Tuesday, October 20, 2020

A LAST LOOK AT THE AUSTIN BRIGGS ARCHIVES: part two, the noir years



In the 1930s and 40s, Austin Briggs did a huge number of illustrations for "noir" stories-- dark pictures of hard boiled characters in trench coats and fedoras.  Gun fights under street lights on rain soaked city streets.  Deep shadows and angle shots.






The magazines that published these stories are long gone and their illustrations are unlikely to be reprinted any time soon.  So here is a good selection of images from Austin Briggs' personal files.












Just as "film noir" was traditionally filmed in black and white, black ink drawings with chiaroscuro effects would seem to be the ideal medium for noir stories.  But by 1950 Briggs had graduated to a full fledged painter.  Look how he handled the same gritty urban subject matter using the values and contrast that color afforded him:   







This is an artist who was maturing.

Monday, October 19, 2020

A LAST LOOK AT THE AUSTIN BRIGGS ARCHIVES part one


One of the joys of writing the biography of illustrator Austin Briggs was getting to know and interview his son, Austin Briggs Jr.,  a retired professor of literature and a nationally renowned expert on James Joyce.  Austin Jr. generously shared his father's personal collection of tear sheets and memorabilia containing thousands of images that wouldn't fit in the book.

Now the time has come for me to relinquish that collection.  Once I pass it along to the museum selected by the Briggs family, this amazing stash of images will be well protected but I'm not sure the larger public will ever get a chance to view them.  Many of them are unsigned.  So before I let them go, I'm going to post a large batch of Briggs' forgotten works here for posterity. 

The following images, dating back to the 1920s and 1930s, are not all masterpieces, but they do show the development of a major talent responding to changing times and changing media. 

Briggs drew his first published work at age 18:


Like other young and ambitious illustrators of that era, he worked for pulp magazines and tabloids that once crowded the newsstands but are now long forgotten.  



By 1930, Briggs (now using the name "Bud") was illustrating stories like this lurid tale about the wife of gangster Baby Face Nelson ("His heart was so black with malice that he shot wantonly and with strange pleasure"). 

 

"She helped wrap his nude body in a horse blanket and dropped it in a ditch.  He was the father of her children but she couldn't get far with a body on her hands."  



From a Harper's Bazar story, The Girl Who Was The Moon (June 1929):



















By the mid 1930s, Briggs was supplementing his work for pulp magazines by assisting Alex Raymond on his epic comic strip, Flash Gordon.  We can see how Briggs' work for Bluebook and other pulp magazines paralleled his work on Flash Gordon, and how Briggs' drybrush technique influenced the look of Flash Gordon.  







As I post more of these forgotten works tomorrow, I think you'll see how Briggs inched out of the ranks of a typical pulp artist to become one of the premier illustrators in America.

After Briggs' died, his friend Tom Holloway gave the following memorial tribute:
 
In my many years of association with him I remember few jobs that came easy for him... if they did, his intuition told him something must be wrong, or that he was getting in a rut, and he would do something hard-- not always a success either in the product or the acceptance by client-- but he was slugging most of the time.  




Wednesday, October 14, 2020

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 64

I really like this whisper of a drawing by illustrator Henry McCarter (1866-1942).  


To convey the enormity of the sky and the prairie, McCarter uses one of the most powerful drawing tools: restraint.  

White space is a scarce commodity these days, due to the limited budgets of publishers and the excessive vanity of artists.   Many might try a muscular approach to express the grandeur of the sky and the immensity of the land.  They might start with a heroic profile of a pioneer scanning the remote horizon, or begin drawing the hairs on his coonskin cap. 

But the vast majority of this drawing is made up of fluid lines and dots, abstract in form and untethered to any concrete shape.  
  


The earth, too, is made up of waves of lines.  In isolation they look possibly liquid, possibly abstract. 



But 96% of the picture is all brought together by the remaining 4%: the little guy, cattle and wagon pulled all those random hatch marks behind him into focus and create the appearance of a tightly rendered drawing. 
 

McCarter started his art education studying with tough realists such as Thomas Eakins, but finished it studying in Paris with post-impressionists and other modern artists. When he returned home he made a living doing representational work for Collier's, Scribner's and Harper's but it's clear he retained the lessons of modernism and they served him well.



Monday, October 05, 2020

RON COBB AND THE SWEET SPOT

 Artist Robert Crumb stumbled into the perfect sweet spot.

If he'd been born a few years earlier, he would've been censored, jailed or burned at the stake.  If he'd been born a few years later, during the era of MeToo and Black Lives Matter, his work would've been shunned.


If he'd been less crazy, his art wouldn't have stood out.  If he'd been crazier, he might've followed his brothers into dysfunction and suicide.  Instead, he found the perfect middle ground for a productive and lucrative career.

If Crumb started a few years earlier, art directors would've dismissed him for his lack of technical skill.  Fortunately for Crumb, the illustrators who immediately preceded him fought to open popular taste to naive and crude drawing, placing a premium on personal authenticity and eccentricity. Fine artists who preceded him legitimized comic art and pop art, creating an upward path for Crumb from underground comics.

Crumb wasn't the only oddball artist to benefit from the climate of the 1960s.   The new combination of rock music and psychedelic drugs produced an entire school of poster artists who, in another era, might have trouble finding gainful employment. 

 


I was thinking about this as I read the tributes to artist Ron Cobb, who passed away last week.  Cobb, too, benefited from that moment of artistic ferment in California. 

  

Cobb was a California high school student who loved to draw. After high school he worked as a mailman before being drafted to Vietnam. When he left the army he returned to a home transformed by mid-60s craziness. Writer and friend R.H. Fischer reported:

The Vietnam war was less traumatic than was his vast leap out of Army life (structured and predictable) into the great unknown that was Bohemian Hollywood in the early sixties.

One sign of the big shift was the emergence of underground newspapers, such as The Los Angeles Free Press which was launched by an unemployed tool-and-die worker and former organizer for the Socialist Workers Party.  Cobb wandered in the door and became their resident cartoonist.  The street paper became a success and within 5 years Cobb's left wing editorial cartoons were syndicated in 90 newspapers. The 60s revolution, flower power, radical politics and the summer of love swept across the nation, planting Cobb's cartoons in previously establishment publications.

   

But that wasn't the end of it.  In the 1970s, a lot of creative energy shifted to making science fiction and fantasy films.  The screenwriter for the film Alien lived near Cobb and happened to see him drawing a space ship for an album cover for the rock group Jefferson Starship.  He drafted Cobb to work on the movie-- a job which led to Cobb's involvement with Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian. 





While he worked on Conan,  Cobb ran into a young Steven Spielberg working down the hall.  Cobb's drawing impressed Spielberg who suggested that Cobb direct his next movie about people who have a close encounter with extra terrestrials. Not bad for a middling high school student who liked to draw.  

In short, the 1960s created an artistic interregnum, when artists who might normally live and die in caves on the outskirts of town were free to wander the newly vacated corridors of power in the town center.  They could even occupy the city hall where Norman Rockwell once reigned.  

All the forces of nature and the marketplace seemed to combine to create a sweet spot for unconventional talents and eccentricities.  Robert Crumb's weird masturbatory fantasies sold for millions of dollars and transported him to a chateau in France.  Stoners and druggies achieved lasting fame with their psychedelic posters.  And Cobb, the unschooled Army vet had the opportunity to apply his unorthodox creative visions to shape some of the biggest films of the century.  

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

MORE THAN NOTHING

Legendary animator Richard Williams chased his masterpiece, The Thief and The Cobbler, the way Captain Ahab chased Moby Dick.  "The path to my fixed purpose," cried Ahab, "is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run."  Neither man could swerve from the rails which led ineluctably to their fate. 

The story of Williams' obsession with his film has been well documented elsewhere.  For 24 years, from 1968 to 1992, Williams exhausted one backer after another (including a Saudi prince) in his heartbreaking pursuit of perfection.  He spent 14 years on the first ten minutes of film alone, reported to cost about $31 million (adjusting for inflation).  But what an astonishing ten minutes they were.


To scratch together funding for his project, Williams had to spend much of his time on commercial assignments and negotiating with lawyers and bankers.  Ultimately the film was taken out of his hands.  To cut their losses, Warner Brothers and a financing company sold the pieces to Miramax, which re-cut them and released the movie in a simplified form as Arabian Knight

Before he died, Williams said, "What have I got if I haven't got those awards? I've got nothing; I've got the building and the staff that's in it. And an unmade picture." 

I'd disagree with Williams' valuation of his assets.  

These are some of the preliminary drawings that Williams made over the years as he was working on his masterpiece.


In them, you can see him teasing out the designs and shapes that would later be incorporated in his animated film.







 
These small drawings are miles from the corporate funded and globally distributed artwork that Williams wanted.  On the other hand, they're also miles away from bankers and lawyers.  The time he spent doing them, and the talents he summoned to create them, had to be more artistically satisfying than the time and talents he spent with corporate backers.   




I'd say that these building blocks of design are a whole lot more than "nothing."  Their perfections are different from the perfections of an animated feature film, but as the great Walt Whitman instructed us, "I do not call one greater and one smaller, that which fills its period and place is equal to any."