Friday, March 13, 2009

Style versus Survival: the quandry of the illustrator

In a recent post from the always informative and entertaining Today's Inspiration, Leif Peng wrote eloquently about the competing drives of the professional illustrator, either to be true to one's style hell or high water or to adapt to a changing market, be it driven by the fickle tastes of the public or simply the whims of a client. Leif spoke of his own long-term success as an illustrator and attributed it in part to his willingness to change his style to suit the assignment. It shouldn't come as a surprise that there were readers who passionately disagreed, some contending that it was tantamount to selling your soul to the devil.

So what about this artistic version of to thine own self be true? Indeed, there are well known examples illustrators who never changed their style or content yet remained popular and influential forces throughout their careers. And being a trend setter means you are establishing a style, not following one. Think, Al Parker. But there were other leading illustrators who remained stubbornly set in their ways, and who paid the price as their careers and status faded. To some degree I think this simply reflected the passing of the Golden Age of Illustration. There was a time when the status of leading picture makers, as commercial illustrators once preferred to refer to themselves, rivaled the most well known film stars, but driven by factors such as the growing acceptance of advertising photography, which by the 1930s had emerged as a significant threat to illustration, the entire field was diminished in stature. Other forces were at work too.

But back to the issue at hand, there is good evidence that it was during the very beginning of the Golden Age that the argument over the primacy of real art, oddly referred to as "art-art" over the more pedestrian field of commercial illustration burned brightest. The debate took place at the workplace, not the ivory tower and was hotly contested by ad men, advertising organizations such as the Associated Advertising Clubs of America and ultimately, the illustrators themselves. E.E. Calkins, who has been called the father of modern advertising was an early proponent of the idea that advertising qualified as art-art asserted that good billboard illustrations could be considered equivalent to mural art. His position was attacked from the start. As stated in her book, Artists, Advertising and the Borders of Art Michelle Bogart relates how in 1916 the populist Max Eastman "denounced illustrators and editors as commercial hacks who had sacrificed artistic integrity because they were at the mercy of mass-market publishers who cared only about circulation." Take a look at the comments on Leif's site to his post and you'll see that little has changed in the last 90 years.

I do think there is another factor in the that enters into the push-pull of following your artistic muse versus adapting. Take the careers of two of the most successful lauded of Enoch Bolles' era; C.D. Gibson and J.M. Flagg. They each were highly successful, none more so than Gibson whose career hit a peak with his $100,000 contract with Colliers. Both were public superstars, yet they saw their popularity slowly fade and by the 1930s their work had become marginalized. The question is why? Both could be considered the equivalent of world class athletes, their technique and artist chops were amazing, and at a time when the pool of talent was unrivaled. I think two things happened. First, both Gibson and Flagg were known for their pen and ink work, and in fact Flagg revered Gibson and modeled his style after him. Flagg was also an amazingly skilled painter who worked in a bravura style, who could dash off magazine covers with abandon. Gibson tried mightily to paint, even going to Paris to train, but ultimately failed. But while other illustrators experimented and diversified Gibson and Flagg stuck to their stock techniques. What I ultimately think the more significant factor in the decline (a relative term in this case I realize) of their popularity was their choice of subject. Or more to the point, their rejection of subject. Both Gibson and Flagg loathed the new woman of the 2o's. Gibson stated that out of all his attempts he had only drawn one acceptable flapper. I don't know whether Flagg even tried (he hated how skinny they were and lamented about 'strapped bosoms.') Others, particularly John Held Jr. took on the flapper with relish. See the Gibson girl vs Held Jr. image.

So what about our man Bolles. For one, I don't think he ever compromised his style, which was his own from the very beginning. As the late Reid Austin described it, "Bolles had arrived very early in his career". But what Enoch did do was adopt his subject to the changing times. In the 20s his girls slimmed down (too much sometimes I know!), dressed in the hottest fashions and were on the move. His girls in the 30s were more full figured (and knew it) and a lot less giddy. Even at the end of Bolles' career, his 40's girls were au courant, with the Rita Hayworth hair-do's WW-II themes. In the end it was all about putting food on the table.


Thomas Haller Buchanan said...

Excellent post and examination in such a short space. I haven't yet read Leif Peng's post and comments you refer to, but the issue is pertinent to every working artist. I also would have perished long ago if I had to stay with one 'style' at a time. I am a commissioned commercial artist, and commerce dictates my market. My work is not so high profile that I'm affected by trends, but the client pays the bills, and within reason, the client gets what the client wants.

What's interesting to me, in terms of your post, is that the golden age of illustration seemed to melt away, not just to reflect trends and styles of 'society', but especially to each other! That would seem to be 'the fault' of art directors, who are dictators. The old Art Director's Club seemed to be the epicenter of artistic trends, and oh, how they declined in the 40s and 50s, in my opinion.

As I've said before, I love how your posts on Bolles are connecting to other lives, times, and issues. I think there is gold to be mined in examining the subtleties of the golden age mindset, where it came from collectively, and where the heck it 'went wrong'.

Thomas Haller Buchanan said...

I just read my comment and I wasn't very clear when I refer to 'each other'. By that, I mean that the working cadre of illustrators that weren't household names, and had not established world famous styles, had to stay in line with each other so that there was an overarching style of that generation. It was a 20s style, or a 30s style, etc.

Starting in the 80s and 90s, that generational style wasn't as dominant, because starting then was an anything goes attitude, not just in art, but fashion and product design (cars, radios, stuff). So little was and is produced that can easily be identified as a product of the 80s or 90s or 00s.

Art directors and design directors center their aesthetics on themselves, and less on their competition. For better or worse, I can't say.

I think Art Directors and editors affected Bolles and all the other illustrators more we generally realize, with their power of acceptance/rejection/change. An illustrator's genius was sometimes only as good as his A.D/editor.

I probably still haven't made sense, but your post inspired me to make an attempt, the sign of a good blog.

Jack R said...

Hi Thomas,
Thanks for your posts. What you say makes total sense. From what I've read about what it was like for artists in the Golden Age who were in the middle ranks, I think your comments hit the nail on the head. What is curious to me is that during the Golden Age an artist often defined him or herself by their "girl". Of course it all began with the Gibson girl, but also the Fisher, Christy, Armstrong and the list goes on and on. It was sort of an emblem. Rockwell was so bad at girls that he was told to stick with kids. And then there was the generational style as you so aptly put it. You could lump Hayden-Hayden, Barclay, Loomis, Sundblom and others together in the same 1930s middle-class girl next door style. To stick out you really had to draw a special girl, but then I guess that's why we both like Bolles!!

Thomas Haller Buchanan said...

Yes, yes—the special girl.Good point. Only a few transcended needing that, notably Rockwell and Leyendecker.

And not to beat a point to death, but the editor and art director helped to cast the perfect mold for many an illustrator. Rockwell had, was it George Lorimer at the Saturday Evening Post? And I guess the same for Leyendecker. He guided and mentored their style and approach.

I think one could maybe chart the change of styles some artists went through by the change of editor or art director. Even the best needed guidance, for better or worse. Many illustrators became so successful that they felt they could set their own standards, and sadly, many times their overall quality declined.

And of course let's not forget the visual impact that an illustration had on a cover or a page by the way it was designed onto that page, with typography, color scheme, negative space, cropping, a bunch of other factors that are subtle, but vital. Again, the art director's touch.

In the 40s, art directors generally tried to top each other in sophistication of design (they started giving each other awards, as did other industries), which had some nice successes, but generally the results seem dull and tired as we look at them today. But illustration of the 20s and 30s still seem colorful and exciting with less sophistication, but more dynamic in design.

Jack R said...

Yes, your point about the influence of art directors is crucial. The example of Rockwell at SEP is perfect. Even lowly Film Fun had an art director on its masthead, the amazingly talented Abril Lamarque, who went on to redesign the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Talk about a verticle career move!!

Paolo Rivera said...

I've always felt as though style stopped in the mid-90's with the advent of the internet. Prior to that, mass-media was one of the only outlets for the dissemination of style, so even though alternatives existed, they simply didn't get the same air time.

I was in high school in the late 90's and I remember seeing yearbooks from previous decades. I was amazed at how most of the students seemed to have the same haircut. Looking at my own graduation year, '99, the only ubiquitous style was diversity. Now we just seem to be in a constant state of recycling.

Thanks for all the great posts! I'm a latecomer to this blog, but I read regularly now.

Jack R said...

Hi Paolo,
Thanks for your post! It's interesting how you linked the end of style with advent of the internet, which to me makes a lot of sense. In a way the internet may have had the same effect that cable did with tv. People were no longer influenced by experiences that the majority shared in common.

Anonymous said...

Nice post Jack, thanks. My understanding of all of this is that the conditions of the market place produce the work that wins in the m.p. The artists and their support systems that obsessed over colors, design, topics, poses produced the finest work from the 1920's to the '50's. The rise of photography and then the computer ended that era. I've searched and unless I'm missing something I've yet to see a current artist with the chops of those pin-up and commercial masters. It takes a career to become proficient with Maya, Photoshop, etc and so much of today's best artistic talent goes to the computer. Just as we'll never see work like that of the Renaissance masters produced again, we'll probably never see work as great as Bolles, Armstrong, Mozert et al produced again. The truth, beauty and honesty of that period's work's human expression is greatly worth promoting in this hyper-obsessive attention-hungry time. So keep up the great work. And btw, I may have some Bolles images on some magazine covers you don't have. Cheers!

Jack R said...

Hi Alan,
Yes I don't think today's illustrators have the chops of those who survived during the Golden Age, mainly because of the competition and training they had to endure. From some of the accounts I've read the instructos wasn't that far off from you'd see in a Jackie Chan movie were he had to endure torturous training from the old master. Really! Chesley Bonestell wrote once where he had to draw a chair sitting in a corner but recalculate the play of the shadows with a new light source, mathematically!

I've got a pretty big 'virtual' Bolles collection (400+ magazine covers), so I'd die to see something new by him.