.

A strange thing, how the life in Drucker's art brings a greater believability than Szyks full paint job. Szyk's piece just looks flat... his lack of form works against the attempt at grotesque obesity. The form has lumps, but no weight. There is no sagging flab to demonstrate viscerally the Nazi's debasement. There's also no sense to the detail. It just proliferates, resulting in a decorative effect, rather than something pointed and located. The Szyk ends up being "just pretty" if we leave aside our knowledge of the swastika.

Drucker has a strong bead on reality and everything he goes for, from the pants to the medals, to the posture to the caricature, he nails dead on. Szyk seems to be trying for effects he can't achieve and ends up making a point (look how pretty a whole gaggle of ornament can be on a blue coat over pink pants) that he clearly did no intend. Maybe this is the main trouble with political art... you had to be there. And unless the work can hold up outside a political context, the piece is not "for the ages." In that regard, I also find the Szyk to be lacking in content. The observation the artist has made is not a human one, merely a political one.

(Incidentally: A better comparison might be a Drucker picture of a Nazi or a Drucker picture of an obese villain.)


(P.S. Dave, did you get the W.H.E email attachment of last week?)

Matthew Adams said...

"Drucker clearly owes a debt to Arthur Szyk's famous portrayals of Nazi generals from the 1940s:"

Not sure I follow that, as I see no clear progression from Szyk's work to Drucker. I can see a semblance in subject matter and thar's all. Of course, that is not to say Drucker wasn't influenced by Szyk (and you would probably know more about that then myself), just that it isn't clear from these two illustrations.

I tend to agree that Drucker's is the stronger work though, expressing more with much less.

Traven said...

Szyk is kind of showing little personality and emotional life precisely in order to draw a contrast between those things and the overwhelming richness and delicacy of visible display. Presumably, his line is kind of dumb because it is shallowness that he tries to depict.

Drucker is more economical. But there are battles of ideas to be won by fencing sword, and others by more robust weapon. Szyk lived in a historically tougher time, and he experienced that toughness _fully_

I'm not from the US; I live under a strong cultural and historical influence of Mitteleuropa. Quite possibly, that makes me automatically more appreciative of Szyk just as your American culture makes you more appreciative of Drucker.

spacejack said...

Ha, I had that issue of Mad. Patton (was the parody titled "Put-on"?) was one those movies I read in Mad before seeing.

These are interesting drawings to compare. I have to side with David in preferring Drucker's work, for the reasons he stated, but also because I found it very hard to read Szyk piece from the waist down.

EL GRANDE said...

I would marry this image, divorce it, and then pay a hefty alimony without even batting an eye. I mean that : )

Joe y Elio

David Apatoff said...

Thanks Kev, Matthew and Spacejack. Szyk did a lot of great work, including many Nazi generals with chests full of medals. I hope I haven't done him a disservice by focusing on this particular piece. Spacejack, as for the blobby, amorphous shape of the Nazi's lower half, have you ever seen Dubuffet's series of women called "corps de dames"? They look like they were squished flat by a steam roller. The outline of their forms, like the outline of this Nazi, have lost the normal symmetry of a human being but they are extremely interesting shapes.

Traven, I was very interested in your last paragraph. Can you expand on that for me?

David Apatoff said...

El Grande, I would buy this image an ice cream soda and hold its hand, smiling as we sipped.

Anonymous said...

"Line ... is the most limited medium.... [I]t's necessary to know the limitation one is dealing with in order to use its positive qualities to the fullest advantage....[O]nce we know what drawing cannot do, we are on the way toward expressing [a subject] in the marvelously simple way a line can function....[I]ts real shape reveals itself because we must speak with such limited means."

That expresses exactly why I love hand-drawn animation.

Anonymous said...

That sir, is a portrait of George C. Scott, however you like to slice it.

Paul Kennedy said...

"they are the exact same subject-- caricatures of bloated, pompous self-important military men bespangled with medals and ribbons."

Except that Patton was a courageous hero and the Nazis were brutal, bloodthirsty savages. Szyk's purpose in those paintings was to ridicule the Nazis and portray them for the evil they are. You think that being "pompous' or "self-important" is reason enough to make fun of him like you would the Nazis?

Peter Selgin said...

Such an interesting discussion thread on a good but perhaps unintentionally provocative blog entry. From boyhood I am a fan of Drucker's work; I spent years studying that line of his, and his way of conjuring subtle shadows of our thicks and thins. He can turn a line on a dime, and his likenesses are superb. And it has also been my privilege to meet the gentle man.

In art school I used to argue with my professors, trying to enjoin them in my belief that little but time and subject matter stood between Drucker and van Gogh-—my other artistic idol. Alas, they were not persuaded. And neither am I, any longer.

Mort is a cartoonist. When we met I was saddened to learn that in his spare time he did not paint or pursue art of a "finer" type. The walls of his suburban home were decorated with framed Norman Rockwell prints or their equivalents, and might have been the walls of a shoe salesman's home.

Bottom line: Mort is a technician, and a brilliant and witty one. But alas MAD magazine, a diversion for adolescents, was his work's perfect and nearly its sole context. What isn't disposable in his work is mainly nostalgic, and of interest to those who earn their living by their line. But to dig for anything deeper in his work is to find oneself staring through a hole in a piece of kid finish Bristol board.

Michael Dorosh said...

Drucker didn't draw Patton. He drew George C. Scott - who happened to be dressed up as Patton. I think it is a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless.