Wednesday, January 16, 2013


This post is one in a series on the artists featured in the upcoming exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum, State of the Art: Illustration 100 Years After Howard Pyle. 

In the 1950s, illustration began its Great Thaw from the realistic style that had dominated the field since the days of Howard Pyle. At that time, Bernie Fuchs was a precocious young illustrator painting meticulous car ads in a commercial studio in Detroit.

Detail from Oldsmobile ad (1959)

But Fuchs had the seeds of bigger things in him, and by the mid 1960s, he was a leader of the revolution in illustration, experimenting with bold new styles.


His innovations became wildly popular and helped to set the style for the second half of the 20th century.

Fearsome Foursome

These and other original works by Fuchs will be on display at the exhibition. 


MORAN said...

I always wanted to see what his originals look like.

James Gurney said...

"Great Thaw." Interesting choice of words. Was something exerting a chilling effect? I had a question about that car ad. Did Bernie do just the figures or the whole thing?

David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- You'll have your opportunity in February.

James Gurney-- This is one of the rare early car ads where Bernie did both the figures and the car (although his best recollection was that "one of the chrome guys came in and cleaned up that fender after I was done.") In later years, Bernie limited himself to the backgrounds and another artist did the car (much like Van Kaufman and Art Fitzpatrick famously did). But when he was just starting out, before anybody knew he was going to turn out to be "Bernie Fuchs," he had to learn to do the technical painting too. If you have the 1959 Society of Illustrators annual, you'll see another car ad done exclusively by Bernie (and credited exclusively to him). This is the first one I'm aware of where Bernie signed it as his.

I used the phrase "Great Thaw" because in preceding years there seemed to be much tighter constraints on most illustrators. Subjects had to be painted recognizably, and within certain parameters. When Bernie first started doing car ads, there were rigid rules in place: merely painting a person in front of a car rather than behind it meant automatic rejection of the work. Ten years later, art directors were encouraging Bernie to take bigger chances with bolder experiments.

Anonymous said...

One of my alllll time faves! David, I just got back from the illustration show at the Weisman and saw you were one of the authors of the book...I just posted a bunch of pics on my facebook page...if you are on fb, come friend me!

ken meyer jr

Anonymous said...

Did Fuchs do that football painting? Doesn't look like him. One of my all time faves too.


David Apatoff said...

Ken Meyer Jr.-- Unfortunately I am not on facebook (although I am told there is a Seattle dentist named David Apatoff on facebook, believe it or not). When were you at the Weisman show? I was there for the opening. Did we miss each other?

JSL-- Yup, that's a Fuchs painting, alright. Came right from his studio.

Desmond Sloane said...

Looking at the 'Fearsome Foursome' image it would be interesting to know whether he was influenced by the English painter Keith Vaughan, or vice versa.

Anonymous said...

..Great Post..
my alltime fav..

Anonymous said...

Well, should get on there, if for no other reason than to create an Illustration page that will lead people to this great blog! I mean, come on, I can't do it all myself! Nah, I missed the opening...I went this last wednesday. I see from the Illustration mag that there is a new Peak book out!


Luca Carey said...

I mentioned in an earlier comment that the split from the objective illustrations from the first half of the 20th century was ultimately a good thing, but I'm not comfortable with the way Fuchs lays down/smears seemingly random shapes on his work (the football players, for example). To me, this look is dumbed down.

Laurence John said...

Luca, it's not so much the mark making that surprises me about that Fuchs, it's the deliberately naive/primitive drawing (especially in the hands).
after all, Fuchs would often do some very loose mark marking over a very precise drawing.

James Gurney said...

David, do you think it's really possible to be "deliberately naive" or consciously primitive? Isn't that an oxymoron?

David Apatoff said...

Luca Carey, Laurence John, James Gurney-- I deliberately selected the works by Fuchs for the exhibition to demonstrate that at an early age he mastered the technical skills (perspective, color, etc.) necessary to paint meticulously and realistically. So to the extent he chose not to employ those skills in later paintings, we know it was a choice made from strength.

Venturi wrote that "abnormality of proportions may be either an expressive necessity or technical ignorance." Looking at Fuchs' journey of simplification and experimentation, I think we can definitely rule out technical ignorance. To believe that the football picture is "dumbed down," you'd have to believe that Fuchs suddenly got lazy, or that he suffered amnesia from a blow to the head. My philosophy is that if an artist has paid the dues necessary to master technique at the outset, we owe his subsequent "naive/primitive" pictures enough of the benefit of a doubt to spend a little time considering why he chose to put those skills aside. Obviously Fuchs concluded that the football picture would not be enhanced by painting fingernails on those hands. Plenty of other artists continue painting fingernails all their lives and eventually died anonymous deaths.

James, I think it is a lot harder to be "'deliberately naive' or consciously primitive" than it looks. But aren't there many famous artists who have tried to unlearn technical skills, shed the sophistication of adulthood, retrace the steps of civilization in order to regain simplicity and strength? Picasso's departure from European refinement for African tribal masks? Dubuffet's embrace of the art of the insane? I suppose you are saying that because their motives were different, the art doesn't really qualify as naive or primitive. But if we put aside intent and focus on the physical object, the result comes pretty darn close.