Counterpoint: A blog on the Visual Arts No. 1

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?


March, 2008

About simon dinnerstein

Simon Dinnerstein paints with a reverence for life that is rare...his light can transform reality into a presence that is essential, mythic and dreamlike." George Tooker
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12 Responses to Counterpoint: A blog on the Visual Arts No. 1

  1. Jeremy says:

    I’ve been wondering, did Rockwell do anything other than the work we recognize him for? Is there a private Rockwell, work that he made for some purpose other than publication in a magazine? Or is everything he did pretty much in the same vein?

  2. Jeremy:

    Your question is great. I must say that I really don’t know the answer. My hunch is that Rockwell’s output was entirely connected with his work for magazines. I would love to hear from someone regarding this issue.


  3. Jeremy says:

    I just googled Rockwell images but I had to stop after the first few. By Freedom of Speech I was feeling really queasy, and the sight of that picture’s sturdy American rising to say something frank and honest really put me over the edge.

  4. Paul Lockhart says:

    There seem to be two issues that you are focusing on in your distinction between Art and Illustration: What is depicted, and Why it is being depicted. But I wonder if the more important question is How the artist feels about what he or she is doing. In a way, I feel that if Rockwell is Illustrating a magazine cover and putting his entire heart and soul into it, it’s more legitimately Art (with a capital A) than if Michelangelo is tossing off another figure in a fresco, however eloquent and ‘artistic’ it may be. I suppose I’m really just echoing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance here: even repairing a machine or doing the dishes can be art if you are really wholly there with your project. But of course I completely agree with your vexation about the use of the term.

  5. butt head says:

    I agree with everybody else: awesome story.! Much food for thought… It really made my day. Thank you.

  6. FloodKicker says:

    This whole situation is SO absurd. Your post strikes as serious for you only. What can we do but make jokes about it?

  7. Tom Murphy says:

    Fortunately, it’s still funny.

  8. Johannes Kiessling says:

    Simon’s article contains expressions like “fine art”, “illustration” “figurative art” and he wonders whether any of these refer rightly to the value of works “as art” or not.
    Commenting spontaneously on this I would like to start at the outside of it all by asking “What is art?” and answer this with Joseph Beuys who said “Everything is art”. So there!
    However, Beuys did not say that everything was “good art” or whether all this “everything – art” is qualitatively on a par throughout or not. Of course it isn’t. It all depends on who views it and what goes on inside this viewer. If the work in question leads to a reasonably extensive inner process so that it becomes to some extent “unforgettable”, he or she will perhaps rate this work as significant, as “good art” so to speak. So here we have a “good work of art” and one person who agrees with this judgement. What happens next? One of two things: more people will have a similar experience with this work of art and as this gets talked about, this work will acquire a certain aura which will transmit to more and more people. The other thing that might happen is that this viewer happens to be a bit of an authority in the field of art, like he has a couple of academic titles to his or her name, or runs a successful gallery, or whatever, and as they talk or write about this work, more and more people will nod and repeat the message as basically they haven’t a clue. This will also create quite a reputation and the prices will rise. Both will end up as significant and highly prized art.
    So far, nothing about illustration. No difference between one or the other. Someone will have to come in and make this difference. How would they go about it? Rather than just look for a printed medium I think I’d try and figure out whether a possible work of art is mostly expressing an interpretation, almost lecturing us and telling us what to think and what not to think or on the other hand is, like Simon said: “mystery, abstraction and depth”, calling on the viewer to start thinking and building his own personal interpretation and experience of this work of art, which could not only be different from person to person, but even different in the very same person each time they revisit the work and have a fresh look. The more the latter, the more this is a “good work of art”, and the more this is lacking, the lesser the work.
    Still nothing about illustration.
    Well, maybe it doesn’t come into things really. Maybe it is the wrong criterion that was created just because it seemed an easy tool for categorising things. Does it really matter whether a work of art is in a book or has been cut out and framed? I think not. There are even pictures in comic books or maybe even among countless storyboards which have a quality that could not easily be equalled by so much oil paint on a canvas.
    So that’s settled, right?
    And as for figurative art… Why should that be “mere illustration” if it fulfils the criteria above? Why should non-figurative art be considered on a higher level? Maybe because the “secret” of it remains even after countless attempts to do something with it came to no avail? How much non-figurative art is really appreciated in the above sense and how much is merely decoration or part of an endless repetition of a similar aesthetic almost like a formula producing fractals by the million? Again, I would think, the wrong criterion. It may be useful to be able to put things into different drawers, but not really as important as it might have been when early abstract art broke open the harness of tradition, in how things had to be poured into the “right” forms, and which ones were „wrong“ as taught by the academies of the nineteenth century, which really didn’t have a nice word to say about, for example, Monet.
    Ok. Let’s say we have more or less chucked out the expressions “illustration” and “figurative” except for a minor descriptive use, and we have arrived back at “fine art”.
    So now we can look at the “fine art” of Norman Rockwell. And yes, some of his works I would appreciate more and some less, and someone else might see it the other way round. No one will be able to ignore the fact that this man was incredibly talented and there wasn’t really anything he could not have done well.
    Some of his “illustrations” might be kitsch in someone’s eyes, but who knows whether it is not especially these which refer to the mystery of (part of) a society that could live in a world that identified with just these works? Maybe we are still too involved and close to those times to even try and take an „objective“ look? And maybe these will live while others that meet today’s taste of “fine art” will turn out to be far less interesting, far less mysterious but merely more pleasing?
    Why do we always have to go round and brandish the club of our judgement? Yes, to make important. Indeed. Better to just look at the stuff and think “Wow! He did this awfully well!” or maybe „hmmm“ and leave it at that. There are enough important little men and women who will hold forth on what goes on in their minds when they look at these works. Better not to join these.
    Ah… yes. I wrote this before I had quite finished Simon’s article and had not yet read about his suggestion to ban the expression “illustration” from the discussion of art. We appear to have come to a rather similar conclusion. Nice 🙂

  9. Louis Menashe says:

    Your fine essay evokes so many other border crossing issues and their valuations — journalism/literature; jazz/classical music; TV/cinema; et al. Often drawing boundaries is so difficult, perhaps even fatuous. You know what I mean — Isn’t Mailer the novelist a great journalist (cf. “Armies of the Night”?[Or is the other way around?] Isn’t Bob Dylan up there with the great lyrical poets? Isn’t Art Tatum as great a pianist as Vladimir Horowitz? Great ARTFULNESS exists on both sides of the divide. That’s why I guess I object to your banning “illustration” from discussions of art altogether, though I support your impatience with the snobs who join figurative art to illustration. Keep on bloggin’ on!

  10. I am antique silver dealer (for57 Years) and I am wondering where you got the name from. My grandfather came from Russia aNd the original name was ‘DINERSTEYN’. I have been researching the family tree and go backto 1878.

    Can you give me any information, please
    H Dinerstein

  11. HM says:

    I loved reading your blog. I am not familiar with the work of Pacheco and Lopez but the examples you present and your critique are compelling. I was also interested in your comparison of Courbet and Balthus. What struck me at the Courbet show at the Met was how truly modern Courbet’s work was, beginning with his startling self portrait.(I thought he resembled Johnny Depp!) I had not, however thought of the relationship to Balthus which is quite interesting.

    But what really resonated with me was your feeling about the use of the word “illustration”. I am in total agreement with you. Hopper and Rockwell in the same breath…..??!! Is there a petition to sign?

    I look forward to reading more and thank you.

  12. What makes illustration different than fine art is that it is “read” rather than “felt”. One looks at Rockwell’s pictures and says “those people look so contented”, and can imagine a story reading all the visual cues. With Daumier one imagines a story but we also “feel” the situation, experience it. But we should respect Rockwell because he was a wonderful illustrator of American Life as an ideal. This is not as easy as some would claim, try doing it. We need good illustrators, as we need good artists. Lyndon Johnson wanted Rockwell to do his Presidential Portrait but was dissuaded from using him by Lady Bird and others. I feel that Rockwell’s illustration of him was far superior to the academic portrait that eventually became the official Presidential Portrait. As good an illustrator as he was, Rockwell, deserves his recognition.

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