Friday, August 21, 2015

Illustration is Junk Food

In my travels I come upon a number of ‘art lovers’ that stick their noses up at illustrations. They often dismiss it as a lower art form, especially here in Colorado. You would think it was the other way around coming from New York City. Prestige is found at booths during local art fairs and not on the pages of magazines. Painting and sculpture, it seems, are fine wines and caviar while illustrations are mere chips, gluten free at that. No substance apparently. Wine also comes in cartons you know.

I understand that technically illustration is an applied art and its purpose is to explain or decorate an idea, while fine art exist for aesthetic only. The problem is viewers confuse ‘fine’ with quality. The fact of the matter is there are great and poor examples of both. A good illustrator will find a way to solve the visual problem and make it a thing of beauty. In fact, the only difference I have found between the two, since subject, medium, technique, time period and style occur in both, is that an illustrator negotiates the price first while a fine artist leaves it to chance.

Please don’t believe the falsehood that seeing work in a museum gives it some sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s first curator was Hilla Rebay and, in my opinion, has one of the poorest collections of modern art. If not for Frank Lloyd Wright’s interpretation of a seven-story flower pot the place would be vacant (The rooftop is ideal for placing the holiday Christmas tree!). And while the Museum of Modern Art has a superior collection, it was started by a group of New York socialites that wanted to increase the value of their purchases. Not exactly ordained by Aphrodite.

Art from the Middle Ages fares little better with museums displaying hallway after hallway of repeated subjects, mainly The Madonna and Child and The Crucifixion. Yes, they are beautiful, but they also represent a millennium of monotony. After the first hundred or so pieces you witness museumgoers picking up the pace, seeking something fresh around the corner their cultural obligation satisfied. Is there really that much difference between bishops asking for a decoration to hang on the walls of his church and a publisher decorating the pages of his magazine?

You could say that the history of art in some ways is really the history of illustration. The preponderance of art produced during the Middle Ages and Byzantine periods as well as the Early Renaissance was done for the edification of the church, in other words illustrations from the Bible. Whether it’s Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, the Ghent Altarpiece, or the domed ceiling of the Duomo in Florence (although that one reads more like a graphic novel) they all illustrate text. Murals, grand and splendid works of art, are there to decorate and explain, to illustrate. They taught an illiterate Europe everything they needed to know as prescribed by the church and state. And of course not just the Bible, but scenes from mythology, as well as historical events, were also popular subjects to illustrate, I mean in which to create fine art. It wasn’t until the growth of the middle class, which developed after the guild system, that many artists were able to create for themselves…art for art’s sake.

As printing developed so did book and newspaper illustrations. Whether it was Thomas Eakins’ drawings from the Civil War battlefront, or Gustave DorĂ©’s work in Dante’s Divine Comedy, no one questions their talent. Now that we know Eakins worked directly from photographs, like an illustrator, has his work lost value? If we compare Grant Wood’s American Gothic with Norman Rockwell’s Freedom of Fear from his Four Freedoms series does one deserve higher status than the other? They are similar in subject, and technique. Both have become icons of American life. Both appear plain almost simple upon first viewing, but the composition, structure, expressions, handling of paint are both very complex and beautiful. Equals, in my eyes, of  20th Century Art in America.

I admit that illustrations can become overly sweet and sentimental, corny and pedestrian, even cheap. But they can also be works of great art that grab hold and keep us coming back for more. There is the sublime gentleness of Jessie Wilcox Smith and Andrew Loomis, the bold and expressive brushstrokes of Harvey Dunn and Dean Cornwall, the inventiveness of Heinrich Kley and Al Parker, and the storytelling of N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle. Hundreds of artists that created thousands of works of art that are no less beautiful, no less skilled, than what many museums have to offer. Thankfully, galleries are starting to take notice as well as collectors. Illustration may be junk food, but life is too short not to enjoy a piece of cake now and then.

Okay, I'm not saying this is fine art, but I do like the way this large nude came out.