Monday, November 21, 2022


Last week I had the pleasure of watching an advance screening of the newest animated film from Disney, Strange WorldIf Maxfield Parrish or Kay Nielsen were alive today, this is the kind of work they'd be doing.  

Computer animation-- the marriage of digital technology and human creativity-- has lived through rocky periods of adjustment.  

Richard Feynman wrote that “The inside of a computer is as dumb as hell but it goes like mad.”  This power often led to imbalances and mismatches in early computer animation.  For example, it created distracting levels of detail and insanely sharp focus.  

Computer animation in 2015 wrecked the charm of Charles Schulz's Peanuts

Even worse, the intoxicating new tool often became a substitute for imagination.  Computers have been put to use simulating the natural world, often to questionable effect.  They capsized the proportion, balance, harmony that are crucial to good art.  Plots have warped and distorted around the digital contribution.

But animators have become better and better at understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the digital medium, using it to invent new worlds, give new faces to fantasy, stretch the use of color, combine images with movement, all in integrated ways.  

I was dazzled by the way these elements joined together in Strange World.  Imaginative creatures, plants, and other life forms continued to cascade forward throughout the movie, as did geologic formations and meteorological conditions.  There is no shortage of creativity in Strange World.

Some things don't change: every Disney movie needs a cute sidekick that can be sold in toy stores.

This is an artistic accomplishment that could never have been achieved with live action or hand drawn animation or any other previously known medium.   It was a joy to see a movie where human creativity was able to keep up with, make excellent use of, and blend seamlessly with, digital technology.

Monday, November 14, 2022


This painting is on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts:

Look at how lovingly Rockwell paints three different kinds of gold surfaces.  The gilded wooden torch:

The letters on the boy's banner:

The metal wreath on the boy's head:

Rockwell didn't just dip his brush in gold paint three times.  He went back to the beginning and re-learned the nature of gold three times.

Rockwell was one of history's great materialists.  He examined and described material objects, their surfaces, their volumes, their textures and qualities with fanatical devotion.  

Growing up, Norman Rockwell had an uneasy relationship with the physical world.  Scrawny, pale, nearsighted and pigeon toed, Rockwell was embarrassed by his frail physique.  When he was ten, he tried exercising but gave up after a month.  His insecurities continued to haunt his early work.

But like an unrequited lover, he worshiped the physical world from afar.  It's hard to name another 20th century artist with a greater appreciation for physical matter.  

It's not always easy to tell from the way Rockwell's work has been reproduced in cheap magazines.  But compare this printed cover for the Saturday Evening Post:

with the big, glowing original painting hanging on the wall at the Rockwell museum: 

His description of the girl's plastic raincoat is a tour de force:

Notice the attention he paid to the rim on the lid of the paint can, or the bottle of medium, or the scuffed shoe:

Similarly, there is nothing formulaic about Rockwell's treatment of the wooden box.  Those lines are not straight because Rockwell understood and cared about how the box had been treated on its voyage through the material world. Here is intense, honest observation: 

For another example, in the corner of Rockwell's painting of a pharmacist...

... you can see that he didn't neglect the bottles, the test tube, the spoon.  Importantly, these obsessive details are not described with photographic realism, as Rockwell's thousands of clueless imitators would surely have painted them.  They are expressed through the loving eyes of someone with rapturous appreciation for their physical qualities... 

... right down to the nuances of the cork and the character of the string around the bottle.

There have been other great materialists in art before Rockwell.  Vermeer and the golden age Dutch painters delighted in the properties of fine material objects: the textures and patterns of lovely fabrics and tapestries, the sheen of  metals, the soft feel of furs.  

Note Gabriel Metsu's attention to the gold frame and oriental rug

Renaissance art was also a period of great materialists.  Freed from the medieval focus on the supernatural (and spurred on by the invention of soap) Renaissance painters obsessed over the surfaces of the secular world-- the nuances of human flesh and the reflections of armor.

Norman Rockwell was a true materialist in that tradition and, in my view, can walk proudly in that company.