Monday, December 23, 2013


 "To live is to war with trolls."  -- Henrik Ibsen

 One of the most interesting stories from Deborah Solomon's new biography of Norman Rockwell involves his famous series of paintings, the Four Freedoms.  During World War II, Rockwell wanted to aid the war effort but was too old to enlist and not physically suited to be a fighter.  He set out instead to illustrate Franklin Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" in a way that would inspire patriotism and encourage the purchase of war bonds.

After sketching his four paintings, Rockwell went to Washington to donate his art to the government but the government wasn't interested.  Rockwell showed his drafts to the Office of War Information but the official in charge responded:
The last war, you illustrators did the posters.  This war we're going to use fine arts men, real artists.  If you want to make a contribution to the war effort you can do some of these pen and ink drawings for the Marine Corps calisthenics manual.

Solomon deduces that the official who rejected Rockwell's art was the "pompous" Archibald MacLeish, poet and Pulitzer prize winning playwright.  MacLeish was the Assistant Director of the agency.  He said he preferred to inspire the country with pictures from "real" artists such as Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali and Japanese artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi (6 months after Pearl Harbor!)

Rarely has a misguided act of cultural arrogance been so promptly, thoroughly and satisfyingly refuted.

Stung, Rockwell took the rejected paintings to the Saturday Evening Post which used them as internal illustrations.  Editor Ben Hibbs later wrote:
The results astonished us all....Requests to reprint flooded in from other publications.  Various government agencies and private organizations made millions of reprints  and distributed them not only in this country but all over the world.  Those four pictures quickly became the best known and most appreciated paintings of that era.  They appeared right at a time when when the war was going against us on the battle fronts, and the American people needed the inspirational message which they conveyed so forcefully and so beautifully.

Subsequently the Treasury Department took the original paintings on a tour of the nation as the centerpiece of a Post art show to sell war bonds.  They were viewed by 1,222,000 people in 16 leading cities and were instrumental in selling $132,992,539 worth of bonds.
The Post received 60,000 letters about the paintings:

In the meantime, the imperious Archibald MacLeish lasted a mere eight months in his job at the Office of War Information.  After he left, the OWI sent a film crew to Rockwell's studio and filmed a five minute newsreel about his Four Freedoms.  The government's newsreel played in movie theaters around the country.

MacLeish was a brilliant intellectual but he let his reflexive cultural arrogance substitute for thinking about what type of art would be effective.  In doing so, he became just one more of those obstructive trolls described by Ibsen. 

Monday, December 16, 2013


It's a known fact that 47% of all cliffs in American illustration were painted by Frank Frazetta.

He'd paint them on the right side of the picture:

...and then for variety he'd paint them on the left side of the picture:

And on days when he was feeling ambitious he'd paint cliffs on both sides of the picture:

When it came time for something completely different, he might draw cliffs instead of painting them:

Frazetta lived in a land of cliffs that no geologist would ever recognize.  Apparently he felt that cliffs added drama to his pictures.  They conveyed brinksmanship, a place where the hero's back was to the wall with no retreat.

Some of Frazetta's cliffs were less successful than others. For example, this one seems hopelessly overworked to me:

The technique may be dazzling, but Frazetta seems to have become so caught up in making pretty lines that he lost control of the drawing.

The more he labored over individual cracks and pebbles in his cliffs, the less substantial and persuasive the cliffs appear.  For example, the unnecessary details in the drawing above result in a flat, awkward cliff with no real weight or mass. Similarly, the cliffs in the gorilla painting, where each layer of rock is carefully delineated, look like a cheap theatrical backdrop. 

Yet, when Frazetta lightened up, and made his cliffs delicate compositional devices, they began to take on genuine artistic weight.


Another cliff or a column of smoke?  They both weigh the same, aesthetically.

Monday, December 09, 2013


"To live is to war with trolls." --Ibsen

The qualities of Norman Rockwell's painting Saying Grace have long been obvious to everyone except a handful of fine art critics.  Now that the painting has been sold by Sotheby's for $46 million, fine art critics are able to see its merits it as well.

The sale offers us a propadeutic moment, shining a spotlight on the scoundrels who encircled  Rockwell.  Such lessons should not be wasted.

As explained in Deborah Solomon's new biography, Rockwell paid a heavy personal price to create this painting:
He did only three Post covers that year and Saying Grace ate up months.  The illustrator George Hughes remembered a night when Rockwell threw the canvas into the snow in a fit of disgust, only to retrieve it the next morning.
Rockwell agonized over his painting; he probably lost money on it, but he was the only one who did.

Saying Grace was one of seven Rockwell paintings in the auction from the "personal collection" of Ken Stuart, who was Art Director of the Saturday Evening Post until 1962.  Illustrators who worked for Stuart complained that he leaned on them to "donate" their original art to his personal collection, in order to stay on his good side when he handed out new assignments.  Illustrations that Stuart didn't want to keep, he sometimes donated to museums to get the tax deduction.

In today's world, abusing his position of responsibility for personal gain would be considered highly unethical and a conflict of interest.  But in the 1950s, because of the lower stature of illustration, artists were largely helpless when art directors, printers and clients embezzled originals. The Post later sued Stuart for walking off with illustrations, but a court ruled that it waited too long to assert its rights.

Stuart left his Rockwell paintings to his three sons, thinking they would benefit from his windfall.  Instead, they took to fighting like scorpions in a bottle.  Accusations of theft and misconduct flew back and forth as the brothers squabbled and sued each other over the best way to monetize the art.

The owners of the Saturday Evening Post watched the Sotheby's auction with dismay, accusing the Stuarts of being  "in it for the money.”  However, it turns out that today's Post is no saint either.  The magazine responsible for those great Rockwell covers and other imaginative illustrations and stories died in 1969.  Its assets were purchased in 1971 by an industrialist who spotted a shrewd way to squeeze additional profits from the corpse of the old magazine.  Today's incarnation of the Post is far more aggressive than the original Post at marketing Norman Rockwell key chains, calendars, gift cards, coasters and other knicknacks.  It became known for aggressively tracking down and claiming royalties for the use of obscure images from the original Post.  In this light, the new Post's indignation about people being "in it for the money" seems comical.

Unfortunately, the war with trolls does not end there.  To add insult to injury, during his lifetime Rockwell had to chafe under misguided political and artistic editorial controls.  For example, Solomon's biography reveals that in another cover,
[Rockwell] was angry at Stuart for overstepping his bounds and altering a painting without telling him.  When Rockwell received an advance copy... of the Post, he was in disbelief.  Stuart had taken it upon himself to paint a horse out of the picture.
The kind of misconduct described in this blog post only comes to light on rare occasions such as the Sotheby's sale, when it becomes economically worthwhile for someone to expose it.

To his credit, Rockwell focused more on his artistic choices in Saying Grace than on fending off the parasites and scavengers around him.  That's part of what enabled him to create such superb, lasting work.  

Thursday, December 05, 2013


In the mid-20th century, American illustration witnessed an explosion in lush, impressionistic pencil drawing.

Assignments that would previously have been completed in paint or ink were now handled in pencil or charcoal by a remarkable group of illustrators who worked with a sensitive, expressive line.

These included the great Carl Erickson (known as "Eric"):

 Austin Briggs:

Note the broad variety of lines in this simple drawing
Briggs employs a slender outline for the figure,contrasted with a thick, vigorous crayon for the folds.

 Rene Bouche:

Bernie Fuchs: 


Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas
and Bob Peak:

Peak also did the portrait of James Cagney, above
In previous generations, the printing process could not pick up such subtleties, so  talented illustrators who worked in pencil (such as F.R. Gruger or Arthur William Brown) were unable to take drawing to such extremes.   In the 1930s we begin to see experimental illustrators such as Al Parker basing illustrations on delicate pencil work:


 ...and within a few decades become quite comfortable with pencil's more aggressive applications:

Graphite and wash

Famed art director Otto Storch became concerned that some of Bernie Fuchs' delicate lines were too light to reproduce, so he called Fuchs and asked him to darken them.   Fuchs was adamant about the effect he wanted, and refused.  Storch thought for a moment and asked, "Well, would you at least be willing to wear a heavier watch?"

We like to believe that changes in the arts result from developments in the human mind or spirit.  But sometimes changes are prompted by something as simple as a mechanical invention.
For example, the invention of the piano helped inspire the Romantic Era in music.  Before the piano, composers wrote for the harpsichord which made clipped, succinct sounds.  The piano suddenly gave composers new expressive power; they could create long, sustaining notes, deeper resonance, greater control over subtle nuances and a broader range of sounds.  Enthralled by their new capability, composers such as Beethoven and Chopin began writing music that was more lush and emotional.

The improvement in printing gave 20th century illustrators the gift of more expressive power, and in the drawings above we witness their delight over their new gift.  For the first time, illustrators could capture delicate gestures and a wider variety of lines.  It did not take them long to bring out the full symphony of effects from a pencil.