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

Ben Shahn: The Most Influential Illustrator of the 20th Century... or "just plain bad drawing"?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Recently a friend who shares my passion for illustration sent a note. He'd been perusing one of those massive volumes that collect and showcase "some of today's hottests young illustrators." In his opinion (and I have tremendous respect for this particular friend's opinion) he thought it was crap. Full of "faux naïve stuff, or just plain bad drawing."

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This is a complaint I hear often - both in the comments section of this blog and from (commercial) artist friends I respect and admire. "What the hell is wrong with this generation of illustrators?" they ask. "Why have they not been taught the importance of learning how to draw well?"

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Have art schools abandoned the teaching of fundamental skills and instead embraced that same b.s. 'anything goes' philosophy that has many of us rolling our eyes at the the pile of junk heaped on the floor of some gallery and called an "installation piece"?

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Is it all about "expressing your feelings" these days - oh the angst of youth! - and craft be damned?

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Of course this is nothing new. Bad drawing and artsy-fartsy touchy-feeliness has been an acceptable part of the commercial art scene for a very long time. The question is, when did it become acceptable and who was responsible for steering the ship into these uncharted waters? More than half a century ago an entire generation of illustrators - many of them with styles very firmly rooted in classical realism - were profoundly influenced by an artist named Ben Shahn. As you can see from all of the examples so far in today's post, Shahn couldn't (or chose not to) draw very well. At all.

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Yet Shahn was described in an article in the January 13, 1953 issue of Look magazine as "one of the dominant influences in American art today and a major figure in the world of painting."

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If you are, like my friend, of a certain mind, you may be understandably wary of "the world of art" - and might therefore be predisposed to reject Look magazine's glowing endorsement of Shahn. I ask then that you consider instead the many mid-century illustrators who reference Ben Shahn as a pivotal influence on their work - and on the field of illustration in general. For instance...

- Last week's subject, Merle Basset, told me in one breath, "I felt good drawing was the foundation for all excellent illustrations." and in the next, "I think I was influenced by many of the great artists at that time and Ben Shahn was one of my favorites."

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- In his biography, Charles Wysoki (the artist we determined had done the 1960 Dodge Trucks illustrations we looked at a couple of weeks ago) says, "I was and am probably still greatly influenced by the paintings of Rousseau, Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, Ben Shahn, Norman Rockwell and, of course, Grandma Moses."

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- Bryn Havord wrote on this very blog about his friend Brian Sanders that he was, "heavily influenced by Ben Shahn..."

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- Also from the biography of Anthony Saris, presented here on the blog in November 2009, "Saris cited the work of Ben Shahn, Paul Klee, George Grosz among those he most admired and studied."

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- When I asked Sandy Kossin about his important influences, he wrote back, "I do give a lot of credit for any drama and design I use to David Stone Martin and Ben Shahn. Shahn, who I never met, but was alive while I was in art school, opened my eyes to not only shape-making, but the use of 'layers' of color over underpainting, and the judicious use of color."

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- Describing his early influences, Harry Borgman said, "I liked Paul Gauguin, Paul Klee, Ben Shahn..."

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- And when Anita Virgil wrote about her husband Andy's career she said, "Andy was "weaned" on so many of the great names in illustration -- and even beyond. He admired the work of Ben Shahn who offered a kind of bridge from the fine arts to the commercial... and certainly many of Shahn’s potent design concepts for years influenced commercial illustration. "

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- Then there's this compelling quote from none other than Murray Tinkelman, who told Peg Nocciolino that Ben Shahn was an "emblematic and pivotal illustrator ... responsible for the new look of illustration that started in the 50's."

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- Finally, from Walt Reed's book, "The Illustrator in America": "Ben Shahn had a major impact on American illustration through his own work, and also by example through younger illustrators."

(It goes without saying that David Stone Martin could be considered the most prominent of those younger illustrators).

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Taking all of these endorsements under consideration (and they are, I'm sure, only a small sample of what you could find with further research) one has to wonder...

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If Ben Shahn really did play the pivotal role in changing the look of illustration as Murray Tinkelman declares...

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If Shahn freed illustrators from the burden of craft (in other words, if he legitimized "bad drawing")...

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... if he singlehandedly steered a generation of illustrators away from classical realism so they might explore other types of picture making - and in turn influence generation after generation of young illustrators to this day...

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... wouldn't that make Ben Shahn the most influential illustrator of the 20th century?

Employment Opportunities for Fashion Illustrators

Friday, June 24, 2011

What were the employment opportunities like for mid-century fashion illustrators? Based on Merle Bassett's first-hand account, there were plenty of jobs for young illustrators in the fashion industry during the 1950s.

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Merele told me, "Much of my success was as a result of talent and luck. Fortunately the competition for work back then was not as ferocious as it is today. I do recall being received well at most art director's offices... many were aware of the illustrations I had done at Neiman Marcus. My name had been in several Art Directors Annuals and the ads had won awards...that publicity helped."

"I did fine on my own... I worked regularly [for the magazines] and the ad agencies were keeping me busy as well."

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Merle's experience seems born out by my research in various mid-20th century publications. The Famous Artists School magazine regularly featured a "Showcase" about successful graduates. Every issue I have contains at least on example of an FAS graduate who found steady work doing fashion illustration for their local newspaper or as a staff artist at their hometown department store.

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It struck me that this is yet another example of how times have changed for the illustration business. Back in the mid-20th century, every major town and city would have had a local independent newspaper and at least one major independent department store.

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In the days before national chains and comglomerates absorbed the independents (or drove them into bankruptcy) all those businesses - and many others I'm probably overlooking - would have needed someone locally who could draw fashion illustrations for them on a regular basis.

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That's how someone like Carolyn Jagotis of South Bend, Indiana (below) was able to go from being a secretary to "a busy career built around a drawing board instead of a typewriter ... [drawing] newspaper merchandise and fashion illustration" - and not have to move to New York or L.A. to achieve her career ambitions.

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Of course compensation in South Bend, Indiana or any other small centre would have been substantially lower than what Merle Bassett was earning in New York City (Merle recalled once receiving $2,000 for a double page advertising spread). A 1954 American Artist article comparing the merits of various types of commercial art markets suggested that department store fashion illustrators should expect low pay and rushed working conditions.

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Still, as one person commented the other day on my Flickr page, "No matter how bad the prices are they can't be as bad as 99designs!" Many of today's graphic artists would probably be more than thrilled to trade places with the low paid and rushed illustrators of the 1950s!

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Speaking of which, here are a couple of Butterick clothing pattern envelopes sent to me by a TI list member. Another example of how illustrators were employed by the fashion industry.

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How many thousands upon thousands of these envelopes have needed to be illustrated over the years? Take a look at the Vintage Pattern group on Flickr. It boggles the mind...

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Finally, here are two gorgeous newspaper fashion ads from the Globe and Mail, from 1962 and '63 - for Eaton's department store. Beautifully designed and illustrated, and intended to be seen for one day - and then discarded.

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Just imagine the volume of artwork that must have been produced over the decades for just this one store - then extrapolate that number over the entire continent!

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The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has an extensive collection of original fashion illustrations by KPB, Fred Greenhill, Richard Ely, Jack Potter, Morton Kaish, John Woods, Dorothy Hood, Antonio, Jackie Doyle, Mia Carpenter, Phil French and many others. For those who do not live in the Boston area, the museum has more than 200 pages of fashion artwork available for viewing online.

Merle Bassett: "Fashion illustration came so easily for me..."

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Merle Bassett was featured in the September 1952 issue of Art Director & Studio News as that issue's "Upcoming Artist"...

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I never imagined that one day, nearly 60 years after that article was published, I would receive a note from Merle Bassett himself! Last October, with the help of TI list member Daniel Zalkus, I connected and began corresponding with Merle Bassett. Merle shared many details about the early days of his career as a fashion illustrator in 1950s New York. Today, I'm very pleased to share those details with you, in Merle's own words...

"My name is Merle Bassett, I'm now 83 and living in Cambria, California. Since retiring here 22 years ago, I have satisfied my ambition to paint and am now passionate about digital photography."

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"My days as a fashion illustrator are long gone, but I'm most grateful for being part of the 1950s illustration scene... a kinder, gentler scene!"

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"I began drawing (scribbling?) at age 3. I was very fortunate to be encouraged to draw and my interest in art was supported by family and teachers. My favorite childhood "visual inspirations" were George Petty's pinup art and later, Jon Whitcomb's glamorous illustrations."

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"Also, as a child I remember Cosmopolitan being in the house and seeing the great illustrators work in the '30s and '40s. I seem to recollect a Bradshaw Crandall (?) and John LaGatta being among them. As a teenager I went to a Saturday morning drawing class at the Cleveland Museum of Art. I looked forward to that class all week! In high school my abilities as an artist were recognized—I did football posters, painted and did cartoons for the yearbook."

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(Above and below, artwork by Merle Bassett, age 17)
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"Later, at Chouinard Art Institute in LA, I began to formulate my ambition to be a fashion illustrator. I was particularly inspired by a NY fashion illustrator named Tod Draz who did beautiful full page newspaper ads for Franklin Simon, a now defunct department store. He was a great draftsman and I related to that as I was honing my skills as a draftsman... "

"I felt good drawing was the foundation for all excellent illustrations. "

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Even most of the Abstract Impressionists (except for Jackson Pollock, who couldn't draw) were excellent draftsmen before they did abstract work. I admired the story illustrators work but I didn't feel qualified to compete in that market. I was very comfortable and adept at doing fashion drawings... even at Chouinard during life drawing I'd get bored and draw fashion figures next to my drawing of the model. Once, the fashion illustration teacher, while looking at my drawing, said "well, I can see I needn't try to teach YOU anything!."

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"I only completed a year of art school and needed to find work quickly at the end of that year. I knew somebody who had connections at Joseph Magnin and I got a job interview there. They hired me, so at 21 & just out of art school I was able to start making a living. As a magazine story illustrator, that would not have happened and I chose not to struggle trying to succeed as a fine artist. I needed to make money NOW."

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"Fashion illustration came so easily for me... I almost intuitively knew what to do, whereas I felt intimidated by story illustration or fine art work. Back then there was little competition in fashion illustration and there was a need for young people like me who knew how to draw. I never had to struggle the way many talented people do today. It just came so easily and I went with the flow."

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"I worked with Betty Brader, who did poster type fashion illustrations at my first job as "junior artist" (I was 21) in SF at Joseph Magnin (also a defunct department store) in 1947."

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"I learned fashion illustration on the job and was being inspired by Eric and Bouché in the fashion magazines. They were fine artists and not really commercial artists so their work was on a higher level than most fashion art being done at the time."

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"I left SF and Joseph Magnin because Neiman Marcus in Dallas, Texas had asked me to come work there. I worked with the art director, Charles Gruen and we were represented in several Art Directors Annuals."

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"It was a great time in my life because I was drawing every day AND getting paid for it. It was all new and fresh. Each day was an adventure — I never knew what I'd be illustrating when I came to work. We were allowed to experiment and do things that had not been done before in newspaper advertising. "

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"Neiman Marcus was getting a lot of attention and so were the artists involved. Up until then, retail store illustrators were really not well respected and never represented in the AD annuals."

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"We changed all that and were very proud of our accomplishments."

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"Not many illustrators wanted to relocate back then, but I had nothing keeping me in SF and the prestigious Neiman Marcus was a step up in my career."

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"I spent 3 happy years as a staff artist in that store before I decided to seek my fortune in the Big Apple! I had nothing and nobody waiting for me in NY... I was simply fearless and ambitious at 24! However, I had done some very good work at N-M and advertising people had seen it. I got work virtually as soon as I set up a little studio."

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"I have a lot of memories of New York in the 50s... some good and some not so good. It was a very exciting time for me... my style of illustration was in demand and I had no trouble finding freelance work soon after I arrived in that great city in 1951. Art directors had seen my Neiman Marcus drawings and I started getting newspaper and magazine assignments very quickly. Success came early - maybe too early. But I have no regrets, as I was quite fortunate to be in the right place at the right time."

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"My first days in NY were very exciting... I was thrilled at being in that wonderful city. The Plaza Hotel with the elegant New Yorkers coming and going — I went to Broadway plays, checked out the store windows on Fifth Avenue, galleries, the Metropolitan Museum and started responding to the NY energy. It was 1951 and everything was happening in NY -- I was so happy -- feeling that I was a part of that."

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I was fortunate to have Jack Potter as a friend during those years — on the nights that he was not available to teach his class at the School of Visual Arts, he asked me to sit in for him. I had great respect for him as an artist and certainly as a teacher after he retired from illustration. He inspired and motivated countless artists/professionals - and wannabe professionals!

(Below, an early-1950s photo of Merle Bassett taken by his friend, Jack Potter)
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"I knew my limitations as to what kinds of assignments I was qualified to accept. As a result, I made a name for myself as a competent fashion illustrator and made a lot of money over the years. I didn't really fully express myself as an artist until retirement. Then and only then did I draw and paint to please only myself."

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"In order to make money, I had to please art directors and clients... I did not please myself and grow as an artist during my career."

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"I did not struggle the way so many of today's young illustrators do. I was kept busy freelancing for nearly 20 years. When my days as an illustrator were over, I moved to LA and worked as a layout artist until retirement in 1988."

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"I was conflicted about commercial art versus fine art... I really admired the great painters. So I pursued a career as a fashion illustrator, which paid the bills and put fine art on the back burner until retirement. I guess Bob Peak, Jack Potter and the rest of the great illustrators of that era had a different agenda than mine. I had and still have, great respect for their work."

"After moving to Cambria, I had a great time doing watercolors and enjoyed being a "Fine Artist" and not having to please an art director or a Sales Promotion Director!"

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"Thanks, Leif, for the opportunity to go back in time to the "glory days"! The world was such a very different place back then — now I keep busy with photography."

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Many thanks to Merle Bassett for sharing the story of his career with us - and to Daniel Zalkus for putting us in touch with each other!

* You can see some of Merle's photography at this site.
 

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