Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Toonistration Case Study: Hail Harry!

I am still working on some thoughts about the language of cartooning as it relates to the traditional functional and aesthetic heritage of illustration. As I have suggested, I think that illustration has its roots in reportage. Despite the significant evolution of “conceptual” (I prefer the term rhetorical) illustration embodied in the work of practitioners like Christophe Niemann, competence in the field still requires a mastery of description to achieve intelligibility.

Meanwhile, cartooning emerges from a tradition of amusement and commentary.

I am noodling over various diagrammatic notions with various axes, etc. But I think the visual tension between cartooning and illustrating can be isolated via questions of narration, proportion, inflection, and distillation.

As a result of my work with collections development where I teach, specifically in 20th century periodical illustration, I have developed appreciation for now obscure figures from that industry. One my all time favorites provides case study on the relationship between the cartoonist’s sensibility and an illustrator’s problems: the great Harry Beckhoff.

Beckhoff produced a great deal of work for Collier’s in the 1930s and 40s. Many of his most satisfying works are two-color jobs for fiction spreads. His work relies on strong theatrical staging, a designer’s sense for the distribution of shape (both positive and negative), great figure drawing, and a gift for simplification and characterization. The illustrator in him uses descriptive figural proportions and stances; the cartoonist builds essentialized heads with restricted, militantly two-dimensional means.

More soon, but in the near term, here are a few fabulous Beckhoffs with a detail or two.

Images: Harry Beckhoff, Colliers, January 23, 1937; Colliers, April 13, 1940; Colliers, January 29, 1938.

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