Sunday, February 26, 2017

WASTED TIME ON THE PATH TO BECOMING AN ARTIST

Before Jean Dubuffet became an artist, he served in the French army.  He was stationed high atop the Eiffel tower.  Instead of developing his art, he spent long months staring down at the winding streets and tiny buildings below.



What a waste!  Think of what he might have accomplished if he'd spent that time at art school.

Years later when Dubuffet became a world famous artist, no one could figure out where his radical new vision came from:



Before Alberto Burri ever dreamed of becoming an artist, he was drafted into the Italian Army in World War II.  He was quickly captured in Tunisia and shipped off to a POW camp in Texas.  There he spent two long years doing drudge work surrounded by burlap and canvas tents, gunny sacks, sandbags and camouflage netting. What a waste!

After the war he became world famous for his innovative art working with the textures and colors of burlap.




I can't imagine where Burri came up with such a radical idea.  Art schools certainly weren't teaching anything like that.

Illustrator Harold Von Schmidt never had the advantages of art school.  Orphaned at five, he kicked around the Old West working as a cow hand, and then on dam construction.  In this brawny world he broke his neck twice, and suffered other broken bones, dislocated shoulders and numerous bruises but he learned to understand cattle and horses as a working cowboy on trail drives.  Then one day he met the western artist Maynard Dixon who was looking for models and a studio assistant, and it changed Von Schmidt's life.

He eventually became famous for his muscular, authoritative paintings of horses and the wild west.  He painted with the forcefulness of someone who had hit the ground hard-- a forcefulness that eluded his peers who had refined their skills in art school.




Von Schmidt was esteemed by his fellow illustrators and went on to become the President of the Society of Illustrators.  Here is his portrait by James Montgomery Flagg from the Society of Illustrators' Wall of Presidents:


Returning to where we started, with Jean Dubuffet, the author Frank O'Hara wrote a  poem on the subject of Dubuffet's transition from a soldier on the Eiffel Tower to a world famous artist:

Ah Jean Dubuffet
when you think of him
doing his military service in the Eiffel Tower
as a meterologist
in 1922
you know how wonderful the 20th century
can be

Again and again, events that seem to be a delay or distraction from art training turn out to be central to an artist's achievement.  It all seems to be a matter of keeping your eyes open.


Friday, February 17, 2017

THE WALL OF PRESIDENTS AT THE SOCIETY OF ILLUSTRATORS

Let's face it-- when you visit New York you won't always find one of John Singer Sargent's charcoal portraits on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Sometimes they're in storage.


So what's an art lover to do?

Well, you could walk a few blocks to the Society of Illustrators to see another first rate collection of charcoal portraits.  Over the 115 year history of the Society, each president has been drawn by a prominent illustrator of the day.   These remarkable drawings now line the walls for any visitor to see. Here are some that particularly struck my fancy:

Albert Sterner by William Oberhardt

Charlie Williams by James Montgomery Flagg

Charles Dana Gibson by William Oberhardt

Arthur Keller by George Brehm

Wallace Morgan by William Oberhardt

Howard Munce by Austin Briggs
Albert Beck Wenzell by Adolf Treidler 

Barye Phillips by Paul Calle

Unlike Sargent's society portraits of business moguls and dowagers who just wanted to be flattered, the portraits on the walls at the Society were pictures of working artists, done by working artists, to be displayed in front of a highly judgmental audience of working artists.  That had to change the dynamics of the art dramatically.  I'm sure each of these portrait artists wanted to show off in front of their peers.

Many of these names went on to become legends in the field of illustration.

A 1943 photo of past presidents along with the members who drew them. Note Martha Sawyers in the front row, the only woman in the room.  No African American or Asians whatsoever.

It's also interesting to note how the styles of the portraits changed over the years.  The great illustrator William Oberhardt would recoil at the thought of using a photograph for reference, but it's clear from the hard edged illustration of Paul Calle that times changed.

I'll be showing more of these drawings in future posts.




Monday, February 13, 2017

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY!




All the best to you and yours!  

DA



Wednesday, February 08, 2017

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 52

Last week I showed combat art from World War I by illustrator Kerr Eby.  Back in the US, Eby illustrated books and worked for magazines such as Life and Century.

I like this tiny drawing by Eby of a town square.  The original is scarcely over 2 inches tall, but it is filled with dozens of people-- an exercise in artistic crowd control.  


The townsfolk are crowded around an automobile, which was big news in those days.  Many of the figures are little more than abstract designs of blacks and whites: 



But other figures have been given their own character, such as the unfazed old timer who has seen it all and can't find the motivation to stand up and walk over to the car:




Others are defined by their distinctive hats:

Eby's style seems like a precursor to R. Crumb and other strongly opinionated illustrators of the 60s
Another stand out: the guy who walks away:


Eby could've drawn this picture two or three times as large and given himself more room to maneuver.  Instead he chose to make a dense little jewel of a drawing.


I like the way he used line and judgment to infuse character and personality in this scene.    


Monday, January 30, 2017

WHAT KERR EBY UNDERSTOOD ABOUT THE HIDDEN GOD

Kerr Eby (1889-1946) was a combat artist on the front lines of two major wars.
 


He witnessed a lot of death, and his literal drawing style strained-- often unsuccessfully-- to convey the enormity of the tragedy.








Eby's most powerful picture was one where he abandoned some of his literal approach.  In September 1918 an immense dark cloud hung over the blood soaked battlefields of St. Mihiel in France.  It lingered there for three days.  As the French, German and Americans nervously prepared for battle the cloud seemed eerie and foreboding.  The skittish Germans called it "the cloud of blood."


Rather than focus on heroic expressions or  straining muscles or corpses, Eby made the human element tiny and inconsequential at the bottom of his picture.  He abandoned  his trademark details which gave his previous pictures such authenticity.  Instead, the immense, symbolic cloud dominated the picture as a flat, simplified shape.


 

This image, called "The Great Black Cloud" was widely regarded as Eby's most profound, moving picture.

The poet W.H. Auden wrote that it was folly to attempt to capture absolute things directly: 
We have to regard the universe etsi deus non daretur: God must be a hidden deity, veiled by His creation.
An artist who attempts to look directly into the face of death and accurately record what he or she sees is destined to fail.  The result will always come out shrill or confused or just plain inadequate.  The enormity of the subject will never be captured by its details.


Absolute and universal forces are hidden behind their own creations... for example, a cloud.  The best artists seem to focus on those creations, implying what is behind them.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

HENRY RALEIGH

I've previously written about Henry Raleigh (1880-1944), the famed illustrator best known for his pictures of the frothy lifestyle of high society in the Gatsby era.



Raleigh was so successful he became a swinging participant in the fashionable life himself.   He traveled lavishly, treating groups of friends to ocean cruises.  He also maintained a yacht, owned a mansion and kept a large studio in downtown Manhattan.

 
  

But until I read the new book about Raleigh by his grandson, I was unaware of Raleigh's art of social conscience.

In keeping with our recent conversations about illustrators who responded to politically troubled times with pictures about social injustice , it turns out that Christopher Raleigh's new book contains a whole chapter devoted to Raleigh's lithographs and posters dealing with war, famine and social injustice.





To be certain, most of the chapters of the new book are devoted to themes such as, "High Society: The Gatsby Era," "Romantic Interlude" and "Youthful Innocence."  But Raleigh turns out to be equally effective with war posters and art designed to raise public consciousness.

I was pleased to see that Raleigh's grandson had access to numerous original Raleigh works for reproduction.  Many of these images were not well reproduced in the magazines of the 1920s, and it's a treat to see for the first time what Raleigh really intended.




Thursday, January 05, 2017

EXCITEMENT, VICTORIAN STYLE

Victorian illustrator William Hatherell worked in a simpler time, using simpler materials and painting simpler subjects.  Instead of colorful digital images of race cars or women in corsets,  he was assigned subjects like "The Signing of the Documents," in which a lawyer goes through documentation with a witness.

Pretty dry stuff, huh?


But wait.  

If you pay attention to what Hatherell was doing, you might even find energy, excitement and imagination in his approach.

Look at the lightning bolt shading skittering down that sleeve to that vividly highlighted hand:


...or how powerfully Hatherell depicts the structure of the lawyer's face...


( Contrast the subtlety of the lawyer's eyeglasses with the loose rapidity of his neck jabot; this is an illustrator with a broad range of tools and a clear set of priorities.  )

The woman poised to sign the document believes it is false and is looking at the lawyer to understand whether he knowingly wants her to sign it:


Hatherell conveys this with a single raised eyebrow, located strategically at the center of the picture.   Such subtlety would be lost on today's audiences.  Illustrators today would be forced to spotlight that face and exaggerate the expression and body language to get our attention.  In my opinion, our insensitivity is nothing to be proud of.

John Lubbock wrote, "What we see depends mainly on what we look for." Before we conclude that 19th century illustrations lacked strength and boldness, we need to understand what to look for.