Tuesday, March 29, 2011


The artist Pavel Korin centered his life around one grand ambition: to paint a masterpiece about the impact of the Russian Revolution.

Preliminary study for "Farewell to Rus"
 Korin worked for 42 years in preparation for his painting, developing sub-themes, experimenting with  various compositions and painting detailed sketches.  He researched the science of art conservation to make sure his masterpiece would last for centuries without restoration.  He ordered an immense canvas specially made and installed it on custom built stretchers.  Then he died before he could apply his first brush stroke.

Korin's blank canvas, with preliminary studies
A tough break, but at least fate was more generous to Korin than it was to poor Masaccio, one of the most promising painters of the Renaissance. Vasari described Masaccio as "the best painter of his generation," but after he began work on his famed frescoes at the Branacci Chapel, Massaccio took a side trip to Rome and died unexpectedly at age 26.  He never had a chance to finish his work, and the laurels went to Michelangelo and Raphael instead. 

Many an artist has fallen short of his or her potential by miscalculating how much time they have left to complete their "best" work.  So you have to admire the audacity of artists who gamble on creating one epic work, rather than a lifetime of smaller pieces.  They leave themselves no margin of error; it's all or nothing.

Of course, even if an artist calculates his or her allotted time accurately, they still get no guarantees.  Alexander Ivanov was another artist who built his career around one major painting (The Appearance of Christ Before The People).  Ivanov was called "the master of one work."  He succeeded in completing his painting after twenty years,  but unfortunately the painting turned out to be second rate.  And who could forget artist Bill Pappas who worked methodically for ten years, from 1993 to 2003, on a single pencil drawing of Marilyn Monroe?  Pappas drew every pore on her face in excruciating detail, using 20x magnification lenses.  When he finished his picture on schedule, Pappas had demonstrated a great talent for precision, but little else.

The muse, it turns out, is not always flattered by good time management skills.

Many an artist produces lesser work in order to pay the rent, secretly planning to redeem themselves later.  This requires them to gamble on notoriously fickle actuarial tables. Still, it is impossible to have children and remain insensitive to some of the excellent reasons for compromise.

As philosopher Walter Kaufmann suggested,
One lives better when one expects to die, say, at forty, when one says to oneself long before one is twenty: whatever I may be able to accomplish I should be able to do by then; and what I have not done by then I am unlikely to do ever.  One cannot count on living until one is forty-- or thirty-- but it makes for a better life if one has a rendezvous with death. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


God separating light from darkness in the book of Genesis (Michelangelo)
"Seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered, and write them not."
         -- The Book of Revelations

Illustrations can enhance words, but not everyone is interested in having their words enhanced.  In fact, translating words into pictures sometimes provokes people to violence.  This reaction is a tribute to the power of illustration (although many illustrators, given a choice, might prefer the second prize). 

 Some reasons for hostile reactions to pictures are obvious.  Thomas Nast's political cartoons were more effective than written articles in ending the corrupt regime of William "Boss" Tweed of New York. Tweed is reported to have cursed, "Stop them damn pictures! I don't care what the papers write about me. My constituents can't read, but they can see the pictures."

Later when Tweed was convicted of fraud, he  fled to Spain where the authorities reportedly used one of Nast's cartoons to identify and capture him.

Another reason for objecting to illustrations is that they can seem more vividly offensive than the words they illustrate.  Norman Lindsay's illustrations for the classic play Lysistrata were censored although Aristophanes' words were not.

Similarly, the authorities censored Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations of Oscar Wilde's play, Salome.  Such pictures can cross the line even when their accompanying text does not. 

Readers are free to imagine anything words describe, as long as the images remain in their heads.  Once an artist puts those images in tangible form, he confirms his enemies' worst suspicisions about what goes on in his lurid mind, and provides them with evidence to use against him at trial.

Some argue that pictures are more dangerous than words because they are more accessible to young, impressionable audiences.  The slightly demented Frederic Wertham urged censorship of comic books in the 1950s out of concern that pictures containing plural meanings might corrupt America's youth.

When I first read Wertham's book as a boy, I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to be seeing here.  Now that I understand, he seems even crazier than he did back then.

But perhaps the most interesting argument against illustration is that certain subjects are too important to be pictured at all.  That's the topic I'd like to chat about this week.  According to this view, any visual form created by human imagination can only limit or debase certain subjects, no matter how talented the artist, no matter how moral, respectful or chaste the image.  We get this argument most often from theological circles, where true believers argue that drawing or painting a divine subject necessarily limits something that by definition is unlimited. 

The Prophet Muhammad is repeatedly quoted as saying that artists should burn in hell for painting pictures:
Verily the most grievously tormented people amongst the denizens of Hell on the Day of Resurrection would be the painters of pictures...." (Sahih Muslim vol.3, no.5271)

The painter of these pictures will be punished on the Day of Resurrection....'" (Bukhari vol.9, book 93 no.646)
Last year, gentle Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris, dismayed by growing censorship of drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, suggested a "Draw Mohammed Day."  She did not urge that the drawings be disrespectful or unflattering, only that artists exercise their right to draw anything, including Muhammad, lest artists wake up one day and discover that their rights had disappeared altogether.  Her impertinence earned Norris a death sentence from the thoroughly demented cleric Anwar al-Awlaki who instructed his followers, "her proper abode is Hellfire."

Pakistanis burning cartoonist Norris in effigy

While this position appears contrary to  
mainstream Islamic thought about pictures, the resulting threats against Norris' life were sadly real. 
Her employer reported that on the advice of the FBI, Norris was "moving, changing her name, and essentially wiping away her identity."

The notion that drawing an object can be a sacrilegious act is not confined to Islam.  This is an age old battle, spanning many religions, between cataphatic and apophatic theology.  The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3) contain a pretty broad prohibition against creating likenesses:
Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 
Different versions of this prohibition recur throughout the Old Testament, where we learn that a wrathful God may go so far as to punish an artist's great grandchildren.

God creating the earth in the book of Genesis (Michelangelo)
The Commandment against making a likeness carried through to early Christianity; it's difficult to find Christian images prior to the third century, at which point many Christians seem to have accepted that illustrations of holy subjects could be an important tool in promoting the young religion.  Centuries later, there were still traditionalists who feared that images could violate the second Commandment, resulting in idol worship. Others became alarmed because visual depictions sometimes exposed apparent inconsistencies in church dogma. There were repeated periods when  religious leaders, believing that  "misinterpretation of religious images often leads to heresy, banned all pictorial representations and began a systematic destruction of holy images."

It is easy to understand Boss Tweed's resentment toward political cartoons, but are there any thoughtful observations to be made about this more impassioned view that certain subjects are just too important to be pictured?

For me, the Book of Job is one of the most profound poems about the human condition.  It speaks to both the religious fundamentalist and the dedicated atheist.  Job searches for meaning from the whirlwind, looking for answers in a form that could make sense to his poor human brain.  The whirlwind responds that there are no answers for Job, and that he'd better get accustomed to disappointment.  Job learns that God has no intention of explaining himself to humans until we are able to create a bird or a fish, as God does.  Discussing efforts by Job and his friends to understand the universe, Princeton's Michael Sugrue states, "the book of Job suggests that in a way, all theology is blasphemy because it seeks to make God comprehensible to the mind of man.... The answer to why God sent evil into the world is: don't ask."

I suspect opponents of sacred illustration are telling us, "don't ask" how divine things look.  Don't try to define God as having a long white beard and a white bath robe with a gold "G" on the pocket. Divine subjects are inscrutable and need to be defended against callow and presumptuous artists who believe they can define the undefinable with glib visualizations. 

But this seems a pretty shallow reaction to a pretty profound subject. By focusing on physical likenesses, they address the religious experience at its most superficial level.  Artists such as Frazetta or R. Crumb have done powerful, inspirational-- some might even say divine-- work, but it certainly won't be found among their representational pictures of deities, which are so lame it is comical to think they could alter anyone's thinking.

Frazetta's "King of Kings"
R. Crumb's God of the Old Testament

There may be much that is sacred in art.  (For example, some people claim that meditating on a large Rothko painting puts them in touch with sacred feelings.)  And some art may be legitimately unsettling to some religions views.  But those who claim to protect the sacred from physical likenesses may be more concerned with protecting the bureaucracy and infrastructure of  religious institutions (and perhaps the prerogatives of clergy) than preserving the experience of the divine. 

Sunday, March 06, 2011


This lovely, delicate drawing was the best way that Arthur Szyk (1894-1951) knew to kill his enemies.

After the Nazis invaded his native Poland in 1939, Szyk took refuge in the United States.  There he learned that the Nazis had killed his brother, then turned their loving attention to his mother:
[M]y beloved seventy-year-old mother, Eugenia Szyk, was taken from the ghetto of Lodz to the Nazi furnaces of Maidanek. With her, voluntarily went her faithful servant the good Christian, Josefa, a Polish peasant. Together, hand in hand, they were burned alive.
In anguish, Szyk followed the evidence smuggled out of Europe that the Nazis were methodically slaughtering helpless civilian populations:

A small, balding, bookish man with weak eyes, Szyk was not much of a threat to the Nazis as a soldier. His strongest weapon was his art, and it became his purpose in life to rouse the slumbering west to the genocide taking place in Europe. He worked obsessively, attacking the Nazis with hundreds of miniature drawings.

Those drawings soon gained the attention of the public. His work appeared on the cover of Time, Colliers and other popular magazines. It became an effective tool for fundraising for war bonds, training soldiers and rousing corporate awareness for the war effort. He even gained the attention of Hitler, who  put a price on Szyk's head. Eleanor Roosevelt described him as a "one man army."

(There is an old Latin maxim: "The flea, too, has wrath.")

Szyk's drawings were small (this original is approximately 5" x 6") and combined subtle gradations in tone with delicate, lacy lines. His designs were consistently beautiful:

Many artists would have reacted to Szyk's experience with a howl of pain. They might thrash around with wild, emotional brush strokes; they might make dark, bitter paintings of corpses spattered with blood. But uncontrolled rage would not have been as effective for Szyk's purposes as this lovely, painstaking drawing.

Szyk used the ornate, beautiful techniques of illuminated manuscripts, a style which projected an aura of  calm civilization.  This approach gave Szyk instant credibility over his barbaric foes.  The careful beauty of his work lured viewers who might normally disbelieve or avert their eyes from angry propaganda.  It persuaded them to linger, and to believe.

Szyk's great artistic strength was his ability to harness his powers, channeling unbearable agony and despair into millions of precise, miniature lines.