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Celebrating Illustration, Design, Cartoon and Comic Art of the Mid-20th Century

Robert Weaver: "The artist... should be the reactor"

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Not surprising to see that Weaver's work and words provoked some powerful reactions from readers yesterday - and how interesting to see enmity juxtaposed with admiration! Truly, Robert Weaver's polarizing effect on readers (especially those who are illustrators) reflects how each of us sees ourselves and our personal esthetic.

For those who are at this point incensed, I again encourage you try to keep an open mind and see where this week takes us.

Personally, there's very little about Weaver's artwork that appeals to me. But there's a lot in his philosophy and advocacy of the merit of illustration that I find extremely compelling, and its his words that have made me see his work in a new light.

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In his 1959 interview in American Artist magazine, Weaver said, "If as an illustrator I say what is wrong with contemporary 'serious' painting, it is because I see no reason why an illustrator should not see himself as a serious contemporary painter."

"The artist should not merely reflect; in an atomic era he should be the reactor."

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Speaking to the then popular trend in fine art toward abstract expressionism, Weaver chastised the 'serious' art world with this powerful criticism:

"On the simplest level it is an incredible oversight on the part of the artist that he neglects to use his eyes. A true avant-garde might today proclaim the return of subject matter!"

"In my own teaching I am trying to remedy this deficiency by ordering students out onto the streets with sketchpads. Once the initial shock of life wears off the student can begin to discover the magnitude of the world."
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A laudable attitude - and one that even the most conservative-minded traditionalist illustrator would surely agree with. But for those content to maintain the status quo, Weaver qualified his statement:

"But just as he cannot afford to ignore the world he cannot afford to turn his back on the good things in our modern painting."


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"While there is the obvious omission of life in our contemporary art, there are far graver deficiencies in what little conservative painting of merit is still being attempted. we cannot go back or retrench, as some would urge. Art, as life, evolves. If we think we can disguise the fact that a new generation is coming into being that rejects what we think is important by calling it 'the beat generation' we are kidding ourselves."

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"Conservatism may be sound policy in fiscal matters, but the artist who ignores his time does so at great peril to his usefulness."

* My Robert Weaver Flickr set.

Robert Weaver: "Illustration is an essential to great painting."

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

As predicted, yesterday's post provoked some strong reactions - some enthusiastic, others a bit ornery. Readers asked, "why the controversy?" and wanted to take me to task for suggesting Robert Weaver might be somehow better (or even just different) than NC Wyeth.

In fact, my real intent was misread - I have little doubt that Robert Weaver could have admired NC Wyeth's (or Howard Pyle's) work and that these artists actually had more in common than we might expect at a glance.

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That being said, the elephant in the room that has to be acknowledged is that the classical style of illustration, the tradition that came down by way of NC Wyeth and a thousand commercial artists who 'descended' from him, was, by the mid-century period, becoming irrelevant.

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By the mid-1950s traditional, 'realistic' illustration was no longer fashionable, desirable or meaningful to the larger graphic arts industry or, frankly, even to many of the artists employed in making commercial pictures.(1)

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While Robert Weaver may have admired Wyeth and Pyle, I get the feeling he had little more than disdain for their 'descendants' - for the Sundblom Santas and the Whitmore 'clinches'. Describing his take on the state of illustration in a 1959 interview in American Artist magazine Weaver said, "Many illustrators of today are too little concerned with the actualities of their time."

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"Too often they merely aid and abet the pre-sold illusion of the age. The illustrator, who should be outside momentary surface illusions observing, is himself observed as part of the phenomena by more serious students of the time."

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By "serious students", Weaver was not referring to the contemporary fine artists of the day, by the way. Of that crowd, he said, "Today's artist finds himself unattached to society. There is no mutual sense of responsibility He is 'free.' He likes it that way."

"Is it not that very freedom that has robbed art of its raison d'etre? I have noticed that abstract expressionism carried to the most reckless extremes no longer has the power to shock and disturb even the most conservative audiences. Ennui sets in."

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"How can there be vitality without meaning? A much more intellectually challenging field of painting is that which includes illustration but is not limited by it." (emphasis Weaver's)

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"Illustration is an essential to great painting. Abstractness cannot be equated with it; it is merely the grammar. Color, texture, design, etc. are tools to be applied to a purpose. 'Self expression' is not a purpose, it is an inevitable by-product of that purpose. It is at this point that the illustrator-painter should realize his opportunities."

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"That he has not realized them is borne out by the low opinion in which the illustrator is held in the general art world."

* My Robert Weaver Flickr set.

(1) By example, consider the story of Murray Tinkelman luring, one by one, the Cooper studio artists away to Reuben Tam's painting class at the Brooklyn Museum. In Neil Shapiro's article in Illustration Magazine # 16, Cooper artist Don Crowley described Murray's influence (somewhat facetiously) on the Cooper staff as "[getting] those guys dissatisfied with what they were doing... they weren't happy doing illustrations any more. They wanted to be fine artists."

Robert Weaver: The "Anti-Wyeth"?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Last week's series on NC WYeth certainly evoked a positive response from many readers. One commenter wrote, "all hyperbole over NCW is superfluous." "NC Wyeth is fantastic!!!!!" wrote another, and a third person commented "due to the fact that the illustrations were timeless, Wyeth's work was still appropriate a full twenty years after his death."

All of which makes me think this would be a wasted opportunity if I did not use it to present what some might call "the Anti-Wyeth": Robert Weaver. Because for all of the tradition and craft in Wyeth's work, for all of the gorgeous, thoughtful, classical composition, for all the "timelessness", there was, by the 1950s, hardly a trace in the mainstream print media of NC Wyeth or any other artist who might be considered to have followed in his footsteps. There was, however, a burgeoning movement of young, avant-garde, modern art-influenced illustrators who seemed to be laughing in the face of all the traditions their elders considered prerequisite to good, proper picture-making.

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Some would say Robert Weaver was the leader of this gang of young punks. At the very least he must be considered one of it's chief agitators.

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In a 1959 interview in American Artist magazine, Weaver said, "...rather than emphasize the difference between the painter and the illustrator I would like to show how 'art' and illustration could serve each other."

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This is an incredibly important statement and marks a defining moment in the evolution of illustration as it exists to this very day. Before Weaver, most illustrators saw themselves as purely commercial artists - craftspeople - whose highly skilled efforts were essentially in service of the story or advertisement that required visual reinforcement.

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After Weaver, illustrators began seeing themselves as a sort of hybrid commercial/fine artist; someone who must have the freedom to include some degree of sincere personal artistic statement in their assignments. The story was now in service to their requirement for personal expression.

To put it plainly (and I have seen this most often among editorial illustrators) those artists who follow the Weaver philosophy want to have their cake and eat it, too.

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From past experience, I know some readers are going to remain firmly entrenched in the Wyeth camp and everything it represents. They will see Robert Weaver's work as unskilled and unworthy of serious consideration or respect. Other readers, I know, adore Weaver and see Wyeth and other traditionalists as hokey and "compromised." Amusing but also somewhat contemptible. I ask both parties to keep an open mind and see where this week takes us (but of course, all comments and opinions are welcome and I look forward to hearing whatever you care to contribute to the discussion).

* My Robert Weaver Flickr set.

A Little More Wyeth

Friday, June 25, 2010

Many thanks to guest author Charlie Allen for sharing so many inspiring images by NC Wyeth with us this week! As a way of repaying the favour, I thought I'd dig through my collection and see what I could come up with in the way of Wyeth artwork. This first piece, from a 1924 issue of Ladies Home Journal, had been trimmed down by the original owner along both sides to fit into a folder in my morgue. I had to do a little 'reconstructive surgery' in Photoshop. Hopefully its not too obvious.


Next, also from my inherited morgue files, a 1927 cover for Country Gentleman by Wyeth. Earlier this week Charlie told us that "The Boys' King Arthur" was first published in 1908, and that "Treasure Island" was from 1911. So these two pieces provide an interesting example of the artist's development (if any) some ten-plus years later.


Finally, I was surprised to find this series of illustrations in a 1965 edition of Reader's Digest Condensed Books, sandwiched between a thoroughly modern group by Stan Galli and another, equally contemporary series by Arthur Shilstone ( both of which I plan to feature at a later date ).


Charlie explained that NC Wyeth died in 1954, so Reader's Digest was obviously confident that its audience would still have an appreciation for Wyeth's work some ten years after his death ( and several decades after the height of his popularity ).


In fact, the credits indicate that this series was originally presented in 1939.


Once again, they provide an opportunity to consider if Wyeth's work had changed in any way after approximately two decades had passed from the time of "a set of pictures, without doubt far better in quality than anything I ever did...", as Charlie told us the artist said of his "Treasure Island" series.


Unfortunately the reproduction quality on the cheap newsprint paper RDCB used is horrendous.


Even so, Wyeth's skill at devising strong, dramatic compositions can't be obscured by bad printing.


These last two pieces in the series are probably my favourites, as they really remind me very much of the kind of pictures Wyeth was creating in his earlier days. To quote Charlie once more, they are an "amazing group of illustrations... so old... and yet so new to today's viewers and readers! N.C. Wyeth was a true giant in our illustrative history."


And they really are new to me - and thanks to Charlie, I now see the artist in a new light. Wyeth's influence on many of the industry's 'modern masters' - from James Gurney to James Jean - is much more apparent to me now.

We would all do well to look more closely at the likes of NC Wyeth for the purpose of study and inspiration. Again, many thanks, Charlie!

* If you are new to Today's Inspiration and never read Charlie Allen's blog, this is your chance to get to know our guest author better. Drop by there and peruse Charlie's archives for some great stories and some truly amazing artwork!

NC Wyeth's "Treasure Island"

Thursday, June 24, 2010

By guest author, Charlie Allen

Once again a visit with N.C.WYETH....and with his paintings for Robert Lewis Stevenson's 'Treasure Island'.

The fourteen images (6 of which are included on this blog) are from a calendar beautifully produced in 1983 by Charles Scribner & Sons. They were reproduced and printed in Japan. The quality and color fidelity from the mostly original paintings (instead of from book reproductions) is outstanding. A heartfelt thanks and deep appreciation to Charles Scribner & Sons for making this great art available to the public is not enough.


As said in the earlier blog, Wyeth was proud of these illustrations, saying, "I've turned out a set of pictures, without doubt far better quality than anything I ever did... "


I have no firm data on the size of these, but know Wyeth painting in oils was comfortable with large sizes. When an artist of Wyeth's abilities waxes that enthusiastic about his.....watch out, Nellie!


Beginning with Wyeth's over design of fierce pirates, crossed pistols, saber wielding, each illustration has a marvelous choice of characters, fine original composition, and they're designed together to compliment and hold the strong narrative of the story.


As in the last blog, I won't comment on each selecton. Besides, words can never match painted inspiration.


Just the combination of NC Wyeth and Robert Lewis Stevenson is a treat and a true natural.


Chas. Allen.

* Tomorrow, Leif shares some scans from NC Wyeth's later (last?) period.

* If you are new to Today's Inspiration and never read Charlie Allen's blog, this is your chance to get to know our guest author better. Drop by there and peruse Charlie's archives for some great stories and some truly amazing artwork!

NC Wyeth's "King Arthur", conclusion

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

By guest author, Charlie Allen

I won't comment on all the following illustrations except to say Wyeth never let the reader down. Each is a marvel of composition, draftsmanship and drama... and each offers the readers renewed interest and a glimpse of the times and mood of the story.





The next to last image was a page loved and quoted by my friend Ken Alexander. 'He rode his way with the queen unto Joyous Gard'... Poetic, and dramatized so beautifully.


By the way, all of Wyeth's horse subjects add hugely to the drama of the event. Can't think of another illustrator who came even close in that regard.

Last, the final illustration the death scene.


Just an amazing group of illustrations... so old... and yet so new to today's viewers and readers! N.C. Wyeth was a true giant in our illustrative history.

* Tomorrow, Charlie shares some scans from NC Wyeth's "Treasure Island".

* If you are new to Today's Inspiration and never read Charlie Allen's blog, this is your chance to get to know our guest author better. Drop by there and peruse Charlie's archives for some great stories and some truly amazing artwork!

NC Wyeth's "King Arthur" continued...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

By guest author, Charlie Allen

The next scan, and in pretty much the order of the nine illustrations included in the book, an amazing scene of King Arthur standing in an elaborately carved small boat contemplating the strange sword in the lake. And... to add to the eery scene... the three swans flying, apparently noiselessly through a misty background.


Next, 'I am Sir Lancelot du Lake, King Ban's son of Benwick, and Knight of the Round Table'. Typical of Wyeth's ability to dramatize a scene of the two knights meeting.


I won't comment on all the following illustrations except to say Wyeth never let the reader down.


Each is a marvel of composition, draftsmanship and drama... and each offers the readers renewed interest and a glimpse of the times and mood of the story.

* Tomorrow, more scans from "The Boys King Arthur", courtesy of Charlie Allen.

* If you are new to Today's Inspiration and never read Charlie Allen's blog, this is your chance to get to know our guest author better. Drop by there and peruse Charlie's archives for some great stories and some truly amazing artwork!

N.C. Wyeth: "... amazing talents"

Monday, June 21, 2010

By guest author, Charlie Allen

Leif has been kind enough to ask that I contribute a blog or two on artists that I've liked in the past. This comes along later than planned... due to a rather difficult 2010 so far. Won't get into that, but we'll try this out, and hopefully viewers will see something of the past century illustration that is interesting, inspiring and entertaining.

The subject is N.C. Wyeth, one of, if not the very best of the early century illustrators. He hardly needs introduction to most. I grew up admiring and wondering at many of the illustrators in my youth... and definitely wanted to do that... sometime, 'when I grew up'. Luckily I did get in on the last thirty or so years of print media illustration, before TV and computers took over the world.

First, just a brief word about Newell Convers Wyeth, born in Needham, Massachusetts, in 1882.


He began illustrating at 21 and continued until his death in 1954. These illustrations are fine, dramatic works... years before artists used photo reference and 'short cuts'. I'm sure he used reference, but they were composed and painted in oils from his amazing talents, vivid imagination and love of subject.

The scans on this blog are from an old book titled, "The Boys King Arthur" (Charles Scribner and Sons, New York). Opening credits state 'edited for boys by Sidney Lainer'. The above sub-title is 'Sir Thomas Mallory's History of King Arthur and His Knights of the Roundtable'. The writing is antiquated and very British... purposely, no doubt to give the character of early days.

The first scans, hopefully can be merged together by Leif... maybe not important. The inside cover and facing page, in sepia, an entourage of knights, ladies (Guinevere?), proud horses, swans, et al.



The opening color scan is the title page designed and painted by Wyeth. Who but Wyeth would conceive of a more formidable character than this? Plus design the distinctive title page as well?


This book was recently lent by a friend and former political cartoonist for the S.F. Examiner, and an excellent artist. He grew up with it, and this copy is marked, well loved and worn. I think this illustrated edition came along early in the centrury, the earliest published date being 1908. There were several editions later on. Wyeth completed the illustrations for Robert Lewis Stevenson's 'Treasure Island' in 1911. In his own words, 'I've turned out a set of pictures, without without doubt far better in quality than anything I ever did...'. They are truly a marvel to behold.

Maybe on a later blog!

* Continued tomorrow.

* If you are a new to Today's Inspiration and never read Charlie Allen's blog, this is your chance to get to know him better. Drop by there and peruse Charlie's archives for some great stories and amazing artwork!

William A. Smith Art Exhibit

Saturday, June 19, 2010

William A. Smith has been the subject of quite a few posts here on Today's Inspiration. And why not? Smith's work is among the best of the mid-20th century period in illustration and deserves to be revisited again and again.




During WWII William A Smith spent time in China in the service of the Office of Strategic Services. There he created propaganda art - its purpose, to demoralize the occupying Japanese forces. Smith also did many sketches and paintings of the Chinese people who were enduring that occupation and of the towns and villages and the surrounding countryside in which they lived.


These personal art works are an admirable testament to the tremendous respect and affection Smith felt for the people he encountered. They are also an important historical document that sheds a personal light on a troubling time in a place to which not many of us here in the west have much of a connection.


With this being Father's Day weekend, I thought I should bring to your attention one daughter who recently went to a great deal of effort to share the memory of her father - and his work - with us. Kim Smith is the daughter of William A Smith, and the curator of a show of her father's artwork from his WWII tour of duty in China.


If you happen to live near San Rafael, CA, this is a show you won't want to miss. Perhaps its even something you might like to take your father too (though unfortunately not this weekend - the gallery is only open from Monday to Friday).

* For further information contact Sandi Chin, Director of University Community Exhibitions at Dominican University, at the phone number or email address above.

* See much more of William A Smith's work and read about his career on the William A Smith blog.
 

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