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Thursday, January 12, 2012

THE CARTOON IN FINE ART

INTRODUCTION

All of us would agree that Rembrandt is a fine artist and not a cartoonist. We also would concur that Gary Larsen is probably a cartoonist and not a fine artist. But what label do we pin on Honore Daumier, Charles Bragg, Francisco Goya, David Levine, and the other image makers considered here? They are artists who either cross easily back and forth over the fine line between fine art and cartoon, or whose work contains elements of both. Fine art is popularly thought to be "fine" and cartoon art to be "coarse," but the fact is that cartoonists can be superior draftsmen to fine artists. It is equally true that some fine artists are extraordinary cartoonists. My hope is that readers will no more be able to answer the question "What is a cartoonist?" than anyone has ever finally answered the question "What is art?"
Seriously, I want to question the use of labels pinned onto artists by writers and academics, such as "cartoonist," "expressionist," "illustrator," "commercial artist," "cubist," "surrealist," "post modernist," or whatever "IST" is in currently in vogue. I particularly wish to challenge the phrase "He's ONLY a cartoonist." Humor can be a serious business, and the only concern for an artist should be his or her inner muse, not the need to conform to an imprisoning label that can inhibit creativity.
To make the cut, an artist must be a master technician. Visual contortion is not enough. Also, the art must us laugh and reflect at the same time...in other words be seriously funny. The best humor contains truth, and often the biggest laughs cut close to the bone. In addition, content will be given more weight than mere style. If there is any trace of political correctness, the artist can go to his room or go and be in another book.
The line is one of the most basic elements of both fine art and the cartoon. But where do you draw the line between the two? The line is so fine, at times, that it vanishes. Some of these artists have not been thought of as cartoonists, and others have not been seen as fine artists. In days past, there was no stigma attached when artists moved freely between both fields and all shades in between. Not today. The two fields are wrongly considered separate and mutually exclusive.
Everyone likes a cartoon, so I feel the book will appeal to the general public as well as to professional artists. This is not an academic art history book or a cartoon history book, with only a listing of well-known names, dates, and data. It is opinion, an eclectic and probably surprising selection by an artist working in cartooning, fine art and hues-in-between for over 30 years.
I suggest a 9" by 12" hardback format with more pictures than text, 160-200 pages and 150 or so paintings. The book can easily grow to coffee table size, and my hope is that it could be the finest collection of cartoon draftsmanship ever assembled.
Very few artists write art books, just as few painted word people (writers, editors or academics) "do" or really "see" pictures well. I am not a writer and sentence structure baffles my side of the brain, but I believe that only someone who makes pictures every day truly knows the scoop.


TABLE OF CONTENTS

1. THE PRISON OF LABELS
Who is called what and why? Do we need labels? What do some of our most prominent living artists have to say on the subject? The artists included in this chapter are: Bragg, Klee, Brodner, Burke, and Daumier.
2. SOCIAL AND POLITICAL ART
We begin by comparing Picasso's Guernica with the work of Thomas Nast. Both are great political cartoonists. Picasso's mystical symbolism allows the viewer to enter the process with his or her own interpretations. Nast, on the other hand, makes a succinct point and then moves on. The artists discussed are: Picasso, Dore, K. Walker, Benton, Wood, J. Wyeth, Mazilu, Nast, D. Levine, J. Levine, Scarfe, and Steadman. Two publications,The Masses and Simplicissimus, will be discussed in order to illustrate what we have lost today.
3. THE DARK SIDE OF HUMOR
Mel Brooks said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall in an open sewer and die." This chapter will explore the relationship between comedy and tragedy. The biggest laughs are spurred by the things that are almost too painful to think about. If you don't laugh, you cry. Black humor flourishes during wars. Persecuted minorities use humor to survive. The danger of today's "political correctness" is that it may strip us of this safety valve. The artists considered are: Goya, Beckmann, Kley, Soutine, Gulbransson, Paul, Thony, Grosz, Pascin, Holland, R.Crumb, Bosch, and Schiele.
4. STYLE VERSUS CONTENT
Unintelligable subject matter with titles like Untitled I will be sniffed at. This is nihilism, which conveys the message that there is no truth. Much cartooning is equally shallow, but without great pretentions. Art must be concerned with truth on some level, and stimulate the viewers mind as well as the eye. Artists: Holzer, Grooms, Drescher, Delessert, and Blix.
5. ABSTRACTION, DISTORTION AND EXPRESSIONISM
What is the difference between distortion for comic effect and abstraction for a more serious purpose? Here, we will compare dream cartoons and surrealism. The tormented brush strokes of Soutine can be contrasted with the freely intuitive and wacky pen strokes of A.B. Frost. More of the artists here are: Feininger, Munch, Soutine, A. Roth, and Herriman.
6. STROKES, SQUIGGLES, SPATTERS AND SPOTS: THE LINE DRAWING
Deeper meanings can emerge when artists are feeling and intuiting rather than thinking and analyzing. Artists can surprise even themselves with what comes out on their blank canvases. Cartoons by fine artists Monet, Lautrec, Picasso and company will be interspersed with Hirschfeld, Steinberg, Sullivant, Booth, Callahan and the cartoon crowd whose line is of intuitive fine art quality.
7. ANALYZING HUMOR IN GREAT DETAIL
(No copy, just funny pictures)
8. "GOOD ART", "SO-SO ART", AND "BAD ART"
In summary, these are more accurate labels than "cartoon art" and "fine art". Don't send humor and satire to the basement of art history, and don't listen too closely to "painted word" people (critics and academics) who don't "do" art. The subject matter of the art here will be about art itself.


CHAPTER 1: The Prison of Labels

What one-word label can we paste on Charles Bragg? Is he a "cartoonist", or is he a "fine artist"? Is he "serious," or is he merely "funny"? Is he an "expressionist" or a "satirist"? The answers are: YES! And more.
Bragg is a deeply serious painter who, strangely, also happens to be hilarious. He originally aspired to be a cartoonist, modeled on his idol Will Eisner of the weekly comic strip The Spirit. "I've been described as a combination of Charles Schultz and Hieronymus Bosch ... I have the technical skill of Schultz and the sense of humor of Bosch," he tells us. Not so. In truth, Bragg has the technical skill of Bosch AND the sense of humor of Schultz.
Honore Daumier once remarked that "One must be of one's own time," but great art also must have a timeless quality. Rather than attack a specific personality who will fade from memory in the bat of an eye, Bragg attacks a toxic mentality that will turn up under many different rocks and under many different names until the end of time. When the heart of man turns evil, the true artist must blow the whistle.
Born March 13, 1931, in St. Louis, Missouri, Bragg wandered the country with his parents, who were both vaudeville performers. "Although we were tremendously poor my dad had us convinced we were doing O.K. He gave my mother gifts like the Hope Zircon." Young Charles learned to juggle, tap-dance, tell jokes and observe a bizarre cast of characters during America's hard times of the 1930's. These lessons stuck, and are there for all to see in his work.
The Braggs were part of a fine line of military distinction, namely General Braxton Bragg. "It's hard to figure out why they named a fort after him since he apparently didn't win a single battle and spent most of the Civil War in a brothel in Baltimore. He ran his campaigns by telegram," Bragg admits. He himself was seriously involved, later, during World War II. "Well, in 1941 there was the Big War on and it was a very strange climate for a kid to reach puberty in. There were no men around - just women everywhere. I was ecstatic. But there was a war, so for my part I introduced 25 billion sperm into a hostile environment - my fist."
Somehow Charlie ended up in New York's High School of Music and Art, where a bit of culture and the study of classical music and art struggled to take root in his reluctant soil. When he occasionally showed up for class, he positioned himself between the two smartest kids with the largest handwriting. Hoping he would get to draw naked women, but instead getting only hairy old men, Bragg veered off into a serious infatuation with Rubens and his ladies. He was also attracted to the earthiness of Pieter Breugel. "Classical art always tried to capture the ideal, and the human race had been flattered senseless for the last thousand years. So someone like Breugel or Jan Steen or Frans Hals put things on more of a human level. Coupled with their humor and spirit, it appealed to me even in my high-school days," Bragg says. Daumier's Third Class Carriage impressed him also. "High art looked for noble subject matter as opposed to finding nobility in the subject matter. But Daumier could do these people in Third Class Carriage and they looked monumental."
Bragg eloped with his high school sweetheart, Jennie, and moved through a series of nowhere jobs, including stand-up comedy. Eventually they moved to Beverly Hills, California where people with the money to buy art lived. They painted anything for which there seemed to be a market - portraits, landscapes, still life...anything for "$49.95." But this kind of art could not satisfy a seriously funny soul for long. It had been a hundred years since the Civil War had torn this country apart and it was beginning to rupture again with the advent of the 1960's. As the Civil Rights Movement and the Viet Nam War proceeded, Bragg retreated further into his own painting and his own mind. "Most of my ethical or intellectual concerns weren't showing up in a vase of flowers or whatever else I thought I should be painting. What I was painting had no relationship to what I was thinking." He showed the paintings to no one, and feared that he would become "the world's largest collector of my work."
The turning point in Bragg's career came about in the spring of 1966 at a gallery opening for his "closet" paintings. Expecting no one to show up, he was stunned when opening night turned into a mob scene, with people waiting for up to twenty minutes just to get into the gallery. The entire exhibit of sixty-eight paintings and forty-five drawings, sold out within hours. Some paintings changed hands at ever-increasing prices during the evening. He had now learned that people were ravenous for a real art that articulated their deepest feelings, desires and fears. Most fine art of the day had little more to say than: "Hey, I match your wallpaper!" Bragg was different. He dealt with the timeless themes of war, racism, religious hypocrisy, sex and the meaning of life.
Is Charles Bragg a cartoonist or a fine artist? "I'm not an impressionist or a surrealist or a pointillist - I'm an aggravationist" he says. Label-clogged art historians who have never held a paint brush will probably overlook him. His paintings will be assigned to the cellar of art history for being "cartoony," while the vapid and poorly painted comic strip blow-ups (commercially knocked out by assistants and labeled with nowhere captions) of Roy Lichtenstein will make the cut. A one-note style gimmick with pretensions to a higher truth thta is not there is in vogue.
This kind of art is guaranteed not to disturb the sleep of corporate clients, hurt the wallets of dealers, or challenge academic art historians to question their A-type personality labeling systems. But it will continue to keep the public away from fine art in droves, because they see no connection between art and their lives.
Sadly, Bragg has not been included in collections of cartoon art either, probably because the cognoscenti in those fields would paste the "fine art" label on him. The rare artist who can draw, paint, think, feel, intuit, and is in touch with deeper spiritual and psychological currents - with the added bonus of a sense of humor - seems to have no home. Bouncing back in time, this sad situation was not the case in the days of Goya and Daumier. Both were highly recognized in their day, when the artspeak dishonesty of today was not around and great art was obvious to everyone. Both have a firmly established place in both art history and cartoon history.
Again back in time, Paul Klee has the labels of art history glued all over his personage. He might well be called the "human sponge" because he absorbed a wildly varied and often contradictory range of influences. Almost every school of modern art claims him as a member or a "father". In addition, he should be inducted into "The Great Cartoonists Club."
Klee was born near Bern in Switzerland, December 18, 1879. His father was a music teacher, and young Paul soaked up the notes, becoming an accomplished violinist himself and unconsciously incorporating a musical rhythm in his early and later art. Unlike many artists, Klee showed an interest in all of his studies, particularly language, writing and poetry. But he was a strange kid, living in a world of fairy tales, dreams and daydreams ... the stuff of surrealism and cartooning. His geometry notebook was littered with funny and satirical drawings, which (of course) went unappreciated by his teachers.
Goya and Daumier clearly influenced Klee's graphic cartoons. Also, the art of children, primitives, and mental defectives fascinated him, adding to the cartoon element in his work as he struggled to tone down his strong intellect and emphasize his feelings. He wanted to paint like a child, but he was also a scientist of color, influenced by the lessons of Cezanne.
Klee had a crazed sense of humor, and had trouble getting teaching jobs because he was thought to be "frivolous". But, paradoxically, he was seriously spiritual, writing lines such as "Contemplation is insight into God's workshop". Early Christian primitive art had a strong impact on his work.
Operating in a time when the graphic cartoon was considered as important as fine art by the illuminati, this man/child roamed freely over the fine line into cartoon turf. There was no problem of running into the barbed wire that inhibited later artists, who feared being fenced in and labeled a "cartoonist." Klee was being himself and no one else.
No less an art critic than Adolph Hitler felt that Klee should be someone else. He didn't find him amusing, putting him at the top of the list of "degenerate artists." This has to be Klee's most honorable label.
Like Klee and Bragg, Honore Daumier worked as a publication cartoonist, plus selling his paintings in fine art galleries. In cartooning, he was the highly influential rage of his day, becoming the first master of lithography and penciling out at least two drawings a week (directly on stone) for over forty years. He achieved the ultimate honor for a cartoonist who is doing his job properly - he was tossed into prison. In fine art, Daumier is, of course, recognized the world over as a major founder of modern art.
He was born in Marseilles in 1808, of a father who was a dreamer and a penniless poet. For income, young Honore was sentenced to apprentice as a notary. Averse to boredom as any budding artist should be, he was a failure. He drifted towards art and the honing of his talents. His first known published work appeared in Sylhouette in July, 1830. Soon, the new government of Louis-Phillipe (the last king of France) began to get on his nerves. In 1832, now working for La Caricature which he co-founded, Daumier thought it would be a funny idea to portray Louis-Phillippe as Gargantua, stuffed with the money of the working class, which, after digestion, the king then defecated and distributed among his rich friends. Like Queen Victoria at times, Louis-Philippe was "not amused." Daumier was slapped with a 500 Franc fine and a prison sentence of six months.
La Caricature was shut down by the government, but re-opened almost immediately under an assumed name, Le Charivari. Daumier and the new journal focused on everyday life in Paris until the coast was clear and the king had relaxed his grip. Then Daumier's crayon darts would fly again.
Around 1842, Daumier felt the mid-life crisis coming on. For a cartoonist, this usually means "I have to paint," and he began in earnest. But like most fine artists of all eras, Daumier couldn't make a living painting, giving away many canvases to other artists. As with Van Gogh, another "failure" in his own lifetime, Daumier's paintings became more powerful and important with the passage of time: his place in art history becoming secure.
Again, in Daumier's day, cartooning was not considered to be an inferior art form to fine art as it is today. With it's power to shake the foundations of a corrupt government, humor was taken more seriously in those days. Also in the "old days", draughtsmanship was thought to be an important factor in determining who a great artist might be. Now, it is considered a drawback - a pandering to popular tastes, "commercial art," "illustration," or worse yet, "only a cartoon." In actuality, if a piece of art is for sale, it IS "commercial art". An attractive abstract that blends nicely with the decor should be considered no better or worse than a pointlessly amusing cartoon.
So what label must we stick on Daumier? With his technical skill, integrity, psychological depth, courage and, yes, his sense of humor, we must call him a "great cartoonist" and a "great fine artist".
Zipping forward in time, two potential Daumiers of today are Steve Brodner and Philip Burke. In a shallow age where no one wishes or dares (beware the lawyers!!!) to offend any known person, ethnic group or institution, these guys are downright vicious...and highly necessary. Both are painterly master craftsmen with truths to tell and each has successfully combined cartoon/caricature with fine art.
Burke was born November 27, 1956 in Buffalo, New York. He succinctly lists his college art training as "none". This is no drawback for a cartoonist/ caricaturist, because this talent is born and not bred. Chances are his skill was honed by drawing funny and under-appreciated pictures of his early teachers.
He rightfully states, "When I first started caricaturing, I made a
determination to try and blur the distinction between commercial and fine art." Burke stretches his own canvas because they don't sell them as big as he works (five to six feet tall). He feels that he will get "closer" to the subject matter this way. The paintings combine the slapdash freedom and bright colors of impressionism with the dark inwardness of expressionism.
Rarely is Philip's limning appreciated by his victims, but thankfully his potent work has appeared in almost every major American magazine, including Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, and Esquire. His advice to aspiring young caricaturists is "draw ten times more than anyone you know."
The fine art establishment will probably turn up their noses at Burke, dismissing his work as "only caricature". This reaction misses the depth of his perceptions and the painterly excellence of his work. If we must tag him, "fine art caricaturist" might do the trick.
The same label applies to Steve Brodner. Born October 19, 1954, in Brooklyn, New York, Steve graduated from Cooper Union. In his work, he has mixed his fine art heroes, Matisse and Cezanne, with his comic heroes Al Hirschfeld, David Levine and Ralph Steadman. He was advised by Steadman "not to look at other caricaturists, but to look at real artists in museums." Steadman also said, " I believe Picasso to be the great cartoonist of the twentieth century, because he gave us the vocabulary. He showed us how to use a line in so many different ways. A line is dead or alive. In some ways, Picasso spoiled it for others because he was so good."
The Brit Steadman doesn't rate American cartoonists as "interesting
people" because they consistently sell out to commercial forces and can't
draw. He is right, but fails to mention the equal decline of drawing and the big-time greed in fine art today.
Young Brodner listened carefully. His humorous illustrations and magazine caricatures are really "paintings," and are worthy of hanging in galleries and museums.
Romanian artist Georges Mazilu does hang in galleries and museums, but by the look of his work we must also label him "cartoonist." He also must be called "surrealist," or, going a step further, we can invent a new moniker and call him "cartoon surrealist."
Mazilu is funny, but he is also serious and sad (life under Romanian tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu could bum anyone out). His exquisite paintings echo with Breughel, Bosch, Goya, Redon and Klee, and are highly-charged spiritually. He was only born in 1951, but his fame is spreading rapidly. His paintings are enigmatic and you are certain that this man has much truth to tell. But he also looks like a fun guy to have a beer and a few laughs with.
Jamie Wyeth also seems to have the "sense of humor gene" in his makeup. He did humorous illustrations for a book, The Stray, which was written by his mother Betsy Wyeth. The drawings are reminiscent of the great American turn-of-the-century "pen and inkers"(an era that may never be surpassed in line draughtsmanship), from Howard Pyle to A.B. Frost. In his painting of Andy Warhol there is a caricature touch, and a familial resemblance between Andy and his dog (which evokes memories of The Duchess of Alba by Goya).
Jamie's grandfather, the driven and intellectual N.C. Wyeth, was tortured by labeling. The only label worse than "just an illustrator" was "just a cartoonist" to most in-the-know fine art nabobs. Yet N.C. knew that his art belonged in galleries and museums as well as in books. His son, Andrew Wyeth, avoided illustration in order not to suffer this contempt...but gets it regularly anyway. They say he too is "shallow" and "too easy to understand" (thereby pandering to the unwashed masses). Both N.C. and Andrew are true poets but sadly and unlike yesteryear being a master technician has been considered "out" by the fine art establishment for years. It used to be that good drawing was akin to knowing the notes in music, but no more. Even painting seems to have gone out of style in fine art today, in favor of assemblage of found objects or some new and unusual show biz look.
In this chapter, we have looked at artists who are all "master draughtsmen," "funny," "serious," "complete individualists," "painterly," "brilliant," "fine artists," "cartoonists," and other cool labels. The problem comes in when left-brained and lame-brained "experts" exclude certain artists because of stylistic and labeling prejudice. The basic question is: how can we judge "great" art anymore? If humor, craftsmanship, and something of timeless importance to say are "out," what are we left with? Basically we are left with either wallpaper design, a fairly decent academic rendering of something, or a glib new style that pretends to know something that we don't. Certainly we can't have art with something to say, because it might disturb the dinner guests and stir up thought and conversation about the art.
Some cartoonists are fine artists, some fine artists are cartoonists, and some artists are both. So, the "prison of labels" must change in the fine art establishment to include "fine" cartoon art. Not all cartoon art is "fine," but neither is all fine art "fine."
In addition, this "prison" works in reverse: Bragg, Klee, Jamie Wyeth and other fine artists using humor are never seen in cartoon book collections, because it is lettered in stone that they are fine artists, therefore not cartoonists. Mutually exclusive again.
So, open up the prison of labels and set my people free! Loosen the chains and don't worry what to "call" an artist. Artists (and all people) are too complex to sum up in a word and be done with.

CHAPTER 2: Social and Political Art

Picasso's painting Les Demoiselles d' Avignon (1907) changed the course of art history. Putting gut-level power and the fantastically caricatured forms of African art to use in the faces and figures of some local prostitutes, he intimated that we all have our dark and primitive side. The rules on beauty and the rigid academicism of the day were shaken, and Cubism emerged from this one painting. Like African artists and all worthy social/political cartoonists, Picasso believed that art had magical powers, the ability to change things, and that it could avenge wrongdoing. The Africans would combine antelope, crocodile and human form to illustrate the power to pursue evil forces over land and water...not unlike the methods used by Thomas Nast to badger Boss Tweed. Picasso's painting, Guernica (1937), was done as a protest against the bombing of the town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. This painting can be looked at as one of the largest and best political cartoons ever produced, with its use of the cartoon shapes and the frightening power of the unconscious employed in African art. Here, Picasso invents his own personal symbolism.
The symbols are obscure, but they work their magic. The viewer is asked to participate in the interpretation of the painting from his or her own imagination, which makes for an ever-changing and never-boring statement against all wars perpetrated against civilians for all times.
Despite not using the expressive elements of color, paint, and texture, and with the need for labeling and the easy accessibility of symbol for a mass audience, Thomas Nast was Picasso's equal in sheer emotional power and imagination. Considered the father of American political cartooning, Nast invented the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey, as well as giving us our present-day idea of what Santa Claus looks like. As most of us know, Nast single-handedly brought down the mighty New York graft empire of Boss William Marcy Tweed, with mere pen and ink. This drawing and quartering by Nast led the Boss to utter his famous line: " I don't care a straw for your newspaper articles, my constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures." He was doomed to spend 12 years in prison.
Born poor in 1840, Nast's roots were not promising. His father was a ne' er-do-well left-wing trombone player and a dreamer. But young Thomas was ambitious and began inventing himself. Early on, he was described as "a dapper, olive-skinned Bavarian, with owl-like features and a smile that lifted his teeth and flaring mustache to first place." He studied at the National Academy of Design, but because of the power and prestige of the cartoon in his day, he didn't show much interest in gallery painting. Instead, he was influenced by Englishman Sir John Tenniel (illustrator of Alice In Wonderland and cartoonist for England's Punch magazine) and the mighty Gustave Dore', who became his idol.
Dore' (1833-1883) was a child prodigy who turned pro at 16 for M. Phillipon's satirical Journal pour rire. He was broadly humorous but had less political bite than his predecessor, Daumier. Quickly establishing himself, Dore' went on to produce a bewilderingly varied body of work containing astonishing draughtsmanship, amazing invention and unearthly surrealism. He illustrated The Bible, Don Quixote and The Divine Comedy, often employing a virtual army of engravers.
Quite early on (around 1853), Dore' felt the "fine art urge," and began turning to painting and sculpture as well as entering the Salon shows. The Parisian artistic gurus attacked, one newspaper spouting "in the next year M. Dore' will continue to make more crazy paintings and boring sculpture". The response was a bitter disappointment to him in his later years, but it has since been corrected and his fine art has come to receive the respect it deserves. Yet it is Dore's awesome social/satirical art for Don Quixote that will remain his masterpiece.
Any discussion of social, political or satirical art must have Francisco Goya (1746-1828) at the top of the list. As a masterful painter, he was a forerunner for the impressionists, the romantics, the expressionists and the surrealists. But here, it is Goya as a forerunner to the cartoonists that will be looked at.
Much of Goya's early work was done to please a client, which means that it could be called "commercial art." Whether it was painted for the church hierarchy or for the Spanish royals, his work brought him material success and great prestige. But two events served to turn him inward and deepen him.
In 1792, Goya became ill and lost his hearing. His work became more imaginative and he etched a series of biting social satires called The Caprices. Then, from 1808 to 1813, Napoleon invaded and occupied Spain, inspiring Goya's powerful paintings The 2nd of May, The 3rd of May, and The Disasters of the War.
In 1820, Goya retired to his country estate where he painted his greatest pictures, his "dark period" art. They were morbid cartoons, combining dark humor with virtuoso painting. As these paintings attest, dark times bring forth satirical and penetrating art from a caring and concerned artist. Flattering portraits, optimistic landscapes or abstract meanderings are of little value when one's country is going to hell.
America's two Levines (no relation), Jack and David, came of age during other hellish times in different periods of this century. Jack was born in 1915 to immigrant poverty on the mean streets of Boston, with the effects of the Great Depression etching itself on his young soul. David was faced with the 1960's (the Civil Rights Movement, the Viet Nam War and the Sexual Revolution) and the tainted presidencies of Johnson and Nixon.
Jack Levine's two major influences were Daumier and Rembrandt. He is usually called an "American Expressionist" or a "social protest painter," and his interest was in the human condition and not in the latest and greatest new style changes in contemporary art. He was considered a very important artist in his era, but was known to be very bitter in his later years about the trendy shallowness that he felt came to contaminate the art world.
David Levine also checked out the "latest" in modern art and rejected it. Cezanne's intellectual approach to subject matter left him emotionally cold...Cezanne didn't "care about his apples," he says. More to his liking were Vuillard and Bonnard, artists who cared about people and who could draw and paint with great sensuality. Corot's handling of paint also impressed him, as did the naked realism and integrity of Eakin's Japanese prints with their decorative quality and monumentality.
D. Levine was born in 1926 in Brooklyn, New York. As a caricaturist, he cut his sharp young teeth on cartoonists Will Eisner and Walt Disney. Charley Chaplin impressed him as the greatest artist working in any medium. Later influences on the young Levine were Daumier, Nast, Dore, Keppler, Goya, and especially Sir John Tenniel.
In both his paintings (which have sold successfully in galleries since the 1950's) and in his caricature, Levine is trying for the accidental surprise of the right puddle, drip, "shmear" or stroke to further his purposes. There is a caricature flavor in his fine art, and a fine art cast to his caricature.
American political cartoonists (there are only around 130 of them) were stylistically following the newly arrived Australian cartoonist Pat Oliphant like lemmings over the cliff of individual expression when D. Levine blew in like a breath of fresh air from the past. Finally, here was a cartoonist who knew art history.
Herblock's grease pencil style was about as far back in art history as many cartoonists seemed to have explored, but in rejecting Herblock's "old-timey" art style for Oliphant's more modern Ronald Searle-inspired British look and wit, American cartoonists also seemed to throw out Herblock's slashing insights and his caring about the issues. This is still true today, with many cartoonists going for the cheap laugh without much to say, and with old Herblock (well into his 80's) still "smokin' " for The Washington Post with his uncool grease pencil.
Journalists often and rightfully bemoan the going out of style of the Edward R. Murrow brand of commitment and integrity, and it's replacement by the blow-dried talking hairdos and the yucking-it-up for ratings in the media today. The same problem exists in political cartooning.
One emerging artist on the fine art scene today, who goes against this prevailing and pleasing shallowness, is 27 year-old Kara Walker. A black woman from Rhett and Scarlett country - Atlanta - she uses violence, scatology and a wicked satirical humor in the lost art form of the black-and-white silhouette. This is no fine art style gimmick thought up by an art dealer to shock the already unshockable public - it comes straight from the artist's gut and life experience.
Being black and a woman is very politically correct, but beware of Ms. Walker! She uses phrases like "Nigger Wench," "Free Negress," "Monkey's Uncle," "Mammy," and "Sambo" in her captions and wields her X-Acto knife like a rapier. Unlike most of the tame fine art of today, her work will stir up a dialogue, and one that might not be pleasant. But this is part of a true artist's job, and Walker accepts the challenge. Collectors, sensing something "real" in her work, are lining up at her door.
Two artists looking for something "real" in the 1930's and 40's were Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. Neither found it in New York or Paris, and both returned to the American heartland where they came from to paint what they knew of and felt strongly about. Both are now labeled "Regionalists" and thought to be unimportant, as the prejudice against superior drawing and painting which is "too available" to the common man remains entrenched in fine art cliques today.
Wood (1892-1942) was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. As an art student in Paris, he rebelled against "the sleazy artifices of Impressionism" and said, "All the really good ideas I've ever had came to me when I was milking a cow." He returned to Iowa. But Wood was no dumb redneck. His style was that of the old masters, with multiple transparent oil glazes over a tempera underpainting. Conversely, he admired the simplicity and truth of primitive artists, whether Flemish, German or American.
When we think of Wood, American Gothic usually comes to mind, but Daughters of Revolution is a better painting. Both pictures contain masterful caricature, strong satire and a penetrating insight into his friends and neighbors. Our best artists display a fierce independence, and Wood endured poverty and the barbs of the art critics until near the end of his life when some recognition came his way.
Benton (1889-1975) endured a similar pounding from the critics, but not quietly. He wrote and spoke volumes about developing a truly American art that spoke to the average man about his society. Unfortunately, the critics seem to have won, and today most of the public sees little or no relationship between what is going on in art and what is going on in their lives.
After a short time in his youth as a cartoonist for the Joplin, Missouri American, Benton went on to try out every new trend in art that was brewing in Europe. He was a voracious reader, absorbing William James, Freud, Marx, John Dewey, and many other writers in search of his philosophy of life and art. He had serious flirtation with Communism.
But, Benton moved on to become "Benton" - the booming All-American optimist in a booming and optimistic young America. He rejected the European interest in texture-for-it's-own-sake, random color combinations, and decoration, for a return to the real world. His work combined cartoon form and the mystical power of El Greco with a hot tip from Tintoretto, who made clay models of his paintings-to-be in order to select the lighting that was the most powerfully appropriate for the subject matter.
A young Jackson Pollock studied under Benton at the Art Students' League, incorporating Benton's linear rhythms but little else. "My work with Benton was important as something against which to react very strongly" stated "Jack The Dripper". Benton felt Pollock further dehumanized art in favor of mere manipulation of pattern and color. But somehow or other the two remained close friends through it all.
Looking for other examples of fine art quality in social and political cartooning (HEY, or cartoon quality social and political fine art!), two publications loom in the distance like grand Egyptian pyramids: Simplicissimus and The Masses. Most of the artists working for both publications were both fine artists and graphic cartoonists, moving easily to and fro over the fine line between the two with no remorse.
Simplicissimus was based in Munich, was one of the great art capitals of the world at the turn of the century, and a hotbed of offbeat artists battling over the latest international trends in art. The reactionary mind in politics and religion of the Bavarian population added to the friction necessary to give birth to great art. Simply, "der Simpl" (as she was called by fans) was one of the greatest picture magazines in the history of journalism, attracting writers of the caliber of Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke, along with major artists from all over Europe. The artists' list reads like a Who's Who volume: George Grosz, Kathe Kollwitz, Pascin, Heinrich Kley, Olaf Gulbransson, Ragnvald Blix, Karl Arnold, Thomas Theodor Heine, Alfred Kubin, Paul Bruno, Max Slevogt, Eduard Thony, and on and on.
Founded by Albert Langen in 1896, der Simpl proclaimed herself "free and young and without forebears," with the purpose being "to strike the lazy nation with hot words." This worthwhile mission was soon accomplished: the magazine was banned from railroad cars, posters were destroyed in Vienna, artist T.T. Heine and writer Frank Wedekind visited prison for six months (compliments of the Kaiser), and Langen had to escape from Germany and not return until 1903 (not very repentant).
Der Simpl continued on, attacking the dangerous political left-wing (communism) and the equally hairy right-wing (Hitler). Socially, the courageous journal attacked the depraved tastes of the time, the mindless fads, the selfishness, and the lack of decent values. As I am writing this, I am reminded of another time - TODAY - and I can't think of a publication that is bold enough to go against the commercial tide and do battle for truth as der Simpl did.
Anyway, feast your eyes on the art and courage of these masters and wonder how much in the way of sheer drawing ability and integrity are around today. Even Hitler found a bit of heart for der Simpl (left over from his bohemian artist days), when upon taking power in 1933 he allowed the magazine that had attacked him to remain in emasculated existence. The final issue was published on September 13, 1944.
The American version of der Simpl was The Masses, which was founded in 1911 and employed (usually for no pay) the best painters-turned-cartoonists of the time. The publication turned a penetrating eye on America's obvious flaws, particularly the wide gap between the rich and the poor, but did not lose the necessary element of a sense of humor.
These were exciting times for art in America, with the infamous "Ashcan" school painting ordinary and often gritty street scenes instead of the standard idealized and banal art. And the Armory Show in 1913 introduced modern art from here and abroad to this country. Violent attacks by art critics and the Jesse Helms of the day blew a fuse wherever these paintings were shown.
A number of the artists involved turned up in The Masses. George Bellows, Stuart Davis and John Sloan are the best examples in The Masses of outstanding fine artists moving deep into cartoon territory in order to make a social or political point. Their kind have rarely been seen again, for this was back in the days where men could draw and paint, had something of importance to portray, and felt that art should have something to do with the life around them.
Yet there is hope. Those two wild and crazy Brits, Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scarfe, can draw, paint and have very much to say of importance. Many of the label-friendly will call them "cartoonist" or "caricaturist" and overlook the fact that they both are also illegal aliens who have swam across the border into fine art country.
Any social or political artist whether cartoon or fine whose artistic quality, imagination, conviction, courage, intuition, and insight are outstanding, should be called "fine". Philip Guston is a fine artist with a huge, undeserved reputation for his poorly painted cartoon canvases and their mystical captions, which tell us that the artist is far too brilliant for us to ever understand and that he knows something which he is not going to tell us. He is the epitome of the problem in fine art today: that quality drawing and painting are rarely allowed, and that you must not have anything intelligible to say.
It seems clear today that, except for a few notable exceptions, social and political art is in pitiful shape compared to yesteryear. Money rather than truth fuels both fine art and the publications. The guys in the suits have taken over. They buy BOTH the advertising in the media, AND the art for investment purposes or for corporate headquarters. No one must be offended, because it is bad for business, or the lawyers might sue, or political correctness forbids. If the artists and writers in a society sell out to commercial interests like everyone else, who is going to blow the whistle on lies and injustice? It is about as hard to find an artist of integrity as it is to find a politician with any, and that didn't used to be the case.

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