Monday, June 8, 2009

Artists who illustrate

This post is inspired by the recent meeting of the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies and a not too wine-soaked dinner conversation with the very thoughtful Douglas Dowd.

When artists illustrate they relate their art to a particular narrative or story. They select from that narrative one or more significant moments. They visualize that moment and use the image to reference the text. Viewers who are reading the story encounter an illustration in the text as if they themselves had envisioned that moment. That illustration within the text serves to shape the way the viewer than perceives other aspects of the story as it continues. In illustrations that are presented outside of the text, as for example in paintings that are shown in a museum (either because they were only inspired by a narrative or because at one time they may have served as illustrations to a specific text but are now displayed as art) the narrative is still crucial to understanding the object. Such illustrative paintings work because viewers will either know the story beforehand or they will expect to be told it through labels or other interpretive methods. For viewers already familiar with the text, encountering a painting that references it can be particularly pleasurable because the encounter provides a sense of recognition, that "aha" moment when we recognize the scene that is depicted and begin to dissect with pleasure all of the ways the image resonates with our memory of the narrative. For viewers who are unfamiliar with the text, the act of puzzling out what is being depicted can either be pleasurable--as some viewers like constructing their own narratives from story-telling art which often makes it quite easy for them to do so--or frustrating, if they can't figure out what is going on. But in either case the text is an essential component of illustrative art. It is art with a function (much like a chair). It is art that tells a story.

Although good writers evoke entire worlds within us, most of us don't think in pictures. The worlds evoked by language alone are hazy, nebulous realms of impressions and unarticulated sensations. When artists, or now moviemakers, make explicit those internal realities shaped by reading a book, we have an opporunity at first to compare the now explicit realities presented with our iternal ones. We can critique them based on how well they match what we call the essence of the written narrative. When the match is a good one it is persuasive and compelling and completely transforms our internal reality. After seeing the first Harry Potter movie, it became simply impossible for me to remember the way I had conceptualized the Harry Potter characters and environments earlier while reading the books. The articulated imagery of the movie became my memory of the world I had internalized through reading.

There is little difference between nineteenth-century academic artists and illustrators. Academic artists were trained in a narrative art tradition. Thus there is little difference, essentially, between Holman Hunt's Isabella and the Pot of Basil (shown at the beginning of the article on the left) and Howard Pyle's So for a Heartbeat She Saw Him (above on the right). Holman Hunt however enjoys his place in the art history books as a "fine" artist while Howard Pyle is known primarily as an illustrator and is rarely if ever included in traditional art history texts. Yet the two works are quite similar. Both focus on a main character and both rely on the viewer to know the context from which these characters are plucked. In the case of Isabella, a poem by Keats of the same title, and for the Howard Pyle a story from medieval French history published in Harper's. Isabella is mourning the death of her lover whose head she has hidden in her pot of basil while the 15th century princess Katherine has climbed an apple tree to peek over the garden wall of her convent to see the man who will become her husband. Both paintings require the narrative to be fully comprehensible. The main difference is that Hunt's painting was not work for hire. Hunt selected the topic for his painting and executed it as he saw fit. His image was not intended to be published side by side with the text of Tennyson's poem. Pyle's work on the other hand was work for hire. He was commissioned to create an illustration. Thus Pyle's work is illustration art, functional art in the same way that a piece of furniture has a primary use and its presence in the museum, its transition to art meant just to be looked at, is secondary.

It was in fact, right around the time that Holman Hunt launched his career along with the other Pre-Raphaelites, rebels against British Academic traditions, that the art world started to split between the traditionalists and the progressive who came to be known as the avant-garde. This split, as it evolved became a split over the nature of narrative in art. Traditionalists maintained that art's role was to tell stories but the stories they chose were primarily history, myth or fantasy. Their art provided an escape into a convincing painted reality. Progressive favored the real, unvarnished truth of the present. Eventually storytelling itself fell out entirely as the progressives moved away from narrative in art as being too much of a lie (an illusion, an escape) and the began to celebrate instead an art of color, shape and form. An art for art's sake. Eventually progressive art, stripped even form away leaving raw concept, idea devoid of narrative.

As ambiguity trumped clarity artists committed to representation (such as the Academic artists of the late nineteenth century) either fell out of favor or tethered their skills to the commercial world. It is perhaps not conicidental that the age of the illustrated book and periodical, the so-called golden age of illutration, coincides almost precisely with the rise of the modernist avant-garde. Because it does, artist illustrators like Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rocwell always struggled with their class status within the art world. Even while they were famous, prosperous and popular they were well aware that they had little or no standing in the world of "real" artists. And artists such s Winslow Homer, John Sloan and Edward Hopper, discarded their commercial selves, risking financial security, in order to enter the realm of art and ultimately the art history books.

As art history expands to include visual studies, as we begin to consider seriously the continuing traditions of illustration art, how can we as students, scholars and apologists avoid the trap of this dichotomy between "fine" art created on speculation, versus commercial art for hire, functional art? How is the artfulness of illustration art to be defined? Do criteria of quality apply and if so, how? What interesting questions to ponder!