Saturday, January 29, 2011

ARTISTS AT WAR, part two

The illustrator Harry Everett Townsend (1879-1941) was born on a small farm in Illinois. As a young boy he showed early talent, painting signs for local farmers on the delivery route for his father's peddling wagon.

But farm life was too confining for Townsend. As a teenager, he struck out on his bicycle for the big city and when he got to Chicago, enrolled in the Art Institute where he studied under
Lorado Taft. But Townsend remained restless and after two years he moved on to Wilmington Delaware where he trained under the famed Howard Pyle. From there he made his way to Europe to study briefly at the Academie Moderne in Paris.

When he turned 25, Townsend married and seemed to settle down as an illustrator working in New York for magazines such as
Scribner's, Harper's and Century.

Century Magazine

But Townsend remained hungry to see the larger world, and when World War I flared up, Townsend volunteered to cover it. He wrote, "I had gotten drunk, as it were, with the future pictorial possibilities in what I saw, and what my imagination saw, in the warfare that was so soon to come."

Townsend was one of eight artists chosen by the U.S. government to be official "war artists" accompanying the Armed Expeditionary Forces. (Other AEF artists included two other Pyle students,
Harvey Dunn and W.J. Aylward). Townsend's war diary records his excitement about his upcoming adventure:
I left New York in a blinding snow, into the submarine zone with its constant alarms, and through it. My trip through London... with an air raid thrown in.... and the nervous excitement of finding myself suddenly in the war zone, for, while one realized at all times the dangers on the sea, one really felt he had arrived when he found himself in the midst of the bursting of enemy bombs and the sight of enemy planes....

It didn't take long for Townsend to witness the effect of those "bursting enemy bombs:"
Everywhere among the blownup trenches and in the shellholes are pieces of what were once men. Here and there, a whole or a piece of bone; here and there a shoe with a foot still in it.
In addition, the incessant rain and cold spoiled many of his artistic ambitions. Yet, Townsend drew a series of powerful pictures such as this poster:

"Refugees fleeing a storm tossed area, with all the sorrow and misery and pathos that went with it...."

As brutal as his experience was, Townsend believed there was no substitute for an artist witnessing his subject personally:
In hindsight, Tragic and moving... But I knew that not to have seen it during the conflict was not to have seen it as it really was, even for pictorial reference... And I am thankful I was there and I am conscious of the opportunity I had to see and gather material and, better than the actual material, the impressions, spiritual and material, that alone can furnish the inspiration for a convincing pictorial record of what the great struggle was like.
Townsend's wartime experience seemed to have an impact on his style, replacing his light and airy drawings for Century Magazine with a bolder, darker outlook.

Don Pittenger has suggested that great war art is usually not created in the heat of battle, but only afterward, a safe distance from the fighting. Townsend seems to have agreed with this. He wrote after the war, "now I felt ready to achieve something of my ambitions, counting as of little, even ephemeral value , the things we had been able to do during the time we were so nervously, yet energetically, storing up for the future.... Perhaps the greatest pictures of the war can only come with time."

Unfortunately, the U.S. government had neither the time nor the budget nor the interest to commission "the greatest pictures of the war." One suspects that the government was never interested in "great pictures" so much as it was interested in effective pictures for the war effort. In either event, the eight war artists were quickly disbanded and sent home to their civilian lives.

In truth, Townsend seemed to have little interest in pursuing those "greatest pictures" either. He wanted nothing more than to return to normalcy. He settled down in the small town of Norwalk, Connecticut where he bought an old barn to use as a studio, painting domestic scenes and teaching art. And he never moved again.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


At long last, a book devoted to the life and art of the great illustrator Robert Fawcett has been released by the art publisher, Auad Publishing.

It is a hard cover 9x12" book with a dust jacket, 182 deluxe pages, and a special foldout for Fawcett's well known Civil War panorama. The book was a labor of love for the publisher, who selected and edited the numerous color and black and white images used in the book. Those who know Mr. Auad know he spent years tracking down hard-to-find tearsheets and originals of Fawcett's art in order to make this the definitive collection of the famed draftsman's work.

The book has an introduction by Walt Reed and the text is by yours truly. For a look at sample pages, or to order the book, go to the Auad Publishing web site.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


What topic has been more intriguing for artists than the sympathy of mortal flesh for mortal flesh?

From the beginning it has been Topic A: "Always Interesting."

Prehistoric kiss, 3500BCE

Nefertiti's kiss, 1350 BCE

John Gannam, Good Housekeeping 1954

While the ballet between living organisms continues to fascinate, the more recent relationship between organisms and machines has emerged to command the attention of artists, sometimes in profound ways.

After the industrial revolution, artists began to look at engines, gears and wires (which were born with a function but no inherent design) and integrate them into nature's laws of design as if they were some new species of flower. For example, the first locomotives were raucous, clanking intruders that frightened horses and scarred the landscape but artists such as Turner and Monet began to place them in an aesthetic framework.

And consider how artists projected notions of beauty onto flying machines:

Illustrator Henry Reuterdahl imagined airships of the future for one of the earliest science fiction stories. In the following picture, a beam of light zaps an airship over the ocean at night. Reuterdahl did not strive for technical accuracy but instead depicted the machine using the same naturalistic approach he used for the sea gull.

"She falls stern first, our beam upon her; slides like a lost soul down that pitiless ladder of light, and the Atlantic takes her."

N.C. Wyeth, too, used his powerful imagination to conjure up this lyrical vision of early aircraft:


As machines have expanded into more important and intricate roles, their relationships with human beings have become more open ended. Artists' observations have graduated beyond the external designs of machines, sometimes assigning them character and personality.

Compare French illustrator G. Dutriac's early depiction of technology from the sky, a pyramid of light triumphing over the primitive and savage Berbers fighting on horseback in North Africa...


...with Picasso's pyramid of light from a later airplane (depicted as an electric light bulb placed in the fearsome eye of a wrathful machine-deity in the sky). The two beams share a similar shape, but you can tell the moral character of the machine has changed dramatically.


Just as God is supposed to have breathed life into Adam, thereby transforming inert dust into a living being, artists imbue lifeless machines with character, meaning and even moral content. Artists "design" the character of the machine, and then take as their subject the relationship between the character of a human and the character of the machine.

For you skeptics out there saying, "yeah, but machines will never make it past first base in their relationships with humans," I refer you to the work of Ashley Wood, who has built a career on the aesthetics of juxtaposing the tender places of nubile women against giant war robots:

Or painter Phil Hale, who vividly pits human muscle and sinew against machinery in an endless, iconic struggle.

Living organisms now have no choice but to share the stage with machines. It remains to be seen whether their relationship offers artists opportunities for Shakespearean level profundity, or whether this new relationship is just the thrill of encountering something different that by the way vibrates.

Perhaps our relationships with machines only appear more profound as relationships between humans become more superficial. When mortal flesh is downgraded to the status of mere meat, interactions with machines can begin to seem pretty interesting by comparison.

Sunday, January 02, 2011


[Blogger reports that today is my 300th post. I never expected to take this blog past 50, but what started as a fun way to highlight some under-appreciated artists, tell a few truths in support of those who already know them, and share some good stories became an unexpected source of stimulating dialogues and rewarding acquaintances. Many thanks to all who have participated, and happy new year to all!]

Ralph Waldo Emerson just couldn't get over how cool a library is:
Consider what you have in the smallest chosen library. A company of the wisest and wittiest men that could be picked out of all civil countries in a thousand years have set in best order the results of their learning and wisdom. The men themselves were hid and inaccessible, solitary and impatient of interruption, fenced by etiquette; but the thought which they did not uncover to their bosom friend is here written out in transparent words for us.
Today it's even better. We not only access the "wisest and wittiest men," but women as well, and from "uncivil" countries. We don't even need to go to a library: we can access these riches from our computer.

In a year of recession and high unemployment, with economic wealth increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few at the top, I am heartened by the artists who recognize alternative kinds of wealth freely available from libraries and museums.

When the great draftsman Noel Sickles was asked where he learned to draw, he responded, "In a library." Sickles had no formal art education but was able to teach himself from images he found in the public library in Chillicothe, Ohio:
I studied not only American cartooning, but all over the world: European, particularly. I became acquainted with all of the various types of cartooning. I went back and studied Simplicissimus and Jugend [magazines] and so on, and that got me more and more into becoming aware of illustration. And I then did the same thing there. I went through, well, the entire background, as much as I could find.
Building from these examples, Sickles develop formidable artistic powers:

Imagine what he could have done if he'd had the resources of the internet.

As an impoverished child, Albert Dorne couldn't afford food, let alone art classes. At age 10, he began cutting school 3 or 4 days a week to sneak off to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where he taught himself to draw by copying the pictures. The determined little boy soon became well known to and admired by the museum staff.

After he became a famous illustrator, Dorne did everything he could to make sure that resources would be available for later generations of children.

Libraries are not relics of the past. One of today's best illustrators, Phil Hale, said:
I grew up in a town with a terrific traditional library, and a great collection of art books including many Illustrators annuals.... But also books about Brandywine and other early twentieth-century movements... The library was hugely important to me.
There's nothing dated about Hale's sensational work:

Arthur Koestler was convinced that the right book will find us in time to fulfill our destiny. He recounted how, as a depressed and impoverished failure in Paris in the 1930s, he decided to commit suicide. He turned on the gas in his apartment and lay down on his bug stained mattress. "But as I was settling down on it, a book crashed on my head from the wobbly shelf. It nearly broke my nose, so I got up [and] turned off the gas." The book turned out to be about the Nazis coming to power in Germany. Said Koestler, "a more drastic pointer to the despicableness of my antics could hardly be imagined." He regrouped and went on to became a world famous author with a huge impact on the international politics of his day.

We can't always count on the proper book landing on our nose. We need the vision to recognize value in its potential form, and the initiative to transform it into kinetic form. Those traits are not among the advantages provided by wealth and privilege. Libraries are the great equalizer.