Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Robert Heindel died this year. He was only 67 years old, with many great years of painting still ahead of him, but he had been ill and surely knew the end was near. I was fortunate to talk with him a few months before he passed away, and hear his conclusions about illustration as he approached the end of his career.
Heindel was born in Akron Ohio and, with no art training except a correspondence class, worked his way up from tire advertisements in Ohio to car illustrations in Detroit to magazine illustrations in New York, where he became close friends with Bernie Fuchs and Mark English. From there, he single handedly carved out his own specialized niche painting beautiful images of dancers. He made an excellent living selling prints and originals of his paintings in galleries around the world and over the internet. This career path was a remarkable accomplishment. Heindel knew what he wanted to do and invented a career to permit him to do it. His example should be an inspiration to others looking for a career in the visual arts.
The following quotes are from my conversation with Heindel this summer:
"The business of illustration is literally nonexistent today.... When Bernie Fuchs and I did what we did, it was a different world. We had to make a lot of hard decisions as things changed. Where do kids starting out today take their talent if they want to do what we did? I would say they’re fucked. There is nothing for them. They can’t follow the path that Bernie and I followed any longer. And our society is pretty unforgiving for those who make the wrong judgments.
"You do what you have to do to have the life you want. You get up one morning, you start to feel oppressed by what you do. You want more freedom. I worked it out so I can stay up here in the woods in Connecticut. I have three business partners that run a big business around the world. I don’t take assignments anymore, I do what I want to do when I want to do it....All of this could only get done with technology [like the internet, digital imaging and telecommunications]."
"When I pushed the boundaries it made my work harder to sell and drove my partners crazy. Now I don’t have the energy level I once did. You realize when you get to be my age that you aren’t really as good as you wanted to be. You have to confront the question, “how good am I? Why can’t I be better?” All I can tell you is that I keep knocking at the door."
"When you do really terrific work, you know that you’ve done it. You can tell. I know who I compare myself against, who I’ve been up against. And it starts all the way back with the cave paintings in France....You start out thinking your competition is the guy you want to get a job away from that day. Then you gradually realize that you are your competition. The job is your competition."
When I spoke with Heindel, I found him to be a profound, thoughtful, sensitive man who had clearly spent a great deal of time at his easel musing about life's big issues. He was also funny and irreverent. I'm sorry that I only met him at the end of his life, but I am proud to pass his pictures and his ideas on to the readers of this blog.
Saturday, December 17, 2005
Leslie Darrell Ragan (1897-1972) painted heavy industrial equipment the way it might exist on Mt. Olympus. He enshrouded trucks and locomotives with swirling steam and glowing celestial clouds. He painted machinery and buildings at heroic angles and imbued them with an almost divine aura. Speeding trains became works of art under Ragan's inspired vision.
The following close-up from an original painting by Ragan demonstrates how he injected the full color spectrum into clouds that most other artists might simply depict as white with blue or gray shading.
Ragan was born in the small town of Woodbine Iowa where there was not much for a young boy to look at except sky and clouds. He went to the Cumming School of Art in Des Moines and then to the Art Institute in Chicago. After serving in the military, he became a successful illustrator in California. His strong style soon became unmistakeable. Clients were eager to see their mundane equipment or buildings transformed by Ragan's luminous vision. He specialized in travel posters and in calendars.
Whether he was painting heavy mechanical structures or light airy vapor, Ragan found a way to infuse his subjects with light and enchantment.
Tastes changed (along with modes of travel) and Ragan fell out of favor. Ragan may not qualify as one of the giants of illustration, but he was an artist with a strong, distinctive vision which transformed his subjects. The illustrator Fritz Eichenberg once mused, "what makes an artist create in his own particular style is an indefinable gift, almost a state of grace. Describe it and you are bound to miss its essence." I would not attempt to analyze why Ragan saw things the way he did, but the results are certainly worthy of our attention.
Saturday, December 10, 2005
Medieval artists painted illuminated manuscripts by crushing precious stones such as lapis lazuli or malachite into their pigments and working with gold leaf. The result was radiant little miniature paintings, unsurpassed for color and intensity. In the 20th century, an illustrator named Arthur Szyk (1894-1951)carried on the tradition, creating lovely miniature paintings with exquisite skill.
Szyk painted on a tiny scale, with the precision of a watchmaker. For example, the original of the following portrait of Simon Bolivar is a mere 4.25" x 5.75":
Szyk was born in Poland and gained early fame as an illustrator. He mostly painted scenes from history and from the Bible. A gentle, diminutive, bookish man, he moved to America shortly before the outbreak of World War II. However, his 70 year old was mother was hauled away by the Nazis and murdered in a concentration camp. Szyk turned all of his talents to fighting fascism with his art. He created biting caricatures and political cartoons of the Nazis in books and magazines of the day. He was so effective that Hitler put a price on Szyk's head.
Szyk was tireless in his efforts against fascism on behalf of freedom, and became a patriotic American citizen in 1948, illuminating the Declaration of Independence and other American icons...
It is especially ironic then that a few years later, at the height of McCarthyism, the House Un-American Activities Committee began investigating Szyk who they suspected of being a member of an organization that they believed served as a "Communist front." The distraught Szyk protested that he was not connected with any Communist organization, but a few months after the investigation began he died of a heart attack at age 57.
Today there is an Arthur Szyk Society that focuses on Szyk's message of freedom, democracy and tolerance.
Sunday, December 04, 2005
The best war illustrator you've never heard of is Ivor Hele (1912-1993) who depicted searing images of combat and military life in World War II and the Korean War.
As an official war artist for the Australian government, Hele spent a year at the frontlines in the North African campaign from 1941-42.
Hele then traveled to the South Pacific island of New Guinea where he drew and painted the fierce combat between the Australians and the Japanese in dark and difficult jungle terrain.
He returned to Australia physically and emotionally exhausted and began a prolific period in his career. After a year, he returned to New Guineau where he worked in the trenches with the troops until he was injured. Hele lay unconscious for two days. He was transported to a hospital in Australia where, after a long convalesence, he resumed working. At the height of the Korean War, Hele spent five months in the mud and the cold of Korea, brilliantly recording the struggles of the Australian soldiers in their trenches.
After the war, Hele illustrated a few books, magazines and calendars, but he was mostly kept busy with commissions to illustrate great battles of the second world war. Almost 500 of his paintings and drawings are housed at the Australian War Memorial.
The most striking thing about Ivor Hele was that, after traveling the globe and devoting his life to recording every form of savagery that humans can wreak upon each other, he finally reached his saturation level of death and despair and retreated to an isolated cottage on a remote Australian beach. There he lived the life of a hermit, drawing and painting intimate pictures of his wife.
Other artists have found their muse in a particular woman and shut themselves off from the rest of the world--Gaston Lachaise and Bonnard to name just two. But in my view, Hele was far more poetic and tragic. A scorched human being, he stumbled out of the embrace of thanatos (death) and sought refuge in the arms of eros. His private drawings of his wife from this period are both graphic and lovely. One imagines that these sensitive studies of the human form were the best possible therapy for regaining his humanity.
Sunday, May 15, 2005
A panel from Drucker's "Patton"
Mort Drucker is the genius caricaturist who was a centerpiece of MAD magazine for decades. His ability to capture a likeness from many different angles and with a variety of expressions bordered on the supernatural. If Drucker had been born 500 years earlier, he might have been burned at the stake for witchcraft. But practicing his art on the pages of MAD magazine for almost 50 years, he remained safely below the radar of most people over the age of 18.
Drucker's Jack Lemmon
One of the most striking characteristics of Drucker's work was how liberally he dispensed his abundant talent. He was able to lavish creative attention on background details and inanimate objects without restraint. While other more prominent caricaturists such as Al Hirschfeld or David Levine might labor for a week over a single likeness in a fixed position, a torrent of superior drawings flowed nonstop from Drucker's miraculous pen. He might easily draw a hundred distinctive faces for a single issue of MAD, depositing them effortlessly in crowd scenes, or in a picture frame in the background, or even on a passing horse or dog.
Note the complex architecture of a typical Drucker "background" crowd. Drucker's crowds compare favorably to the famous "group portraits" of celebrities by artist Ralph Barton that caused a sensation in venues such as Vanity Fair in the 1920s.
Theatre audiences gave Drucker an opportunity to indulge himself
Another crowd scene, this time the hard way: over the shoulder of the speaker, from above.
Superfluous background characters each have a distinctive personality
It is difficult to think of an artist who doesn't start from a standard template when drawing the human face, either because their style hardens with repetition or because they resort to shortcuts to save time. You can spot an artist's standard presumptions about the human head, usually camouflaged by a few distinguishing details added at the end. This approach was apparent in the work of excellent artists such as Hal Foster (Prince Valiant) and Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon)as well as lesser artists such as George Wunder (Terry & The Pirates). But Drucker makes no assumptions. With each new portrait he seems to start back at the Garden of Eden and redesign the human head from scratch. Never has an artist drawn the head in so many different shapes and sizes. A garden of Drucker faces follows:
Drucker's brilliant drawings were all rendered in his trademark style, a springing, bouncy line that adds energy to each and every picture. (Drucker's forte was his line work. With a few exceptions, his color work was far less successful). One look at his pictures made clear that Drucker's jaunty line was based on a rock solid understanding of perspective, anatomy and composition.
In addition to being more prolific than other caricaturists, Drucker has the advantage of being a superb draftsman. While many caricaturists mastered portraiture, Drucker mastered anatomy and perspective and technical drawing so that he didn't share the limitations of his more specialized peers. Drucker's brilliance at all around drawing enabled him to transcend some of the limitations of the comics medium. While his artwork may be confined to tiny rectangular boxes, he is able to squeeze the illusion of great depth and scope into those spaces.
Drucker's understanding of anatomy and perspective makes him fearless about taking visual risks.
Drucker seemed to be able to squeeze limitless depth into a tiny panel
Another example of Drucker making the most of a small panel
Drucker's use of perspective at work
On thousands of pages, he crowded every panel with dense images and still had enthusiasm left over for visual jokes and playful sidebars.
Drucker's enthusiasm for the act of drawing sometimes took him to bizarre lengths.
Drucker sustained his extraordinary quality over many decades, compiling an unrivaled body of work. To paraphrase Bohun Lynch, Drucker "had drawn so many caricatures that he must now wait for new subjects to be born."
A panel from Drucker's "Godfather"
Drucker's one Achilles heel as a caricaturist seems to be the benvolence of his drawings. He seemed incapable of generating the type of nasty pictures that brought fame and notoriety to Thomas Nast or Daumier.
Those who swoon over the caricatures by Daumier found on museum walls forget that those very pictures originally appeared in the French satiric tabloid, La Caricature. They would do well to invest some time in studying a superior artist hidden in the pages of MAD magazine.