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Nymphs and Satyr, by William Bouguereau (Detail)
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FOREWORD

The following are some of the more enlightening responses on illustration and fine art submitted by participants of the GoodArt forum. GoodArt is a mailing list forum whose subscribers feature some of the greatest talents in realist painting today, as well as curators, collectors, historians, research students, and art lovers.

CORRESPONDENCE




Mary Eaton's defense of illustration as a fine art
Hi everybody.

Have been following the Commercial art=Bad art thread for a couple of days and wanted to throw in my two cents.

On the topic of 'commercial illustration=bad art' and Rockwell, Parrish, and N. C. Wyeth, et al. be damned: I can't say I agree. If one has to say that the damning detail of the art was the fact that Rockwell had to accept guidelines as to what he was to paint (i.e. paint Santa having milk and cookies for our December issue of The Saturday Evening Post) so then his art isn't art, but crass commercialism posing as art, I'd have to say:

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Um, how is that different from Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel as per the Pope's orders? Or any religious painting/altar piece commissioned by the Church? Or any number of portraits commissioned by the sitters? Why is Velázquez' painting of Pope Innocent X (IIRC) fine or high art and Maxfield Parrish's Ecstasy not? Or that famous painting by N. C. Wyeth of Robin Hood (with his men) coming out of the underbrush of Sherwood Forest, with Robin in the lead wearing a pensive expression on his face (sorry can't recall the title, mea culpa) -- how is that less fine art than Waterhouse's Lady of Shalott? Both illustrate a literary moment. That Wyeth produced that painting to be an illustration for a book doesn't debase it in my eyes any more than finding Lady of Shalott reproduced on a canvas tote bag. Is it merely that one artist's work was produced on canvas to be hung on the museum or salon wall as opposed to being done on canvas to be mass-reproduced by the publishing industry the point on which this argument is being made, here??

All these artists made their paintings/artwork for money-- they made them and expected to be paid for them. That is how they earned their living. To denigrate one group because the fruits of their labors were reproduced as product labels, calendars, advertising one-sheets, or magazine covers as opposed to museum and salon pieces is stupid, really. Not all commerical artists and illustrators were on the level of sheer beauty and mastery of the medium as Parrish or Wyeth, Pyle or Beardsley. There were, and still are, lots of drekky kludge being marketed as advertising and illustration and fine art. But a gem is a gem, whether set in precious metal or mud. Drekky kludge was made in Leighton's day, as well as Parrish's, as well as our own.

Do you think that the poster of this argument simply bought the Modern Art argument that commercialism is just "bad", that good art must be made without thought of material gain, that the artist is virtuous if he or she did not "sell out" to the "Establishment" for "money"? Well, hell. How is an artist gonna pay the rent, much less buy more paint if he or she doesn't "sell"? There's a theme here ... In the 19th c., there were highly paid and sought after engravers -- Gustave Doré, for example -- who were adored by the public and paid well for their efforts. Well, how is that different from Alma-Tadema's work or Leighton's work being reproduced in half-tone or engraving in the periodicals of their hey-day? Or, get this, of either of those artists making copies of their popular works in oil on canvas for other clients? Bouguereau did this. Leonardo da Vinci did his Madonna of the Rocks at least twice, that I know of. Yet no one is bashing him. Why? Is it mass production of copies/images of the works the no-no, then? No one seems to be disputing their merit today, amongst the goodart group.

Yet, how is it that the illustrators of the "Golden Age", a period spanning a decade prior to 1900, if I recall correctly, to about the 1920s/early 30s (Parrish's heyday) are disparaged? I see the whole "Golden Age of Illustration" to be the refugee camp for fine artists of the Old School, artists who managed to make a fine living practicing the skills and turning out the product that they'd trained long and hard for which galleries and salons were no longer willing to accept into their hallowed halls -- having had their collective heads turned by the modernist crap as the "Next Big Thing." And that's just the "Golden Age" greats I'm talking about here, BTW. I haven't gone on to name any number of really great cover artists seen gracing the covers of books at the local bookstore -- much less discussing artists in any single genre of books in said bookstore. (Not to mention the fact that cover art is becoming less a painted piece of work and more a matter of digital sampling cobbled together into a .... but I digress.)

Instead of bashing advertising and commerical efforts as a degrading influence on these illustrator "Greats", don't you think that we should be thankful that the businesses in question gave these artists an outlet, a venue for their talent? What about all of Diego Rivera's murals for the great American industrialists in the 30s? Wasn't he commissioned by Edsel Ford to do a series of murals that came to be called the Detroit Series? What about those?

If it's not patronage by industrialists from being great artists, is it the fact that these artists worked for the print media that disqualify these illustrators their place in the sun of our good regard? If so, why? Given the mass production of the medium (magazines, free calendars, etc.) many many more people were exposed to art well done, than could ever hope to afford a trip to a museum. Especially in Parrish's case, as a good portion of his life's work was done during the Depression years. That should count for something, shouldn't it?

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In fact, there was one period when he would unveil a painting every so often in the store window of his client -- I can't recall now if it was a department store chain or a drugstore -- in New York/major Northern metropolis, and people from all walks of life would line up for blocks to see it. Men, women and children. All ages. All weathers. It was often the bright point in their week, month, life. How could something that gave such joy and contentment to so many be denigrated as "crass commercialism/bad art"? Furthermore, when his work, Sunrise, was displayed, the lines broke all records. There was vast hue and cry some years later when it was reported lost and missing, suspected stolen. It finally turned up in the 70s, at an auction house, if I remember correctly. In case you&339re interested, the info here on Parrish came from a recently published book (c. 2001 or so), written by a woman who worked with one of the big auction houses up north, and was closely tied to the Parrish family. Dang, I should have bought it. I could then better phrase my argument.

Anyway, that's the best I can put this, given the lateness of the hour and some throat-clearing from my spouse to turn the darn thing off and turn out the lights ....

Maer


An endorsement from Fred Ross, ARC Chairman
An excellent and impassioned argument for illustration as a venue being anything but mutually exclusive with great fine art. Rembrandt's greatest works illustrate the bible, and Michelangelo's greatest works of all, his David and Moses, both are based on biblical stories. The greatest works of the pre-Raphaelites come from myth and legend.

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In fact it's the nature of stories and storytelling that needs to be properly analyzed as in fact wholly consistent and not in any way mutually exclusive with the concept and goals of fine painting and sculpture. Fine art first and foremost is about humanity and the human condition, as is all the greatest literature. The two go hand in glove, and to the extent that stories embody the most profound and powerful elements in what it means to be alive as a human being, they are in fact the perfect vehicle for the finest fine art that has ever been produced. Certainly genre and scenes from life's adventure that are generalized, like: Hope, fear, love, greed, death, youth, aging, and searching for one's identity, are all embodied in endless works of literature, and painting is a unique medium for expressing such things outside of a specific story of context. But this is extraordinarily important in the quest of redefining the debate in today's art world, and I will see about posting this commentary by Mary as well as other's that have been written on this subject ...

Thanks,
Fred

'Myth vs. Fantasy', by Mary Eaton
What is the difference between fantasy and myth? If Homer can have a woman turning men into pigs and be called a Classic, a great work of literature approaching mythical proportions, then why is it that a modern work of a woman doing the same thing is considered "fantasy" and by your definition, Hermes, somehow morally deficient? Is the age difference between the two examples the key, here? That is, Homer's work is so incredibly old that it has taken on the glamour of respectablity that comes with antiquity.

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To put it another way, involving paintings instead of literature, how is the painting Britomart and Amoret better than a more contemporary artist's treatment of the same subject or genre -- as seen on various fantasy book covers and romance novels over the years? While the digital illustration industry is taking over the cover art genre of painting (ack!), I can still find artwork with well done figurative portraiture on the covers of romance novels and some sf/fantasy ones. The accurate modelling of the figure, the flesh tones, clothing, lighting .... it's all there. It is no great leap of imagination to envision the cover art being transferred to a larger canvas hanging in a museum next to Dicksee or Waterhouse.

(I'm not taking about the covers of bodice rippers here, BTW, but the ones that are set up more like a straight portrait of the main character of the story .... Good grief, the idea of a bodice-ripper being hung up on the walls of the Louvre or the Tate ... I don't know whether to laugh my butt off or to cry.)

In either case, the artwork makes me wonder who that person is, what he or she wants out of life, where they are going, what they are thinking -- in short, I want to know the story. If I don't know the reference the painting is making, I make one up for myself. I think good paintings all do that: they draw the viewer in and make them think about what the underlying story is.

I get that reaction if I'm looking at a Bouguereau, an Alma-Tadema (my very first favorite of that era and the artist that started my own art education for me, BTW), a Waterhouse, or Michael Whelan, Richard Hescox, Jody Lee (her "painterly" covers, as opposed to her flatter graphics ones ... I think she's evolving into another style.), Rowena, earlier Vallejo, Sharon Greene (her Velveteen Rabbit illustrations are stunning) and all the romance cover artists whose names are legion (or were before the digital compositing started taking over!).

That said, what I want to ask is this: given the quality of these modern artists in illustrating an event or a theme from the books on whose covers their art appears, how is this art less worthy of respect than any of the 19th c. artists who illustrate stories from the Bible, Classical antiquity, the medieval period, or contemporary sources? Waterhouse did medieval and Classical/Greek subjects, as did Leighton and Alma-Tadema. Bouguereau made his living painting idealized visions of the nobility of the poor and the itinerant, of children and of course, Greek and Classical themes. Holman Hunt did morality plays set in his own Victorian era. Work [by Ford Madox Brown] and [Holman Hunt's] The Awakening Conscience (IIRC) are two such. These are all stories and ideals being represented here. The cover artists and illustrators we have today are doing the same thing, don't you think? How will their work be valued a hundred years hence? Will the novels they illustrated pass into obscurity, like a lot of the 19th c. references have today, while their illustrations and cover art survive as fine art, much in the way the art of the 19th c. masters survive today?

To that last question, let me explain. When one looks at Waterhouse's Ophelia does one need to know the play Hamlet to enjoy the painting? If you think one does, isn't that dangerously close to the Modernist dogma of having to be "in the know" to truly understand the artist's "concept" and "genius"? When one picks up the paperback copy of Judith Merkle Riley's A Vision of Light and sees the portrait of the main female character on the cover, does one need to know the story to appreciate the portrait?

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How about an even stronger comparison: How about the cover of the US edition of Laurie R. King's The Game (see her website) in comparison to (IIRC) Monet's portrait of his wife in that gorgeous red figured kimono? Would you say, Hermes, that the modern cover is less respectable than the Monet? If so, how? If you divorce the painting from the product it is on, how are these two examples different? How is one morally deficient and the other praiseworthy? The cover of The Game has the dark background and the dramatic foreground lighting on the model, with chiaroscuro done just right and the modelling of the figure and the flesh tones are just as good as anything I've seen in 19th c. art. (To see the cover in its original form, the version I am using to support my argument, click on the book's link at the lefthand side of the homepage -- the one shown on the homepage itself has been altered to add the window silhouette/shadow, an alteration I think was clumsily done, even if the color balance was preserved ...)

It took me a long time to understand the difference between graphic arts and the fine arts. Maybe there is something of the same distinction to be made here, and I am just not seeing it. If anyone on this list could help me see what I am missing, I would welcome reading your comments on the list or off-list. But could someone tell me, please, what makes the examples I mention above worthy or unworthy of our good regard?

-- Maer




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