Sunday, February 27, 2011


Joe De Mers (1910-1984) illustrated women's magazines in the 1940s and 1950s, a market characterized by simplified pictures of pretty girls against plain backgrounds.

Later generations would look down on what Robert Weaver ridiculed as "candy box" illustration. Jim Silke accurately noted, "that style was derisively called the 'big head school of illustration,' a name derived from the fact that every picture was dominated by a huge close up of a beautiful woman...." Illustrator Al Parker explained the popularity of such illustrations with tasteless audiences:
Readers demand pretty people in pretty settings forming a pretty picture. The larger your audience, the more limited its taste. It prefers subject matter to design and girls to men. It wants no message other than girls are cute and men like cute girls.
At the same time De Mers was catering to popular taste, genius artists such as De Kooning, Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell and Diebenkorn were boldly experimenting with abstract paintings. Compare the freedom, vigor and originality of De Kooning's brilliant masterpiece:

...with these details from the bourgeois pablum being served up by De Mers:



See the difference?

Monday, February 21, 2011


In 1894, Scottish artist James Pryde teamed with English artist William Nicholson to create posters under the pseudonym "the Beggarstaff Brothers" (a name they found on a torn sack of grain in an old stable yard).

Pryde and Nicholson brought very different perspectives to their partnership. Pryde was tall and heavy, while Nicholson was short and thin. Pryde grew up in a noisy, eccentric household of "violent views" while Nicholson was raised in a "gentle, well-bred, well-mannered atmosphere." Pryde was outspoken and gregarious, while Nicholson was quiet and detached. Pryde worked very casually while Nicholson was serious and driven. Recalled Pryde, "our opinions on artistic matters differed widely."

If those weren't enough causes for friction, Nicholson fell in love with Pryde's younger sister against her mother's wishes. Colin Campbell's excellent book on the Beggarstaffs reports that "after a courtship conducted largely, it seems, among the coalsacks in the cellar of the Pryde's Bloomsbury home, the couple married in secret at Ruslip on 25 April 1893."

Who could ask for a better foundation for an artistic partnership?

Yet, their clashing perspectives seem to have stimulated them to abandon the dominant styles of their day in favor of a radical new approach. The Beggarstaffs transformed the history of poster art with a series of bold, simple designs using flat images and silhouettes.

In 1896, an arts magazine interviewed the Brothers on their technique:
One of us gets an idea, said Pryde. We talk it over, the other suggests an addition, the matter is reconsidered, perhaps shelved away for months. Finally we draw the design very roughly with charcoal on big sheets of paper, and then place the lines and masses in their places on the groundwork, which is generally of ordinary brown paper.
Like Matisse after them, the Biggerstaffs found that it helped simplify their designs if they worked with shapes cut out of colored paper.

Not surprisingly, Pryde maintained that a pen knife was best for this purpose while Nicholson favored scissors.

The Beggarstaff team only stayed together for three short years. They were a commercial failure, as clients were not sure what to make of these bold new images. But their designs became hugely influential with artists in Europe and America, and helped usher in the Early Modern era which replaced the highly ornate art nouveau and arts and crafts movements.

Pryde and Nicholson separated, turning to painting and other artistic pursuits to earn a living. They never again succeeded in achieving the quality they found during their brief but remarkable collaboration.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


The newest volume of the Classic Comics Press reprint of Leonard Starr's comic strip, On Stage, has just been released and publisher Charles Pelto was kind enough to invite me to write the introduction. I am a huge fan of the strip, and the period covered by this volume (1966-1967) is one of my favorite periods.

In honor of this 8th volume in the series, my introduction lists the top 8 reasons why On Stage was one of the very greatest story strips of all time. Those reasons are:

1. It was the single most literate and erudite story strip
2. Starr's mastery of light and shadow was on a par with the best comic artists
3. It was the sexiest comic strip (at least, for real adults)
4. Starr's drawings had great structural integrity
5. Its dry wit and humor were unmatched by any other story strip
6. Its pictures were beautifully designed
7. Its relationships were among the richest and most mature in comic strips
8. Starr excelled at complex facial expressions to illustrate complex story lines
Do you disagree? Do you have different reasons? Get the book if you care to read my arguments.

Monday, February 07, 2011


Illustrator Bernie Fuchs standing behind President Kennedy at the White House

Once upon a time, kings and pharaohs sought the most talented artists in the land to serve as court painters. In an era before photography (and often before literacy) royal patrons of the arts knew they would be remembered by the images of their accomplishments.

Akhenaten's distinctive face was immortalized by his royal artists

Goya, Van Eyck, Rubens, Titian, Velazquez, Holbein and others found steady employment as court painters; they received a regular salary, ate well, and got to live in nicer surroundings than their peers in the art guild. Sometimes they went beyond capturing the face of the king to putting an aesthetic face on the entire kingdom.

But gradually emperors stopped sponsoring artists. The Medici Popes and Dukes who had once taken such pride in being represented by brilliant artists-- Michelangelo, Leonardo, Botticelli, Fra Angelico-- ended their patronage. Corporations emerged as the new centers of economic power and became the primary sponsors of art. The types of artists who once painted military victories for nobles found work painting for shampoo companies and car manufacturers.

Even though the era of court painters is over, we still see occasional flashes where an artist's strong voice helps articulate the identity of a leader or the style of the kingdom.

Dwight Eisenhower's presidency (1952-1960) was a conservative, traditional period so it was natural that his most iconic portrait was captured by Norman Rockwell-- an artist whose work embodied the traditional American values of the first half of the 20th century.

There is no better known painting of Eisenhower than this image from the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

But as John Kennedy became president in 1961, a warm spring thaw was spreading across the country. The culture began an exciting period of innovation and experimentation.

Note the dramatic contrast between Rockwell's portrait of Eisenhower and Bernie Fuchs' iconic portraits of Kennedy just a few years later:

Fuchs' dynamic images of Kennedy were warmly embraced by the Kennedy clan. The painting of Kennedy on his boat (above) hangs today in the home of Kennedy's sister, Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith. Kennedy's counselor and speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, kept another painting by Fuchs on the wall of his office until the day he died, a few months ago. And when Sotheby's auctioned off the personal possessions of Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline Onassis, there were two Fuchs images among them. Accurately or not, Fuchs' artistic perspective was the way many in Camelot chose to perceive their era.

Kennedy posing for Fuchs in the oval office, 1962

Fuchs in the White House rose garden behind JFK and RFK

A few years later when Fuchs returned to the White House to paint President Lyndon Johnson's portrait, he found the personality of the government had changed sharply. The artistic style which was so appropriate for Kennedy was not of interest to Johnson.

Fuchs delivering his portrait of Lyndon Johnson in the oval office

Today it is difficult to imagine a leader anywhere who would turn to the arts to help establish their image . The triumph of video and the changed receptivity of the public are obviously important reasons for this transformation (although the lowered taste of rulers and the reduced ambitions of artists probably have something to do with it).

For a sense of just how far presidential portraits have sunk in our era, consider this famous portrait of Barack Obama being applauded by trained seals:

The artist Shepard Fairey lifted his image from a copyrighted news photograph. When confronted with his theft, Fairey admitted that he had lied to the court and tried to destroy the evidence. Nevertheless, the fawning art critic and "postmodern poet" Peter Schjeldahl wrote an embarrassing review for the New Yorker in which he called Fairey's poster "the most efficacious American political illustration since 'Uncle Sam Wants You.'"

In an era where Photoshop substitutes for technical skill and expropriation substitutes for imagination, perhaps it is fitting that the era of court painters is behind us.