Monday, October 16, 2017

PIONEERS OF GERMAN GRAPHIC DESIGN

"The early twentieth century was the most significant period of all in the development of modern design....  The design profession was born, and with it came the beginnings of corporate and graphic design as we know it today."        
                                  -- Jens Müller,  Pioneers of German Graphic Design
                                                                         
The first few decades in 20th century Germany were tumultuous years, a veritable Cambrian explosion of innovation which shaped the world of visual communication that we now take for granted.

For example, they introduced the "object poster" which filled public spaces with large colorful images for the first time. They were fun and eye-catching, persuasive and entertaining.  Most of all, they were visually easy for strolling crowds to read.  The poor man's art museum, they transformed public boulevards into art galleries and revolutionized the worlds of advertising and design that followed. 






Then there was the new use of design to embody corporate identity, including the invention of the modern corporate logo. 





Modern typography was invented and the rapidly developing science of photography was applied in new ways, such as photomontages.


I've previously written on this blog about German designer Peter Behrens, the visionary who met the industrial revolution with comprehensive designs for the new man made environments. But I never appreciated the cumulative role that Behrens and his contemporaries in Germany played in transforming modern visual communication until I read the admirable new book by Jens Müller, Pioneers of German Graphic Design. (Callisto Publishers, 2017).

The 1,000+ high quality illustrations in this encyclopedic book speak for themselves, and make a highly persuasive argument.

This 1925 car ad could easily appear in a magazine today, nearly 100 years later.



But beyond the images, Müller's text is a well-written, thoughtful analysis of the ingredients that gave rise to an era of such artistic ferment.  He writes:
"To trace the history of modern visual communications and explore why such major innovations came from Germany requires a detailed understanding of the social and economic circumstances of the Epoque and order to identify the developments generated demand for modern commercial design in the first place."
Müller's exploration centers on fourteen pioneers of design, most of whom were previously unknown to me but all of whom I found deserving of attention.  I was particularly impressed by the work of Julius Klinger and Wilhelm Deffke.

He tracks how the industrial age changed production, transportation and distribution of goods, which contributed to vast social and economic change (and sharp divisions between social groups).  The new accessibility of printing helped to evade the constraints of previous far reaching government censorship of printed materials. These and other elements fused to transform advertising form and content, and amplify the role of graphic design.  Müller's expertise in discussing these issues is truly impressive.


Many of the readers of this blog are already familiar with the brilliant German graphic art publications of the era, Jugend and Simplicissimus, which were so influential on American illustrators.  Pioneers of German Graphic Design shows that those two publications were just the tip of the iceberg, and how German innovations in design later transformed the field.


Sunday, October 01, 2017

FOUR THINGS THAT RALPH BARTON KNEW

Ralph Barton was one of the most prominent illustrators of the 1920s.  Most of his illustrations were done with a simple line, yet if you paid attention it soon became clear that Barton knew a few things.  Here are four of them: 


1.  Sometimes the best way to exaggerate legs is to contrast them with a normal arm: 


Those high-stepping legs seem even crazier because Barton gave us a baseline for normalcy.  By showing us he understands the bones and muscles of that arm; he emphasizes that he has detached the bones and added more joints to those legs.  That wonderful flowing tunic is like a magician's cape, concealing how he has sawed a lady in half.


2.  Sometimes the best way to draw a big subject is to obscure it in a small corner.


There were plenty of dramatic ways to draw the 1927 death of Isadora Duncan, the famous dancer whose trademark-- an enormous, flamboyant scarf-- became wrapped around the axle of her brand new convertible.  Duncan was pulled from her car and choked to death as she was dragged along a cobblestone road in France.  An artist could hardly ask for a more visual spectacle.  Yet, this is the wonderful, controlled way that Barton depicted it:       


I love Gertrude Stein's stoic reaction when she read the news of Duncan's death:  “Affectations can be dangerous."


3.  A mediocre subject can still be redeemed by a strong image.

The joke on this cover of Puck is not particularly funny or creative:




but man oh man, it is redeemed by Barton's strong graphic treatment.  He didn't get discouraged by his text, he redeemed it.








Today the practice is largely the opposite.  The dominant assumption is that crappy drawing will be redeemed by profound or moving content.

4.  Don't accept standard templates if you have a better idea.

Barton decided that the regular logo for Puck would not go very well with his cover drawing.  Rather than compromise his drawing or accept , Barton took the initiative to letter a whole new title and offer it to his client:


 

It appears from Barton's note that Puck neither requested nor paid for this extra effort.  It was something Barton volunteered because he cared about the least details surrounding his art and was not afraid to work.



Monday, September 25, 2017

HEINRICH KLEY FEEDS POMEGRANATE SEEDS TO THE MUSE

If a man wishes to be worthy of the best that a woman has to offer, he must have the patience to feed her a pomegranate, one seed at a time.
 -- Ancient Persian Proverb


Before the muse gifted Heinrich Kley with this idea about racing snails...




... he explored snails with lovely little studies such as these:









By working at a snail's pace, Kley learned how to make them race at breakneck speed.



Friday, September 15, 2017

STAYING EASY IN YOUR HARNESS

The poet Robert Frost understood that freedom is not the absence of constraints.  "You have freedom," he said, "when you're easy in your harness."

The illustrator Mort Kunstler used to work for men's adventure magazines such as Stag or For Men Only.

Illustration for the Men magazine article, "Get to Comrade Zoltan with Girls." (1959). The article says that when all other interrogation tactics failed, "There was no choice but to summon the 'passion troops.'"
Cheap and lurid, these magazines were printed on a low budget. They couldn't afford full color reproduction on every page.  In the double page illustration above, Kunstler was told he could use full color on the right side, but only two colors (red and black) on the left side.

Didn't notice Kunstler's sleight of hand, did you?  OK, look again to see how he finessed it:


The Russian soldiers were painted in two colors...


...and so was "comrade Zoltan..."



... but Kunstler subtly camouflaged the transition to full color with this red headed temptress:



The real trick was how Kunstler used the artificial light in the room to disguise his color limitation. 


Kunstler was faced with unreasonable constraints, but he knew enough about color and staging so that the restrictions didn't chafe or pinch his painting.  He planned around them. He was easy in his harness.

 And Kunstler wasn't the only one. In earlier days, technical and economic limitations on the printing process created all kinds of obstacles for artists but if they were good enough and imaginative enough, the viewer never knew.

Look at how the illustrator Henry Raleigh dealt with the same problem that Kunstler handled:


Raleigh staged the drawing to take advantage of the blue ink on the right side to convey a dour, obsequious man...


...and used the warm color on the left to create this radiant creature:


Today artists are blessed with unlimited rainbows of color, in cmyk or rgb variations.  The computer monitor permits us to use full color on both the left and the right side at no extra charge.  Nor does the internet constrain the number of copies created.  One might argue that with all these technical advantages artists have finally achieved true freedom.  But that's not genuine freedom, genuine freedom is being easy in your harness.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 54



You probably don't know the work of illustrator Charles Sarka but you probably should.

Sarka (1879-1960) started out as an apprentice to an engraver and became a staff artist for newspapers (first for the Chicago Record and then for the New York Herald). He did some lovely pen and ink work for Collier's, Cosmopolitan and Harpers in the era of pen and ink greats: Joseph Clement Coll, Charles Dana Gibson, Orson Lowell and James Montgomery Flagg.  In my view, his excellent pen and ink work belongs in that esteemed company.

However, unlike his peers Sarka had wanderlust. Rather than sit by his drawing board he traveled extensively to South Pacific Islands, Africa and other remote locations where he recorded his travels in watercolors. His paintings of the hill tribes of Morocco, of the natives of Tahiti and the markets of Egypt took him far from the normal career path of a typical American illustrator, so his name is not as well known. Still, I think his early ink work is excellent.

Note in this detail how Sarka not only understands hands, but toys with different comic possibilities for presenting them.  He uses a strong, vigorous line to add some excitement to that solid coat and the folds in those pants, but he also appreciates the value of using a variety of effects, such as the spatters on that tire:



In the following detail, his lines shaping those trees are quite muscular, but Sarka knows when to back off, contrasting them with a single lacy line to convey that cigarette smoke; he even adds a few little tweety birds flying through it:



Note how Sarka gives the trees density, weight and movement by giving them heavy shadows and curling them over, (as contrasted with that cigarette smoke which wafts upward on an errant breeze-- one set of lines has to fight gravity and the other one doesn't).  


And speaking of lacy, Sarka applies the same lesson to these two charming ladies. They are clearly earthbound creatures, as we can tell from the volume and density in their dresses and coiffure, but that scarf wafts upward, contrary to gravity, with a different line just like the cigarette smoke.

Two li'l dollinks somewhere between heaven and earth
I like that Sarka put so much personality and energy in his line.  I like that he understood perspective and anatomy but used them only as starting points. I like the sense of humor in his drawing. If he'd stayed home and created a substantial body of work in pen and ink, I feel certain he'd be in the pantheon today.


Monday, August 28, 2017

ONE STEP FORWARD, TWO STEPS BACK

This is the cover of yesterday's New York Times magazine:


The NYT explained its goal for the cover:  "Like all great athletes, Roger Federer makes the impossible look easy.  So we decided to go with an action shot that captures his grace and dynamism."

My dictionary doesn't recognize these uses of the terms, "action" and "dynamism." To me the freeze frame photo of Federer hovering in air looks inert and static.  There is no suggestion of speed, and in fact the strangely meandering word "wonder" (in random type faces in miscellaneous sizes) dominates the figure and neutralizes any semblance of movement or direction or thrust.  The visual emphasis placed on an outstretched hand releasing a ball seems to be the antithesis of "dynamism."

A few years ago on this blog I wrote about how sports illustration in the 1950s tended to rely on frozen, stop-motion images that looked hopelessly stolid.




Then in the 1960s, imaginative illustrators developed fresh ways to capture speed.  They learned from action painting and abstract expressionism in the fine art world; they learned from movies, by blurring or repeating images rather than carefully capturing a single Muybridge snapshot; they learned from impressionism and expressionism (going back to J.M.W. Turner's revolutionary masterpiece, Rain, Steam and Speed);  they learned from Einstein's special theory of relativity that spacetime bends as velocity increases toward the speed of light. 

The following examples are from Bernie Fuchs' brilliant illustrations for Sports Illustrated in 1961.


Note the figure in the foreground starting to stretch to the right with Einstein's spacetime.

He used slashing lines and rapid brush strokes to create sensations of speed. 

Detail


He captured figures in truly dynamic poses with traction and thrust, not merely floating in air.  He selectively used sharp focus or blur to convey motion and emphasis.  These are among the tools of a sophisticated artist.

If the goal of yesterday's NYT Magazine cover was "action" and "dynamism," I think by comparison these 1960s examples make the cover look sick.  How much we have forgotten!

The concept of "progress" applies in science but not so much in art.  In science, each new generation can build on the objective discoveries of the generation before.  But in art, prehistoric cave paintings may be just as beautiful and sensitive as a picture made yesterday. It's not unusual for art to take one step forward and two steps back.  But if we are aware of our history and work in good conscience, it's at least possible to take two steps forward and only one step back.


Monday, August 21, 2017

NEW REFLECTIONS ON OLD COMBAT ART, part 4

In the last few posts we discussed combat art from World War I.  

In the comments, a lot seemed to depend on the fact that these artists, whether illustrators or "fine" artists, were first-hand witnesses to the trauma of war.  The personal ordeals of these artists seemed to give their work an authenticity.  In some cases, it pushed the artist to abandon traditional artistic techniques and flail around for new methods of communication. 

How does this art compare with work by artists who did not participate in the war?  How were the results different for artists who merely imagined the war from a great distance?

In my view, the best contemporary artist to be inspired by World War I is George Pratt.  Here is some of his work, which I find quite striking:


Pratt uses a powerful composition to strengthen an already powerful subject.




Some of Pratt's subjects are similar to the subjects chosen by Dix, but Pratt kept his wits about him. 



His first graphic novel about World War I was the highly regarded Enemy Ace: War Idyll.





Pratt worked a safe distance from the terror, in both time and space.   Yet his imagination and talent enabled him to close some of that distance and give his pictures strength, insight and veracity.