Tuesday, January 29, 2008

More Illustrated Primaries; Navy Man Does Well

John McCain has won Florida and secured a dominant position in the Republican race for the nomination. He is certain, if elected, to reverse the Bush administration's shameful use of torture and other black arts, having endured torture himself in Vietnam. Since no Democrat will leave these horrendous policies in place, it seems assured that this ghastly chapter will end. Between the exhilarating rise of Obama and McCain's victory over an increasingly brutish and intolerant Right, you could almost say that the USA I recall from civics lessons is on its way back...

Meanwhile, theatrical old Harry Beckhoff offers some shore leave mayhem. Several American seamen play a practical joke on a British cohort. Illustration from Collier's, February 13, 1937.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Super Tuesday Teaser

Next week, in observance of Super Tuesday, I will be posting some Robert Weaver images from the Presidential campaign of 1960. Said images turned out to be among the most influential periodical illustrations of the second half of the 20th century. In the meantime, here's a striking image from a Weaver project called Brief Lives, an artist's book compilation of urban juxtapositions, circa 1970s.

Friday, January 25, 2008

A Chronicle of Style 1

Over the last several years I have sought to focus on gathering together a large pile of diverse projects in various media that I have worked on over the last decade or so, primarily to get a grip on how to move forward. Soon, for the benefit especially of students, I will try to write an account of this process. How do you observe, describe, and assess the visual and editorial properties of a large volume of work? How do you get to the precipitate of said work, so as to identify what your visual concerns really are, as opposed to what you think they are?

It takes a while, for sure, but here's an important tip: look at the things you make in a hurry for people you love. Your home-made birthday cards are a classic example. You learn more about who you really are as a visual composer by looking at things you didn't think were important (professionally speaking) when you made them.

As a case in point, at the top of this post is a tee shirt design I banged out for my younger son's high school football team last summer. I didn't have much time, I wanted to make something credible and fun for Andrew's sake, and I didn't consider it an important project in the standard sense of that term--that is, I didn't care who saw it. In the process referenced above, this is one of those images that I evaluated for methodological and stylistic clues. Useful evidence.

More soon along these lines.

Image: D.B. Dowd, Clayton (Missouri) Greyhounds tee shirt design, 2007.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Neptune (Barely) Makes the Paper

A few years ago I stumbled into an antique print shop in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and found a series of instructional cards published by a James Reynolds in London. I have written about these before a time or two. The illustrator-engraver who produced these works--along with many many others for the Reynolds outfit--was named John Emslie. These things are a model of clarity and printerly richness.

This card provides a diagrammatic version of our solar system. It was published around 1860. I have found versions of this card in online collections of such works, but the headline typography is transitional in my version, and dates it a little earlier. (This looks like Bulmer, which predates the more condensed modern face that appears in the version shown on the British Science and Society site.)

That said, it can't be that much earlier, because Neptune, cited in data at the bottom of the card, was discovered in 1846.

Clearly this was a transitional project, because the cut does not betray knowledge of said discovery: the outermost planet shown in the diagram is Uranus (discoverd 1781). It wouldn't have been such a big thing to retypeset the tabular information (above). By contrast, the cut would have been a real undertaking.

The sun and the planets are shown in color through the application of discs or dots made from colored translucent papers. The dots are glued over holes in the heavy paper, producing a satisfying glow in the "sky" when held up to a light. Below, a glimpse of the real thing.

Images: John Emslie, diagram for Transparent Solar System, circa 1850-1860, Published by James Reynolds, London; A false color image of the Planet Neptune, NASA, circa 2000. ©2000-04 University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Graphic Designers Play Artball

The Mitchell Report has kicked up some response from players, if not front office folks. Bluster and creepy taped phone calls from the Rocket--Houston, we have a major problem--and a confession measured in microns from Andy Petitte. After next month's Congressional testimony (just as pitchers and catchers are reporting to camp) Major League Baseball will limp into the 2008 season.

No matter! Artball can still be played sans cynicism, since it's all metaphorical anyway. No juicing in this league! In what's either a timely pre-season bulletin or a terribly tardy bit of reportage hanging over from last season (Shhh!) GT brings you two Artball lineups staffed with giants from graphic design.

Heather Corcoran (who knows design) Gregg Thompson (who knows baseball) and little Margaret (acquainted with both people and before long, both subjects) have assembled a dominant lineup from mostly today and recent decades. Their team, the Bridgeport Nine, echoes the real-life exploits of the Bridgeport Bluefish, an entry in the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, unaffiliated with MLB. Interestingly the latter club is managed by Tommy John, presumably still recovering from that surgery.

Anyway, Gregg recalls a fondness for the Bridgeport can-do spirit, embodied by the slogan, Bridgeport: We’re working our way back! (Which presumably beat out Nowhere to Go But Up!)

Given my own predelictions as a practictioner and critic, I am especially impressed by the double historian-designer keystone combination of Heller and Warde. I like Paul Rand at third and Carter in left, but I'm not sold on a DH batting 7th. Lupton catching is good.

Meanwhile, Scott Gericke (excuse me, Scooter McGerk) has delivered a tour de force of lineup card design, in which the desiger's name has been entered "in the manner of." See below. Very nice touch.

I'll be the motion on Saul Bass's throw across to first is a handful. And imagine the action on a Kyle Cooper slider!

Images: Scott Gericke, DesignLab, Baseball "Eye" Logotype, 2007; McLaughlin Baseball Game, 1886. (Peruse comparable vintage game displays.)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Useful Play with Pictures

I have been thinking about and writing on the subject of purposive images for a while now, spurred in part by tracking my own thought processes when working on various kinds of projects. I worked on an enormous project several years ago that has come to influence my thinking quite a bit. I've mentioned it before, and sometime this winter or spring I'll do a case study of it in this space. The project was called the MySci Investigation Station, and it required me to lead a team in the creation of a variety of visual environments and animals to match. The audience was K-2 children. The project, which was a 38-foot trailer, included three major exhibit areas, one of which was this illustrated environment with animal magnets.

The interactive component of the project was pretty great, insofar as it did not involve mice or cursors, but rather the manipulation of these magnets, some of them pretty large, on a pictorial surface. Anyway, I worked on it for two years. One of the environments included an underground cross section and a cave. That environment art is below.

A variety of animals live in this scene. Below are four cave creatures.

The project was funded by Monsanto, and executed by the Visual Communication Research Studio at Washington University. I was senior design director on the vehicle project, and lead illustrator. I scarcely survived the project--literally--but I learned a bunch from it.

About a year ago, in a really great antique store in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, I found this leaf from a 1950 Jack and Jill magazine. Now here is a purposive image. It put me in mind of the MySci magnets, because the child is asked to cut out the elements and put them to use. How's this for gender plasticity? Paper dolls for cars.

The Playtime image at the top of this post captures a rainy-day sensibility that I recall from my childhood, and which I fervently hope has not been eclipsed by the ubiquity of electronic media. The kids have made a garage from an old shoebox, and are "driving" the paper doll car into it. I could enjoy doing this very thing even now...

Images: Illustrator uncredited, Playtime Pages, Jack and Jill Magazine, November 1950; D.B. Dowd and team, Underground Cross Section, MySci Investigation Station Zone 1, 2006; D.B. Dowd, Cave Creatures Magnet Art, sample set, MySci Investigation Station, 2006; Milt Groth, Automobile Paper Dolls, Jack and Jill, November 1950.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Somewhere Beyond the C

For a variety of internal and external reasons, we are preparing to change the name of our department from "Visual Communication" to "Communication Design." The handy old abbreviated viscom doesn't translate so well to comdes, and VC is better than CD. So we were faced with a problem: how to colloquify the name? Heather Corcoran and Gregg Thompson came up with the excellent sea-des, creating all manner of opportunity for aquatic/nautical imagery, especially since our basement offices in our new facilities in Steinberg hall have a bit of the submarine about them. In an effort to be helpful--I am nothing if not a team player--I banged out the word-image extravaganza above to assist in the cause. At Heather's request there is a secondary signature line image for departmental emails, should the identity clear the executive committee.

Image: D.B. Dowd, mock identity, Communication Design, 2008.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Colorful Structures

Classes begin anew tomorrow. I will be presenting a color workshop for junior designers and illustrators in the morning. My approach to color is extremely practical. Because I was trained as a printmaker originally, I tend to see color as a question of selection, not improvisation. As a student I recall being told that I had “bad color.” This condition was not defined, nor was a course of treatment prescribed. It was sort of like having an extra chromosome: that’s just the way it was. Nonsense, of course: over the years I have gotten pretty good at color, but not by impersonating a Fauvist: rather, by learning to simplify and concentrating on atmospheres and hierarchies.

Color investigation, like many design practices, is an essentially empirical activity: you try some things, you evaluate the results. Becoming attuned to visual experience requires observation and patience. (Students in our program will recognize this idea. It is for them primarily I am writing this, to provide a modest written record of tomorrow’s talk.)

So: color, observation, and manipulation.

First, a little description and terminology. The color radio has three dials: hue, value, and the variously titled chroma, saturation or intensity. Hue is the color of the color: red, or blue, or brown. Value is the relative lightness or darkness of the color. And saturation (the most literal term, so probably the best; alternatively, chroma or intensity) refers the to the density of pigmentation in the color. A color with low saturation is a grayed-out version of a given hue: that is, a dull red, or a reddish gray.

But the very terms I have just used—dull red, reddish gray—are extremely imprecise.

About a century ago, a combination of the Positivist spirit and the emergent need for an industrial language for color gave rise to a variety of color naming systems. Such naming systems aspire to define colors quantifiably: not simply how you make it, but what it looks like. Among the most influential of these systems was the Munsell System, created by landscape painter, art teacher and inventor Albert Munsell. The system was first explicated in A Color Notation in 1905. It remains in use today in various fields, and is one of several such systems recognized by the U.S. Bureau of Standards.

Munsell identified the three dimensions of color as articulated above, using the terms hue, value, and chroma. (Even though saturation may be the better term, I have a hard time letting go of chroma, simply because I have used it for a long time.)

Munsell specified five primary colors and five secondary colors: red, yellow, green, blue, and purple, interspersed between red-yellow, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-purple, and red-purple. Each of these colors was given ten values divided by ten segments, yielding a language like Red 2.5 to describe hue. Munsell’s hue circle is shown below.

But of course hue provides pretty gross chunks of information: blue is notoriously variable. While Munsell’s numerical system for hues improves on this, the more subtle problems of value and chroma remain. (When I used to teach a lot of 2-dimensional design to first year students, I felt that I had done a bang-up job at teaching color if they left the course really understanding the difference between value and chroma.)

Value for Munsell runs vertically, like a core sample through the middle of the earth. The hue circle rings the neutral core like a hula hoop. The neutral colors are black (at the bottom) white (at the top) and a stack of grays between the two. Values also have numerical coefficients, which are expressed as the numerator of a fraction following the hue notation. Values also run from 0 up to 10 (literally), but both extremes are theoreticals, so only 1 through 9 are used.

Chroma values run out from the neutral core to the hue circle to fill out the structure. A given hue has a leaf, or slice that runs from the dullest possible version of the color at a given value out to its most saturated version at that value.

The trickiest part of this turns on the idea of spectrum value. Spectrum value refers to the value at which a given color is at its brightest or most saturated. Consider yellow. Yellow is very bright at light values; a dark yellow is really brown. Yellow has a spectrum value of 8, meaning that most vibrant yellow theoretically possible must occur at a value of 8. Red and blue have spectrum values of 5 and 3 respectively.

As a result, the color solid constructed by Munsell is really sort of a lumpy globe, bulging as it does at varying values.

Our concern with Munsell ends here. I don’t really care about the industrial specificity of color x or y; the system is useful insofar as it captures the relationship between the three dimensions of color. It especially helps to isolate the relationship between value and chroma.

Especially in a communication design context, hierarchy really matters. How is contrast used to manipulate emphasis? I’d argue that the single most basic issue for creating hierarchy in color turns on value relationships. This Jim Flora album cover from the forties demonstrates how value can be used to provide structure to a palette and to establish hierarchies. Below, statement of the hues.

A straightforward primary triad from primary school days: red, yellow, blue. Plus white and black. Ho hum. But it turns out that the best part of this palette is really its value structure. See analysis below.
Color schemes are used to establish sets of colors that may be used together successfully. Since I have suggested that an empirical approach will tend to work best, I do not advocate a recipe book attitude toward building palettes. But I raise the question for two reasons:

1)I think that many people leave out chroma and value when they think about schemes, focusing exclusively on hues, often automatically resulting in garishly high-keyed color at close to spectrum value. So visual responsiveness continues to be advisable. Get a pile of acrylics. Generate a large sample set of colors to produce a library of colors with notations for how to reproduce them. Make sure you’ve got wide varieties of chroma and value, not just hue. [In class we get to these broad sample sets by mixing “ugly colors,” then “pretty colors.”] Trim them out to get chips. Then build some palettes: choose one color, then choose a second to go with the first, then a third to bridge the pair.

2)When you get stuck, color schemes can help you out. If you need a three-color palette and you have two that you like, you can use schematic thinking to produce a new set of potential mates, assuming a triad or an analogous grouping or a split complement.

Above, find a animation still from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. The color ranges widely across the wheel, but feels resolved and controlled. How does it work?

Here are a set of colors that play prominent roles in the image. They are arrayed on the hue circle. Value and chroma are as seen in the original image.

Here are the same colors adjusted to spectrum values and high chroma.

Here is an attempt to describe the basic structure of the palette. The red purples, blue purples, and yellow greens provide the most basic structural elements to the image. The blue greens tend to be very low chroma, and so do not play a significant role in the hue structure. But the low chroma colors provide an excellent low contrast setting for the other colors, and also help, via the use of atmospheric contrast, to create a sense of space.

I'll cite these images in the next day or two.

Art and Commerce: Kant & Re-Kant

It would be difficult to identify a more thoughtful and attentive blogger for general audiences in the realm of popular images than David Apatoff, who writes Illustration Art. If you do not read it, I recommend it heartily. Apatoff writes well about images—a difficult thing to do—and provides fascinating “backstory” material about commercial work and the people who make it. I’m frankly not very good about posting links, but Illustration Art is impossible to ignore, and thus it appears to your right.

Recently David wrote a cheeky/cranky post called A Holiday Quest for Mitigation, in which he invited readers to coax him to abandon his position that much of the Museum of Modern Art’s drawing collection (viewable online) is “unmitigated crap.” He posted provocative examples to defend his stance, including an Ed Ruscha drawing.

I wrote a comment on this thread, chiding Mr. Apatoff for his over-the-top diction. It reads, in part:

[It is regrettable that you use] language like "unmitigated crap." Part of the reason that illustration has yet to find its place in serious writing and thinking about visual images is that its proponents often suffer from a crusty form of anti-modernism which is beneath you… Illustrators, by and large, are engaged in a different cultural activity, which is why museums like MOMA do not collect them. One can be diffident in the face of these things, even irritated, but harrumphings of the sort you have dumped on your readers here play to their biases and lower the standard of discussion, which you have done so much to elevate.

David responded thoroughly, thoughtfully, and gamely, as I would have expected:

It seems to me the central dilemma of judging art in our era is how to balance open mindedness, tolerance and respect for different tastes on the one hand against vacuity and total lack of standards on the other. Both extremes are essential; if you forsake either charybdis or scylla, your taste and judgment (and even your enjoyment of art) will suffer…

Nice image!

Apatoff continues:

People have been schooled to believe that all art is valid, and besides a sensitive person wouldn't say things such as "unmitigated crap." You might legitimately add that such terms will be counter productive because I am more likely to be dismissed as a "crusty anti-modernist." That is why every once in a while I try to remind people that I like Christo, Beuys and a host of other more avant garde artists.

I think that at this particular moment in the history of art in this country, the greater danger is from permissiveness rather than from intolerance. You would probably agree that the vast majority of money, fame, headlines, museum space, academic attention and respect all go to contemporary abstract and avant garde art, as opposed to illustration, commercial art, comic art or other pictures tainted by capitalism and traditional skills.

Note the regrettable flourish of “pictures tainted by capitalism and traditional skills,” which does not add to the argument, and in fact calls attention to the uncharacteristically sour spirit of the preceding list: money, fame, respect, which “all go” to x. More significantly, David makes the following point:

We would probably disagree over whether museums ignore illustration because it is a "different cultural activity." After all, museums reach out to embrace the different cultural activity of graffiti artists, Polynesian craftsmen, the mentally ill, children, outsider artists, and computers. Apparently the only cultural activity that is too "different" to tolerate is art in the service of commerce. I view that as more an act of hubris than taste or principle. In the face of such an art establishment, it is difficult for even a judgmental lad like myself to feel guilty of intolerance.

Agreed: this is a vexatious reality. And it does cause otherwise temperate folks to blow their stacks. For some reason and for many people, visual art provokes frustration, anger and even a sense of personal affront. Bad movies and novels are just that: things that people set aside or simply avoid. Visual art, by contrast, seems to really rile people, leading to the sort of exaggeration that launched the exchange I’ve been recounting.

For example, such diatribes often cite the obvious “total lack of standards” in contemporary art, when of course there must be standards of some sort. That is, the sum total of artists who wish to display their works in rarefied locales exceeds the total number of opportunities; ergo, some fail. Standards or criteria of some sort are in play, because the curators must have a methodology of yes and no. The formalist or communicative criteria that many viewers would assume to be in play may count for less in the academic culture of the museum and kunstalle; instead, the intellectual heritage of the avant-garde often places more importance on the cultural positioning of the work (e.g., its bourgeoise-tweaking potential) than its intrinsic qualities. The ultimate problem is not a lack of criteria, but disagreement about which criteria ought to be in play.

But David’s implicit question stands. Why is it that art museums as traditionally defined eschew illustration and commercial art forms? (MoMA does in fact have a design department, but it does not collect illustration qua illustration, but rather as a pictorial component of design, as in, say, a Vienna Secession poster.) The answer is complicated, and involves a set of ideas and cultural practices which are 150 to 200 years old, but not older. I don’t think the reason is hubris; I think it’s a philosophical distinction that few people are really aware of, even those who reason on the basis of such distinctions all the time.

For the record, I would like to state that I do think that commercial or purposive image-making is a different cultural activity. I have arrived at this conclusion after long observation and reflection. It is the best explanation for the gigantic blind spot David rightly decries.

I have written about this distinction recently, in my contribution to the catalogue for Ephemeral Beauty: Al Parker and the American Women’s Magazine, 1940-1960.

I am working on a longer form exploration of this. For now permit me to quote my Parker essay at some length:
Al Parker rose to the height of his profession in the war years and after. During the 1940s and 50s, until television began to supplant magazines as the dominant medium, Parker brought in an average of $10,000 a month, typically earned on three to four assignments. He enjoyed the status of a celebrity among the public, and was rightly regarded as a tireless visual innovator by his peers. How should it be then that Parker is virtually unknown today? Certainly history is replete with celebrated figures justifiably demoted by later opinion. To be sure, the romantic Westport School illustrators were widely loathed by the expressionist Manhattan-based visual essayists, led by Robert Weaver, who eclipsed them starting in the late 50s. As Marshall Arisman has admitted, “We all considered Al Parker the enemy.” And Weaver, et al., while presiding, through no fault of their own, over the near-death of the American periodical illustration market during the decades after 1960, set the critical terms for thinking about the discipline during the same period. Parker was relegated to old-boy status. Yet recent academic engagement with mid-century popular culture and increased recognition of Parker’s achievement by contemporary illustrators have improved his standing.

That said, don’t expect to run across Al Parker in accounts of American art history. The most dogged booster of his achievements could not manage such a trick. In fact, it is possible to compile a long list of important artists and works from commercial culture which do not appear in standard art history texts. But it is always a mistake to do so. The terms of exclusion tend to be institutional, and no amount of jumping and arm-waving will overcome them. Besides, there is a much more interesting approach, which takes the alleged deficiencies of popular images and turns them to analytical advantage for purposes of reflection.

The intellectual foundations of the modern conception of art grow from Kantian aesthetics. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued in The Critique of Judgment (1790) that the experience of the beautiful is a disinterested one—that an art experience can be identified as an art experience because nothing is at stake beyond the aesthetic pleasure of the moment and the resulting cultivation of taste and refinement. That is, art experiences aren’t for anything. And the objects that provide the ground for aesthetic judgments must not betray “an end.”

Kant writes, “Beauty is the form of the purposiveness of an object, insofar as it is perceived in it without representation of end.” Purposiveness refers to the intentional forming of an object, representation of an end to a visible function. Kant offers the following amplification in a footnote:

There are things which in which one can see a purposive form without cognizing an end in them, e.g., the stone utensils often excavated from ancient burial mounds, which are equipped with a hole, as if for a handle. . . . They clearly betray by their shape a purposiveness the end of which one does not know. . .one relates their shape. . .to a determinate purpose. Hence. . .[they provide] no immediate satisfaction at all. ( Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, edited by Paul Guyer. Translated by Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews. Cambridge University Press, London, 2000. “Analytic of the Beautiful,” No. 17, “On the ideal of beauty.” p. 120.)

Kant’s utensils cannot be beautiful because they are useful. The exclusion is categorical and immediate.

This brings us back to images that appear and—crucially—function in the popular sphere. Illustration in particular is unruly and difficult to organize. It’s ephemeral. Since such images are created for “purposive ends” they cannot claim the status of philosophy or the pursuit of first principles. They tend to attract fans, as opposed to critics. For lack of meaningful interpretive stakes and few institutional or curatorial contexts, serious thinkers have tended to disdain the field. This is especially true of periodical illustration. The best writers—most notably Steven Heller—have provided thoughtful chronicles. Yet theoretical approaches have been few. In sum: high cultural precedent, awkwardness, snobbery, and ubiquity—the stuff is everywhere, after all—have stunted reflection on these works that have played a significant cultural role in our society.

In fact, the intermittent high cultural engagement with figures from the world of illustration—Norman Rockwell, to cite the best example—often only makes things worse by creating a sense of exemption. Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers may be philosophically inadmissible, but they transcend their category. But the category ought to command our attention, because it provides the terms of the cultural exchange, between the producer(s) and the audience. We are better off engaging the subject of mid-century mass market magazines before rhapsodizing or carping about the merits of Rockwell, because the loss of context minimizes the meaning of the original experience and, ultimately, the achievement itself…

[The question of ] pictorial function…gets to the heart of commercial image-making, the broader world in which Al Parker operated. Consider that commissioned images in the public sphere are, contra Kant, fundamentally concerned with performing a task. Editorial cartoons, animated films, magazine illustrations, encyclopedia figures, comic strips, illustrated packages, boxes of flash cards—they all must earn their way into the commercial sphere by satisfying the needs of their users and sponsors.

I would submit that all commercial pictures must perform at least one of four functions: to inform, to persuade, to entertain, and/or to activate, or decorate. (Activate is a good modernist word, insofar as it suggests the intentional creation of visual interest, which is both broader and more self-aware than the idea of decorating something.)
What follows is more academic and might strain the patience of the general reader, so I’ll spare you. But suffice to say for now that function does matter. The categorical exclusion of works from the commercial tradition can be traced to the modern conception of art itself, revealed by the antiseptic white boxes in which it is presented—contamination by purpose is a distraction at best. That’s not the whole story, but it’s a decent chunk of it, as least as it applies to habits of mind in the high culture industry. Better to step around than to flail against.

Images: Lyonel Feininger, Five Figures, 1906 (courtesy of MOMA online; this image did not appear on the Illustration Art post referenced above); James Gillray, Britannia between Scylla and Charybdis, or The Vessel of the Constitution steered clear of the Rock of Democracy, and the Whirlpool of Arbitrary Power, 1793; Elzie Crisler Segar, Popeye and Barnacle Bill reaquaint themselves, Thimble Theatre, December 3, 1933; Jupiter information graphic, courtesy of Graphic Tales in-house staff, 2008; Al Parker, cover, Ladies Home Journal, December 1944; John Chapman, engraving, Immanuel Kant, date not available; Jim Flora, cover illustration, Research & Engineering, January 1956.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Chilling on the Mantle with Pokey, Gumby and Jesus

This weekend we'll have to take down all the Christmas stuff. In my role as Santa I managed to secure a totally excellent Gumby and Pokey combo for none other than myself. A stocking stuffer, which is a sort of duty-free zone in the gift department. I grabbed the pair of them in the waning minutes of Christmas Eve shopping at Barnes and Noble, along with a palm reading book and some stubby pens. At any rate, our rubber friends have been hanging out in the creche. All seem pleased. The Magi are curious about Gumby and desire news of his home planet.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Body Politic

"It was a grand brawl, a skull-cracking ruckus that involved the Masked Assassin, several two fisted politicians, and the most beautiful girl Junior ever kissed." James Charles Lynch, "The Body Politic," with an illustration by Alex Ross. Saturday Evening Post, March 23, 1946. Sort of like New Hampshire, but the girl and one of the two-fisted politicians are the same person. Hillary lands a surprise punch. And McCain wins, too. It will be a fascinating month...

Welcome to the Neighborhood: Race, Rockwell, and New Hampshire

On this, the day of the New Hampshire Primary, the likely second installment of the ascendance of Barack Obama, I am pleased to report—somewhat counter-intuitively, I will concede--on the publication of American Chronicles: the Art of Norman Rockwell, the new book by Linda Szekely Pero issued by our friends at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. Uncle Norman (as my colleague Jeff Pike calls him) has been the beneficiary of a number of picture books, including the elephantine Norman Rockwell: Artist and Illustrator by Thomas Buechner (published in 1971 with Rockwell’s extensive cooperation), and Pictures of the American People, edited by Maureen Hart Hennessey and Anne Knutson and published at the opening of High Museum and NRM-organized retrospective in 1999, and others. This new book serves to document the considerable collection of the Rockwell Museum, and does a good job of it.

A notable chunk of the NRM collection includes the work Rockwell did for Look in the 1960’s when the periodical market for illustration was declining precipitously but prior editorial strictures had been lifted. During this time Rockwell, a man of left-liberal politics, was free to address the pressing topics of the day, especially the civil rights movement. His work of this period includes The Problem We All Live With (1964) and a rare treatment of incipient white flight, New Kids in the Neighborhood, (1967; at the top of this post).

If it is true, as many hope, that Obama may simultaneously become the first African-American president and the first post-racial figure in American political history, it is also--simultaneously--a long time coming and an astonishment. I have resolved to keep politics off this blog, insofar as I was raised in a legal/political family and things could easily devolve into the sort of political speculation that is everywhere on the web, especially now; my contributions will be more focused on visual culture topics. But I will acknowledge that like many I am drawn to Obama, and think him a potentially historic figure.

It also doesn’t hurt that Obama has by far the best graphic design in the campaign. Of course, as an illustrator, I would tend to think so—-the mark is plainly type-as-image. But it’s smartly done. The Obama mark was designed by Sol Sender, a Chicago graphic designer. Not to pile on, but how could it be that the Clintons would be using crappy graphic design work? What is with all the Ready business?

But what of race and art and politics? As a historical matter, Gustave Courbet set up his easel near, but before, the fork in the road between the political and artistic avant-gardes in the 1860s. After that, les artistes would (typically) subscribe to leftish politics, but their work would not address social conditions or political realities, busy as they were with exploring new visual ideas and languages. On the whole, good for them: European visual modernism was a terrific gift to the world. But the split between the political and artistic led to some striking results. Among them: American Art in the 1950’s and 60’s--a period of slow, then wrenching change in the racial politics of the country—failed to address the subject of race. Postwar American art was occupied with Abstract Expressionism and its inward psychological adventurism (sort of like a Freudian Fantastic Voyage) on the one hand, and cheeky secondhand Brillo boxes on the other. So it came to be that sentimental old Norman Rockwell painted some of the very few visual images to directly address a topic of enormous import to the nation. To the question where were you during the civil rights movement? Uncle Norman offers an admirable retort, professionally speaking.

After The Problem We All Live With ran in Look Magazine, writes Pero, Norman Rockwell received many letters criticizing his choice of subject, but irate opinions did not stop him from pursuing his course. In the 1967 painting Murder in Mississippi, he illustrated the Philadelphia slaying of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney.

So begins Pero’s illuminating chapter, “The Artist’s Process: Anatomy of Murder in Mississippi.” Pero sifts through all the NRM materials pertaining to this project, a protest painting at its core. She plucks out the reference image which Rockwell used for the major figurative grouping, a 1962 Pulitzer-winning photograph by Hector Rondon, Aid from the Padre.

Rockwell restaged the scene using his son Jarvis as Schwerner and Oliver McCary as Chaney. Pero follows the process from sketches and notes through to completion, a five-week enterprise during which Rockwell, breaking from habit, did not work on anything else. He developed an atmospheric color study which included the victims on the left, and the advancing attackers on the right. Later he omitted the attackers in the final painting, choosing a vertical composition over the double-page spread. Ultimately, after he had sent in the final painting, he was told that Look had opted to print the more atmospheric study. They were right to do so.

Pero reports that Rockwell admitted years later that by the time he’d finished the painting, “all the anger that was in the sketch had gone out of it.”

I’ll return to this subject presently with some thoughts about why, despite the nobility of his effort, Rockwell was poorly equipped to make protest images. In the meantime, congratulations to Pero and NRM on a book that contributes to Rockwell scholarship.

In the meantime, as they say in the great state of New Hampshire: Live Free or Die.

Images: Norman Rockwell, New Kids in the Neighborhood, illustration for “Negro in the Suburbs,” by Jack Star, Look, May 16, 1967; Rita Marshall, (detail of) cover design for American Chronicles: the Art of Norman Rockwell, 2007; Sol Sender graphic design, Obama logotype, 2007; Charlie Neibergall, (detail of) AP photograph on the evening of the Iowa caucuses, January 3, 2008; Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers, 1849 (destroyed in WW2); Rockwell, The Problem We All Live With, Look, June 14, 1964; the image shows Ruby Bridges between four Marshals on her way into her first day at an all-white school in New Orleans in 1960 (today, Ruby Bridges sits on the NRM board); Hector Rondon, news photograph, Aid from the Padre, taken June 2, 1962, at Puerto Cabello Naval Base, Caracas during a revolt against the Venezuelan government; Padre Manuel Padilla holds a wounded soldier; Norman Rockwell, double-page tearsheet for “Southern Justice,” Look, June 29, 1965.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Earle's Sleeping Beauty & Big Reptiles

My offhanded post on Sleeping Beauty has provoked some appreciative comment by readers who admire the film, so I thought I would add some additional images and comment. The production designer on the film was Eyvind Earle, an illustrator, background guy and colorist at Disney. The style of the film combines a flat modernist approach with an illuminated sensibility, gothic vocabularies and some creepy George Grosz-like surfaces on the castle stone. Very rich, very beautiful at its best, as below. From a happy interlude early in the film. I love this stuff.

Brooding landscapes capture the wintry sleep of the kingdom when required.

The process materials are fascinating, too.

The Disney tradition of rotoscoping the human characters, dating back to Snow White, shows up in these still reference photographs, which capture gesture and attitude for reference purposes. Certain sequences were rotoscoped (or traced from live-action film frames to drawing pad; the precursor to motion-capture technology) for this film.

The reference is translated with a generous sort of specificity:

The film is based on the Brothers Grimm tale "Briar Rose," which is both simpler and more complex than the Disney retelling. The latter must (as usual, according to the house style) establish an emotional connection with children by creating clear moral contrasts.

The royals know what's what. Good fairies are always welcome. But ghastly, nasty Maleficient does not get an invitation to the big baby shower. Sensibly enough, you'd think, since evil persons are known to munch on the innocent. Of course Maleficient shows up anyway and pitches a fit.

Blessings bracket M's curse, launching the action. Aurora (Dawn) gets renamed Briar Rose, an alias, and popped in the Witness Protection Program in the woods, where she dances with animals, a seeming requirement for fairy tale women in Walt's world.

Helene Stanley (aka Davey Crockett's wife) provided the live action Aurora.

And the animated version. Later, bad things happen. Aurora is detected, tricked, and settles in for a big nap. The kingdom slumbers. The good fairies freak out.

Subsequently Prince Phillip (a once and future squeeze) hacks his way through the underbrush to get to A.

Phillip does a turn as St. George versus Maleficient as a big lizard. As in all sensible tales, giant reptiles lose. (See Captain Kirk below, demonstrating the same concept, using home-made gunpowder instead of a sword to battle a gatorish hominid called a Gorn.) At any rate, things end well for Phillip and Aurora.

: Eyvind Earle, production design, Sleeping Beauty, Walt Disney Studios, 1959; Reference photographs, uncredited, Sleeping Beauty; Production still, Episode 18, "The Arena," Star Trek. Aired January 19, 1967.