August 22, 2007

Survey Says...

Surprise! guess what my search for Arthur Rackham pulled up first: looks like Midsummer Night's Dream, a recurring theme for me for the month...and a recurring influence of the illustrators I talked to last week

So you may remember, before I left for GenCon, I was studying Surrealism and had come to the conclusion that many fantasy illustrators were probably looking at Surrealism for inspiration. My goal was to ask as many artists as I could about what inspired them in art history. The results were not what I expected, but in retrospect it is very obvious.

It was amusing, as I started a conversation with each artist (I talked to about 15 I think) I felt a little like that game show Family Feud. You remember, where contestants were asked to name the top answers to the same questions which had been asked to a group of people. I kept hearing the same answers over and over again. And as I asked, I could look at their work and almost guess what the answers would be. It is almost as if a little bell went off in my head and I heard Richard Dawson say, "survey says..."

So the number one answer was Arthur Rackham, whose work is shown above. Other popular answers were NC Wyeth, The Brandywine school, the PreRaphaelites, Art Nouveau artists like Mucha, some old masters such as Michealangelo, some masters who worked a bit dark like Carravaggio and Goya (especially if the artist's subject matter was dark) and a few nods to the light painters like the Impressionists and Dega. Keep in mind that I dismissed answers of contemporaries and peers, which many were quick to source. I wanted to know old school influences.

So the surprising thing was that I don't think anyone listed a single Surrealist as an influence on their own, without my prior suggestion. That movement did not really seem to be in the collective inspiration pool, which was confusing to me at first. But as I thought and discussed it more, I found that all the illustrators had a deep connection to the tradition of illustration. I found that themes of storytelling in an artist's or movement's work was a bit more important than the Modern art tendency of art for art's sake, or the personal journey that the Surrealists exemplified. These artists were mostly influenced by illustrations for children's books, stories, and advertising. To me these are things in the Craft of Illustration tradition: artwork meant for a purpose or function to appeal to many, not only the expression of one Artist. Of course this is just my little theory, and there is the big Art vs. Illustration vs. Craft debate so I am sure many will disagree, but it is what I am thinking about today...


  1. What an interesting question to pose and what interesting answers. It's funny because Dali would have been at the top of my list. I also would have listed Maurice Sendak and Alexander Calder. They aren't old school are they. Hmmm.... God. Tee hee he!

  2. Thanks, I think it was an interesting question, it was a good ice breaker and something to get us talking. Chuck was a little peeved because in the end I knew a little more about his peers than he did, in that specific way.

    It made me think about what my influences are too. I might have to do a post on that...

  3. Your question has been bubbling in the back of my mind for a few days now. I wanted to really hammer out a well-thought out response.

    One of the teaching methods of the Academy was to copy the works of the Old Masters. You might paint a foot from a Michealangelo painting a hundred times before you were allowed to paint your "own" material. In this way, I think it is one way in which many illustrators, who are brought up within the art schools harken to specific artist inspirations. However, I also see the trend where while the student develops their work, professors will often say, "That looks like..." and ever planted is the seed of that comment, right or wrong. And in essence, just because something looks like something else doesn't mean that it is in any way connected. At least not in the conventional, B follows A, C follows B, and so forth.

    I disagree with the phrasing, "art for art sake." Sure there has been a long-standing tradition, which is self-informed and often references itself in the history of Art, however, to say that that is the exclusive motivation or that the agenda of the work is merely tied to an artist's singular vision is inherently flawed because many artists through out history have done or do the complete opposite. Consider the work of the Supremists. Or the work of the early American Expressionists whom were unknowingly backed by the CIA. Or the work of the Situationists. Or that of Dada. Or the Feminism movement? Or work of the Post Modernists who were set out to bring awareness to minority statuses. Or the Futurists or Machinists... the list goes on and on. Where many of them were drawing inspiration or reacting to their contemporary culture. Even the work of Picasso and Monet.

    I also think that the lines between Illustration and "Fine Art" and Craft are a bit blurred. Especially considering the history of art. Many of the pieces we reveer at sole expressions of ART were actually illustrations, bought and paid for by patrons. Also, the methods of Craft have been in and out, in reaction to itself and the market place. Craft right now in the fine art world is really big, but much of the works is a direct product of a time that received little notice during the late 60's through the late 70's, who also used much Craft within the work to challenge the idea of art.

    Speaking of the market place, I think it has a far larger role than anyone would like to admit. Money, the market, sensationalism, and trends have a lot to do with the craving out of the definitions of Craft, Art, and Illustration... and where things can over-lap and where things are elevated or diminished - marking a totem pole for pricing.

    I think there is also something to be said about provincialism and urbanism that stretches back into history... to the Ancient Near East, Ancient Egypt, right up until this very time. Art that is made closer to a metropolitan area is usually more informed of the market place and therefore "better." A good example would be during the Middle Ages, where old Roman influences were still felt in some of the larger cities, where in the rural country-side, the influences were much more rooted in the traditions of the Barbarian settlers. I think it is changing nowadays where the internet is such a vast and expansive vehicle for information. But even still yet, there are distinctions drawn in the sand. Just look at the work of what is deemed, "Outsider Art."

    In any event, thank you for giving me something to roll around in my brain-pan.

  4. Andrew, Thanks for your thoughts.

    I must admit, I sort of feel like I am floating around art history lately, picking and choosing what I wish. I regret not spending more time studying in college when I had all the time and opportunity. I have not even heard of some of the movements you listed...and the CIA/expressionism reference! That is something I am very interested in learning more about...There are so many great things to learn, aren't there?

    I agree that art for art's sake is perhaps not an accurate concept. Of course artists don't work in a vacuum, and their culture around them almost always has a direct influence on their work. Take the Surrealists, because that is what I have been most interested in lately. Even though their works were often a direct influence of their own personal symbolism and dream work, the bigger picture was that they were, as a group and as individuals, interested in the concepts of the mind, the subconscious, the technology and science that was springing up all around them, and the philosophical thoughts of the day. These outside factors had an incredible impact on their works, even though the works were often very personal.

    I agree that Art, Craft, and Illustration have blurry lines separating them. I think Illustration is particularly hard to categorize because it is like painting and it is also like craft just the same, if you boil it down to base definitions. It might be a matter of perspective. I tend to be on defense of Craft for the most part...that is just my personal tendency, probably started in college as I needed to defend my personal preferences against the criticism of the Fine Artists who challenged me. (ooh, they sound like such bullies...those Fine Artists, lol!) So I am particularly interested in understanding the stripped down definition and history of Illustration right now. I am finding it is not as clear as I would like it to be...

  5. Few things are clear as we'd want them to be. Though I think the art historian in you is on a quest of doing just that... clarifying everything.

    I will note that one of your definitions of illustration from your original post is almost exactly the same as the definition of "kitsch." Though don't go by the Wikipedia definition, as it is sorely lacking. Instead, look to Clement Greenberg in his essay, Avent-Garde and Kitsch.

    And about the CIA promoting the non-objective, American Expressionists to counter the contemporary European Figurative realism... it's happening again! Nowadays though it's Patriotic artwork that reinforces American idealisms. Almost a complete 180. Moving in a much more figurative and illustrative style. There are particular grants for museums and institutions that support this "American" anti-terrorist artwork. Even MoMA is linked to accepting funding from the government in exchange for showing anti-terror artwork. Look at the latest pieces by Marlene Dumas.

  6. Yes, I vaugely remember taking a class on Modernism/PostModernism and reading Greenberg. I found the essay online and printed it out for some light reading later *lol*

    I recall the class getting me very worked up about the whole Art/Craft thing. At the time I was studying traditional pottery and craft history. The book The Unknown Craftsman by Soetsu Yanagi was what I was especially interested in at the time.

    Chuck is especially interested in the political parts of art that you mentioned. He has a greater tolerance for political studies than I do...