Sunday, September 15, 2013

Building on a Golden Age: Creating a Dream

About eight months ago, as I was working on wrapping up the 2013 schedule for the gallery at Krab Jab Studio, I had a few blank months to fill, September being one of them. At the time, I was corresponding with Jeff Menges, who was working on the collaborative book project celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the game Magic: the Gathering, of which both of us were contributors (and he the publisher). He knows I am a huge Golden Age of Illustration fanatic, and has indulged me over the years by sending me books on the subject that he's edited with Dover Publishing. Jeff is an expert on the subject, so he is always an easy earbend when I babble over great illustrators such as Arthur Rackham or Howard Pyle.

 Captain Keitt by Howard Pyle
I don't remember if he suggested it or I did, but the idea of a show celebrating The Golden Age of Illustration (a period of time between 1895 and 1925) came up. He mentioned that he knew several illustrators whose work was directly affected by the art of that time: names like James Gurney, Gregory Manchess and Donato Giancola popped up. I locked on like a heat-seeking missile, and the idea of the show was born.

Why is this period of time so special? There are a few answers, some more technical than others, but basically the technology of printing in color had advanced, allowing printers to reproduce subtle values and colors like never before. Coupled with the beautiful, sumptuous influences of the Art Nouveau movement, the publishing industry began to produce books of stunning beauty and decadence. The public ate it up, and the precursor to the Coffee Table Book was born.

The most illustrated books in our current modern age is that of the child's book. Read, reread, and cherished, the children's book was something that both adults and children could love and read together. A race to produce the most beautiful of these books was set in motion in the late 19th Century, and thus arose the Golden Age. Whimsy, fantasy, drama and excitement were elements that dressed the pages of these books, and artists such as NC Wyeth (student of the great Howard Pyle and father to Andrew Wyeth), Maxfield Parrish, and of course Arthur Rackham rose to the challenge. Never in any other time were illustrators revered and so handsomely paid - not even today.
Blind Pew by NC Wyeth
The Golden Age was not just for children's books, but the world of advertising and home decoration as well. Lithography was being perfected, allowing artists to create the precursor to the Ikea Poster, with images by Maxfield Parrish being the most popular to decorate the middle class parlor. Advertising, whether for theater, alcohol, or bicycles, was elevated to the stylish art poster, using both Art Nouveau greats as well as the Golden Age illustrators to sell their wares. Alphonse Mucha rose to the heights of greatness in the advertising industry, with rabid collectors from Europe to America.
Job Cigarette ad by Mucha
Although the rise of color reproduction was in full swing, black and white work (in the form of woodblocks, engravings and ink drawings) were always in high demand. Color printing was still expensive, so the bulk of most books contained black and white work. Artists such as Willy Pogany, E.H. Shepard and Harry Clarke took the art of ink to a whole new level, thus dismissing the idea that Color is Better. In fact, these artists were actually better at their inkings than painting. I can't imagine The Wind in the Willows without E.H. Shepard's organic, comical inkings of Mr. Toad.

Mr Toad, E.H. Shepard
And that's the thing: the art of this time embedded itself in the psyche of many of us who grew up exposed to these books (many still in reprint). As a kid, I received a copy of Hans Christian Andersen illustrated by Arthur Rackham, and fell into his work, mesmerized by the beauty. I would stare at his paintings and little ink vignettes for hours - screw reading - tracing the lines with my eyes, over and over. I loved the oversized limbs and hands of his characters, the flow of line in the fabric, the prettiness of his heroines, the ghastliness of his villains.

Arthur Rackham
My Rackham-inspired work for Ars Magica RPG, 1994
There are so many great illustrators of that time (including women illustrators such as Jessie Willcox-Smith, Kate Greenaway and Beatrix Potter) this entry would be a nonstop freight train of names and references. I encourage you to research the period and the illustrators on your own, there are many good books on the subject (Richard Dalby and Susan Meyers both produced excellent books on the subject). Calla Editions reproduced gorgeous new editions of many of the classics for reasonable prices.

So, back to our show...

Jeff was a shoe-in as guest curator, being an expert on the subject and all. He composed a list of artists he knew to be heavily inspired by the Golden Age, originally a list of 15 artists. The great James Gurney (also a Golden Age fanatic) was on top of the list but he is a busy, wanted man (and he's signed with another gallery). Greg Manchess was being honored by the Society of Illustrators (incidentally organized by many of the Golden Age greats) and all his work was sequestered for that show, also in September. A few others were detained (thank you, Illuxcon, hehe) but our final number was the respectable following: Donato Giancola, Tom Kidd, Gary Lippincott, Tony DiTerlizzi, Terese Nielsen, Echo Chernik, Socar Myles, Yoann Lossel, and Michael Hague. How can you not be over the moon with this group? Wait, you don't know who some of them are? Okay, I will educate you.

Donato Giancola: Well, he's a god. Okay, maybe that's a little extreme, but he is a legend in the fantasy world, with so many book covers to his name it's boggling. His merit list is so long it rivals Charles Manson's rap sheet. And he's not even 50! He was trained in classical realism and has managed to bridge that world and fantasy marvelously. His two drawings in our show are delicate, fluid, and natural.

Rangers of Arnor by Donato Giancola
Tom Kidd: Tom is very old school in so many ways (we like that). He gave us two very evilly sweet illustrations for our show from the Words Like Coins book. He is very good at bringing an element of comedy to otherwise strictly violent or fantastical images, making you smirk when you know you shouldn't. I linked him to his imaginary world he's been creating, that of his world of Gnemo, because the art is damned fine.
Words Like Coins by Tom Kidd
Gary Lippincott: Gary has a long list of children's books to his name, delicately painted in watercolor washes. The Vampire's Beautiful Daughter cover was sent to us, as well as his Hermit piece. I have to say, his work is so delicate I don't think digital reproduction does it justice. Seriously, his work is a total experience in person (which is why I insist people get off their butts and see this stuff live!!).
The Vampire's Beautiful Daughter by Gary Lippincott
Tony DiTerlizzi: I am embarrassed to say I didn't make the connection between Tony and The Spiderwick Chronicles (which he co-created with Holly Black) until recently. Oh, I know The Spiderwick Chronicles, I just had seen other works of his and didn't make the full connection. Dumb? Maybe, but it also allowed me to enjoy his other whimsical works of their own merit. I've been told to "study Tony" if I wanted to structure my own work into children's books. Trust me, I am a willing student! He sent us some rarely-seen giclees for our show, adding additional comedy and whimsy alongside Tom's work.
Imagine by Tony DiTerlizzi
Terese Nielsen: Terese has been a favorite artist of mine for nearly 20 years; her nod to the Golden Age is apparent in her beautiful use of the ellipse, as well as her delicate palette. Well known for her work with Magic: the Gathering and the Stars Wars Saga (I love her Queen Amidala pieces, one of which we have a prints!), Terese has been working in the game and comic industry for years. I am always in awe of the perfect beauty in her work - she does no wrong.
Hanna, Ship's Navigator by Terese Nielsen
Echo Chernik: Echo clearly loves Mucha. She doesn't just emulate him though, she still has her own stamp to her work that makes her clearly unique. She is the only digital artist in our group, although you would never know it when you look at her work, and she prints her work big. Really big. Thank God; there are so many little nuances in her work, you miss them in small reproductions, which is a good thing she's been doing giant murals and advertising posters for so long (although she does have several books under her belt). Her work emits the feel of decadence, with her elliptical lines and deep rich palette and her super hot female figures. You just want to pop a bon bon in their mouths.
Burlesque Belly Dancer by Echo Chernik
Socar Myles: My friend, illustrator Samuel Araya, turned me onto Socar, and in turn I turned Jeff onto her as well. He said she was funny. He's right. But even more so, she holds the honors for the most "Jesus Christ!" exclamations over the work in this show. Her ink drawings are insanely detailed, to the point of hurting your eyes. And they're funny too, in a sort of twisted way. She put out the book called Fantasy Drawing Skills - it's quite good, my new student brought it in to show me the other day. Her inspiration is clearly Harry Clarke, although one can see an Aubrey Beardsley-Shel Silverstein mashup going on as well.


Yoann Lossel: Yoann and I came into contact last year when I stumbled upon him on Facebook and invited him to our FAERIE show. We haven't looked back. He is not known here (yet) but has a strong following in his native France, with good reason. Jeff was apprehensive with my suggestion of Yoann until I sent him images - he's now a believer like me. He is currently a fine artist with a few publications in France, and you can see the Howard Pyle influence quite clearly, I think. We will see more of his work at Krab Jab in the upcoming year!

Eros et Thanatos by Yoann Lossel
Michael Hague: the master... Michael Hague is clearly influenced by the Golden Age, and in turn has influenced many more with his gorgeous watercolors. His credits include The Wind in the Willows, and Michael Hague's Magical World of Unicorns, along with several fairy books and one graphic novel. Michael sent us one of his magical unicorns, and I have to fight like the dickens not to buy it myself. Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham would doff their hats in his direction.
The Unicorn by Michael Hague
 I wish our guest curator, Jeff Menges, could have been in town for this show. He did a fantastic job building up our catalog of artists and art, but the call of Illuxcon (an illustrator's convention on the east coast) beckoned him and since I made the terrible mistake of opening the show the same weekend as the convention, he was unable to attend. But his stamp of excellence is everywhere, and I thank him.

This was a dream show for me. I love both the original period works as well as the contemporary work inspired from it. I hope some of this has rubbed off on any of you originally unfamiliar with the Golden Age, and I wouldn't be surprised if these contemporary artists inspired the artists of tomorrow. In that respect, the Golden Age is eternal.

Good night! - Julie Baroh, Sept 15th 2013