Wednesday, January 27, 2010

WILLIAM COTTON (1880-1958)

William Cotton trained as a fine artist at the Academie Julien in Paris. He exhibited at the Luxembourg Museum and other esteemed institutions, such as the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington and the Art Institute of Chicago.

But Cotton's gallery paintings-- consistent with the fashion of his day-- often looked like sappy Victorian Valentines. They are mercifully forgotten today.

In the 1930s, Cotton turned from gallery painting to illustration and began doing caricatures of Broadway stars, writers and politicians for Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. For the first time, Cotton was forced to accept the subjects that editors assigned to him. He was forced to work on deadline. He no longer had the luxury of unlimited space to paint fancy lace collars and detailed fabric. Instead, he was forced to cut to the essentials, and simplify his images for reproduction on a small magazine page. The result was a long series of really neat, beautifully colored caricatures:

Cotton quickly became one of the most famous caricaturists of the 1930s. His artwork was seen by tens of thousands of people. Eleanor Roosevelt called his Vanity Fair portrait of her, "my favorite character picture."

I love the colors and bold simplification of forms in these pictures. For me, they are far superior to Cotton's gallery work. The relentless efficiency of the marketplace scrubbed away a lot of frills and pretensions, leaving Cotton's work clear, robust and decisive.

We love to be outraged when tasteless commercial sponsors impose restrictions on talented artists. Yet, nobody talks about the other side of the coin: artists whose mediocre "fine" art was improved by the challenges and limitations of commercial media and commercial audiences. It does happen, and we should keep our eyes and our minds open for it.

Those cold blooded market forces do a lot of damage, but there can also be value in keeping art employed in the service of commerce (just as the very first art was employed in the service of the hunt, back in the Cromagnon era). Art that serves no purpose other than to hang as an object on a museum wall often suffers because it is not integrated into daily life. That's one reason I have such a soft spot in my heart for illustration.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Art is a double edged sword. It enhances our experience of life, but also obstructs and diminishes it.

We spend most of our time here at the good ol' Illustration Art blog focusing on that enhancement part, but today as a special public service we offer some thoughts on that dark side of art-- the part they never mentioned in your Art Appreciation class.

Goethe believed the arts make us more sensitive. In The Sorrows of Young Werther he described a cultured young couple in love:
We went to the window. It was still thundering at a distance: a soft rain was pouring down over the country, and filled the air around us with delicious odours. Charlotte leaned forward on her arm; her eyes wandered over the scene; she raised them to the sky, and then turned them upon me; they were moistened with tears; she placed her hand on mine and said, “Klopstock!”
The mere mention of the poet Friedrich Gottfried Klopstock (1724-1803) caused our hero to quiver with emotion:
At once I remembered the magnificent ode which was in her thoughts: I felt oppressed with the weight of my sensations, and sank under them. It was more than I could bear. I bent over her hand, kissed it in a stream of delicious tears, and again looked up to her eyes. Divine Klopstock!
Now, I'm a fan of sensitivity just as much as the next guy, but when it is left to run rampant, sensitivity can be downright debilitating. Goethe's couple leaves me gasping for air.

There's no shortage of examples of art getting in the way of life. Consider those young males who fixate on fantasy pictures of naked space vixens in garter belts and spiked heels. They collect such images in magazines, art portfolios and limited edition giclee prints.   They play with such images in graphic computer games.  But after a point, such images distract young men from real life relationships. If we let fantasy art distort our taste and values and expectations, we may find ourselves with only deluxe coated archival paper stock to fondle. Art can lure us away from Ruskin's principle that "the only wealth is life."

This did not escape the attention of Walt Whitman, who asked: "Have you reckon'd that the landscape took substance and form that it might be painted in a picture?"

Here, Ronald Searle shows us someone who apparently got the answer wrong:

It seems to me that there is a bargain between art and life. To derive the most from art, we should keep the trade offs of that bargain freshly in mind:

  • Art robs us of time, but with the promise that it will pay us back by saving us time later. In theory, art will mature us, enrich us, and educate us faster than we could ever experience just by living our solitary lives. It will expose us to a wider range of perspectives than we could ever experience in real time.

  • Art comes between us and the immediacy of experience, but with the promise that its filters will enrich the way we perceive those experiences.
  • Art tells us lies (often starting with the illusion of 3D on a 2D surface) with the promise that those lies will eventually help us see the truth more clearly.
  • Art is supposed to sensitize us, but as Werther demonstrated, it's possible to become too sensitive. There are a lot of complex, high strung people out there whose refined palates do them no good at all. They have trouble getting pleasure out of life or having good relationships; you see them picking at everything, having lost the ability to take pleasure in the merely nice.
If you weigh everything we surrender to art in exchange for the good things we receive from it, it is easy to see how art could become the enemy of life. In my view, maintaining a proper balance between art and life is a major part of the challenge of appreciating art.

I try to keep in mind the wise philosophy of Lionello Venturi, who wrote:

What ultimately matters in art is not the canvas, the hue of oil or tempera, the anatomical structure and all the other measurable items, but its contribution to our life, its suggestions to our sensations, feeling and imagination.

Monday, January 11, 2010

FRANK BRANGWYN (1867-1956)

Frank Brangwyn had a special talent for depicting grand structures such as cathedrals, bridges and ships.

He drew individual human beings the same way, as if they were monumental structures. He posed and rendered them with the kind of weight, grandeur and dignity he would have applied to a cathedral:

Brangwyn had an excellent eye for the glories of the secular world; he was able to show the magnificence-- and even the divinity-- of laborers working in a shipyard. That's part of what made his work so appealing to the public. However, he did not lead a particularly religious life.

Then, while he was still at he peak of his powers, Brangwyn became more interested in formal religion, and from the 1930's on, "devoted himself to religious art."

Biographer Libby Horner offered one explanation for Brangwyn's transformation:
As the artist grew older and faced mortality he produced more religious works in which he frequently included his own image as if he feared retribition for having been a "bad lot" and, in his own superstitous manner, was hoping to redeem himself.
I was reminded of Brangwyn when I received the new portfolio of his illustrations of the Stations of the Cross from Auad Publishing (the publisher responsible for the forthcoming book on the illustrator Robert Fawcett).

As you can see from the drawings in the Auad portfolio, Brangwyn never lost his gift for classical staging of figures:

The newly religious Brangwyn drew himself into a number of these drawings. Clearly he was wrestling with a lot of issues.

Brangwyn was internationally famous during his lifetime, but as he aged, the modern art world passed him by. Scholars will tell you that modern artists and writers became embittered by the horrors of World War I and the hard lesson that modern science would not necessarily be a tool for progress. Brangwyn's triumphal style gave way to abstraction and art that questioned fundamental principles of western civilization.

The once gregarious artist, who had found such glory in the secular world, led an increasingly reclusive and superstitious life and died in 1956.

Sunday, January 03, 2010


Civilizations can be judged by how their illustrators portray the story of St. George and the Dragon

The basic facts of the eternal triangle between man, woman and dragon are well known. But while the facts don't change, the artist's interpretation changes dramatically through the ages. Contrast these four wonderful pictures of St. George and the dragon: First is a breathtaking painting created circa 1438 by the Catalan master Bernardo Martorell:

 This painting was created in an age of unshakeable faith in right and wrong, a world of absolutes-- the virginal purity of the damsel, the evil of the dragon and the virtue of the knight. You will also note that the picture doesn't contain a whole lot of perspective (both literally and metaphorically):

I ask you: what dragon-- or knight-- could possibly resist such an esculent little tea cake?
A mere 150 years later, Tintoretto painted the same story but from a very different angle:

Now the damsel in distress has become the muscle bound victor sitting heavily astride the poor dragon she clobbered:

No sidesaddle here

350 years later, when religious certainty and absolute principles had subsided a bit, Al Williamson offered yet another perspective in the classic EC Weird Fantasy story,  By George!!


 Here, we learn that the "dragon" is merely a lost and confused alien child who is tricked and slaughtered by the ruthless St. George. We now have to ask ourselves, "who is the real monster?" A few decades later, William Steig offered yet another perspective on the relationship. Here, the damsel is frightened more by the martial clanking of the knight than by the dragon.


 In both form and content, Steig's approach is light yet insightful. Later, Jeff Jones offers us a completely different (and hotter) perspective on the triangle:


 Martorell would not have recognized his damsel. It is fun to play with how these interpretations have changed through the years. Life obviously got harder for St. George as the world became more complex. He evolves from saint to villain to resentful cuckold. The damsel changes from a decorative ornament passively awaiting her rescuer to an active participant, and then ultimately to the wanton master of the situation. Even the dragon fits in roles as a villain, a helpless victim and a hero. 

Look at how much richness we gain as these four different artists use standard characters to triangulate the complexity of love. Has our loyalty shifted away from knights and towards dragons? Do we know more today about what lurks in the hearts of damsels? 

 The difference between an illustrator and a geometry teacher is that the geometry teacher believes there are only three angles in a triangle. As we look ahead on the shiny new year of 2010, it seems rich with potential for those who embrace the complexities of the world and put them together in fresh combinations. 

  "It's a magical world, Hobbes ol' buddy. Let's go exploring."