The Figurative Tradition and Illustration
Having been a student and an artist for more than forty years, I have been struck by the use of the word Illustration. In the past 10 years, especially, critics for highly touted art journals, including The New York Times, increasingly use the words illustration and figurative art interchangeably. To put it another way, illustration is used pejoratively to lump together most figurative artists. The effect is analogous to McCarthy’s indiscriminate use of the word communist to cast aspersions on an individual’s character and political profile.
As an artist working in the figurative tradition, the use of the word illustration has the uncomfortable effect of chalk being driven over a blackboard. In a slightly different manner, at one time the denigrating reference for figurative art was the use of the word academic.
There used to be a clearer understanding of the term illustration. It was the depiction of form rendered by illustrators to depict incidents in books, journals or magazines. The world of children’s illustration is full of top flight illustrators. First-rate illustrators, such as Nancy Ekholm Burkert, Maurice Sendak, Eric Carle and Leo Leoni have produced dazzling work. Some of the stories they depict were written by them, some were written by others. Some of these pages are so well-done that I have often wondered what the “fine art” of these artists looked like. In the case of Nance Burkert, I actually came across a very interesting book which showed her non-illustrational work (The Art of Nancy Burkert, Peacock Press, 1977).
Fine artists sometimes used their skills to increase their income by taking on work as illustrators. They worked for magazines and journals illustrating stories and daily events. These artists were probably the exception and ultimately, most illustration was done by professional illustrators.
An analogy could be made between the world of illustration to fine arts and the world of journalism to fine literature. Some journalists have remarkable abilities to depict events and life. Journalists such as Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe have written about very particular events…..a particularly trendy new Left party…..a trial.
Norman Rockwell considered himself an illustrator. He probably thought of himself as a top-of-the-line illustrator. He certainly had the “chops” so to speak. A recent show of Rockwell’s work at the Guggenheim Museum was a very clever attempt to further blur the lines between illustration and art. Perhaps, the show was the wish of the curator, Robert Rosenblum, to get the viewer to re-think the differences between illustration and fine art. The location of the exhibit at the very modern and hip Guggenheim thus provided the backdrop (rather humorously) for this revisionist take on figurative art. Perhaps another aspect of this rather clouded issue is that Rockwell, as an illustrator, might be considered a much better painter technically than Hopper, his direct contemporary. Even if one could argue this point, Edward Hopper is clearly a great artist and Norman Rockwell is still an illustrator (one with enormous facilities, but nevertheless, an illustrator).
Should all work reproduced in a magazine be considered illustration?
Some magazines reproduce work by Eakins and Homer. These images, however, were created long before the magazines existed and have nothing to do with the term illustration. Some journals might produce images by Antonio López García or Lucian Freud to illustrate an article. These images were not originally produced as illustrations. They had their own reason for being born and were inspired by the artist’s keenly felt vision. Rockwell, on the other hand, had one or two week deadlines for his covers of the Saturday Evening Post. His images clearly had to do with anecdote and contemporary, weekly events. He was a whiz at rendering scenes that brimmed with a certain humanity and American optimism. Unfortunately, one could argue that these images come close to the sensibility of the world of Soviet Realism. His scenes are often a comfortable, cloying take on the America that never existed. This is akin to the Republican Party’s reference to American Family Values, a way of life that exists for a sliver of our population.
Every now and then, work that appears in a newspaper or a journal transcends the genre. In literature, certain books by Dickens and Dostoyevsky were written to be serialized in newspapers. However, reading A Tale of Two Cities or Crime and Punishment in book form is really wonderful as they are big works, full of complicated ideas. They just began life within a newspaper format. Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander were made for television, but they defy the medium to become world-class works of art.
Andrew Wyeth is criticized by voguish critics and curators as being an illustrator. This is a highly debatable point, but even if it was the case, certain of Wyeth’s work, for instance Overflow, Night Shadow and Lovers in his Helga series, are so abstract, moody and personal that their connection with illustration makes no sense.
At the start of his career, the artist Edward Hopper worked as an illustrator. Some of his paintings can look like illustration. However, what illustrator could create the moody and iconic works that Hopper’s reputation rests on? Images such as Sunday Morning and Nighthawks pulse with a great American spirit and poignancy.
I lived in Italy at the American Academy in Rome for almost three years and have traveled and had the good fortune to see a great variety of art. Many of these works depict scenes in the bible. Many of these paintings did not move beyond the subject depicted and interest us merely as historical artifacts. Could Giotto then be considered an illustrator? His work usually narrates some clear cut story from the life of Christ. Yet, when we see the Giotto’s work in person at the Arena Chapel in Padua, Signorelli at the San Brizio Chapel in Orvieto or Piero in Monterchi, we are deeply moved. They transcend their time and speak to us because of their mystery, abstraction and depth, creating remarkable personal visions. So even though they depict specific scenes, they represent some of the greatest visual images and works of art that human beings have produced.
A dear friend and fellow artist says he finds illustration to be very interesting. Moreover, he says that he enjoys the shear abilities that an artist has to depict form. He claims that many fine paintings lean on an illustrator’s ability to see form. I am not sure if he is right, though I have enormous respect for his well-considered opinions. Perhaps he is confusing facility and art.
Artists such as Sargent work with a certain brushy liquidity and his heirs have inherited a ‘smack and panache’ to their brushstroke. Their work brims over with a facility that looks a bit like illustration. Here, the issue possibly isn’t the look of the work, but a certain lack of depth or visual commitment.
Stretching the discussion, there are artists, such as Bosch (Garden of Earthly Delights), Balthus and Gregory Gillespie who might, at times, seem to be illustrating stories. The difference is that their stories are deeply mysterious and poetic and the books for these stories don’t really exist. They probably are located in a fantasy dreamscape within the artist’s imagination.
Perhaps, the difference between illustration and art lies in the surface issues of the former which produces a certain thinness of form and creates a quick fix or take. There is a cleverness of form, a turn of a phrase. Unfortunately, the meal is quickly eaten and not remembered. It is dominated by gesture and facility. It doesn’t last and reverberate.
Basically illustration lacks the complexity, depth and commitment of fine art. The complicated individuals created by a Dostoyevsky, Hardy, or Coetzee could never be considered illustration. These characters aren’t a “gloss”. They represent the full measure of a human being. Their portraits move and are independent; they aren’t marionettes gesturing to invoke some anecdotal event (a Thanksgiving dinner, street demonstration or political event).
Ultimately, to me, illustration is like pornography. I know it when I see it.
My conclusion is that the word illustration should be banned in the writing and discussion of figurative art. What about a moratorium on the word?