Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Frazetta, Reality, and Presence


Let us consider a larger issue that lightly touches on aesthetics, a dab of philosophy, and a bit of critical thinking. Bear with me for a few paragraphs.


A friend was in the Louvre recently and showed me a little video he shot with his phone in the room displaying the MONA LISA. No one was looking at the oil. There were at least a hundred people in the room. Everyone was looking at his or her phones. Most were sending text messages. The MONA LISA was a secondary consideration at best. These people did not want to SEE the MONA LISA. They just wanted to SAY that they were there, in proximity to her. Hence, all the furious texting going on. I ask the question: Does the MONA LISA still exist as a world masterpiece charged with the energy of history’s opinion that it is a life-changing cultural monument for the ages? Do masterpieces still exist? Can they exist in this new cultural/technological, anti-intellectual climate? The great writer G.K Chesterton said, “Art is the signature of man.” If we lose the primal experience of art, then are we not losing our souls as men? Are we not being diminished?


This is a serious issue. I think that reality itself has become degraded.

The ability to see, to concentrate, to deliberate are becoming lost skills. The cultural formation provided by schools has become cheapened. Traditional education has been lost and obliterated, replaced by easy training and easier grades. Traditional concepts and values that can be traced back to Socrates have been replaced by a rampant ethical relativism and cheaply applied multiculturalism. A graduating class at Oxford University was recently told: “Your four years of education should teach you one thing, namely, the ability to distinguish between reality and bullshit.” The distinction between appearance and reality is a problem as old as humanity itself. All the great philosophers, writers, and poets deal with it constantly. It is critical now. Reality is being lost, replaced by a false reality with false values and hidden truths. Great men with vision and integrity have been replaced by a new breed of sophist with no respect for truth or tradition, self-aggrandizing and self-promoting pundits without character or substance. These are the leaders who are fabricating our new reality and manipulating our perceptions and values. The very meaning of what constitutes “culture” is changing before my horrified eyes. In the 1960’s, eminent scholar of culture and technology, Marshall McLuhan, predicted that the various forms of media would become increasingly dominant and transform all aspects of our lives. He has been proven true.


As video games become bigger, louder, more “real”, the nuances of nature herself become devalued and degraded. Our perception is changed; it is watered down; its compelling force is lost. Does anyone walk without an ipod or phone in their ear? Does anyone drive without being on the phone? Is anyone solidly “IN THE WORLD” any more? The meaning of time itself has been compromised. Time is a continuous parade of present moments. The past is a mountainous anchor; the future is something to hope for. The “present” is all we have; it is where we live. It is the rich juice of life that flows from the present moments we occupy. Art should force one to be “in the moment”, to exclude all else, to drink deeply of the richness presented. This is being lost with multi-tasking and the constant assault of data and communication. Aggrandizing data has fully replaced the intimate pleasure of richly experienced knowledge and wisdom. The present has been cut apart and distilled. Its rich energy replaced by cultural facsimiles. We are blasted by the incessant drumbeat of technological cacophony that directly destroys the integrity and full richness of the present moment. The present becomes distilled, fragmented, and denatured. The result? The art of living is being lost. We seem to be turning our backs on one of the greatest gifts we’ve been given. If I recall, the poet T.S Elliott asked: “Where is the life we have lost in living?” We are, indeed, living half-lives half-lived.


I was recently hiking in Monument Valley in Utah. A more magical place simply does not exist in the United States. The Navajo nation built a hotel right in the valley. It is a spectacular spot with amazing light, color, and vistas that constantly change. While standing there on the edge looking at this vast immense beauty I looked around me. All the other tourists were sitting down looking away from the valley and, once again, making phone calls or texting. To me it was almost a sacrilege. I felt profoundly sorry for all the people that could not muster really serious appreciation for this magical gift in front of them. Again, nature has been devalued and marginalized in human perception. I have stood in front of a Rembrandt self-portrait in the National Museum and been transfixed by its power. The psychological intensity present in that paint is nothing short of miraculous. During my graduate student days in Toronto I was graced to see Vermeer’s GIRL WITH PEARL EARRING as part of an exhibition at the ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO. I carry that haunting image with me every single day. It buried itself deeply into my soul. It is, at once, a deep pleasure and an enduring mystery. Often I use it as my wallpaper and deliberate upon its intensity and effect. Another example is the great CRUCIFIXION scene by El Greco in the CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF ART. It is a masterpiece that overwhelms the viewer. There is so much there, so much passion, symbolism, and resonances to the deep past. It is profoundly human, profoundly moving whether you are Christian or not. It is that mysterious quality that all great art has from the caves of Lascaux and Altamira to a great Frazetta Conan. Yes, of course, I place Frazetta in that great line of world-class creators.


The Frazetta sketch sheet I reproduce at the top of this essay is a masterpiece. It is alive! It is three dimensional, a living world to enter. Frank labels it as his favorite rough. It is the study he did for the MASTER OF ADVENTURE paperback cover. He was very pleased with the study. He even mentions it during Russ Cochran’s interview in volume 3 of the ERB LIBRARY OF ILLUSTRATION volume. The original explodes with energy and is steeped in atmosphere. The colors are subtle and carefully blended. It is a multi-media candy store of pencil, watercolor, gouache, and oils. Frank took great pains to get the figure of Tarzan bellowing at the moon just right. The composition is seamless perfection. When looking at it in the original, one can really feel the jungle and viscerally respond to Tarzan’s wild presence. The music Frank chose to mention at the top of the page was something he was listening to at the time of its creation. The music is very moody and mysterious, a perfect blend with the setting. The final painting is different. Frank added a bunch of animals. He clogged-up the visual space. It was not a success and he knew it. He quickly repainted the whole scene, keeping only the foreground limbs and adding a standing girl. It was very unusual for Frank to go from a perfect idea and have it lead to something so poorly expressed in the final stage. I never asked Frank about that. I assumed it was a sore point with him.


Can collectors and art lovers of the last few generations really appreciate a work such as this? The mindset now is clearly different. I have seen the changes and they are striking. Ebay has turned one-time serious collectors into flipper/dealers. Speculation and investment rule the discussions. The art takes a back seat to tertiary considerations. Intrinsic artistic quality is replaced by the soft comforts of pursuing nostalgia. If someone today holds onto a work of art for one year, it is almost miraculous. When the hunt is over the art loses its cache. Is the art less satisfying now? It’s no longer needed for aesthetic gratification. The pursuit and acquisition of art has replaced the supreme satisfaction of owning it and LOOKING AT IT! A quick profit and on to the next piece. A good scan will suffice, or a good xerox. The appeal of authenticity, the touch of the hand, the living applications of color, are being lost or, at the least, greatly compromised. The nature of art itself has become transformed. The Japanese had a phrase: That is a work of art one can die for. The meaning is that seeing that work of art is so completely satisfying that death would not seem wrong after seeing it. Today, that type of aesthetic intensity has been replaced by a quick museum walk-through and a few side-glances, or, perhaps, a completely mitigated experience replete with museum talking sticks spouting generic patter to the dutiful, wooden-eyed listeners. That type of environment does sicken me greatly. Critical thinking, cognitive attentiveness, and intense concentration become transformed. The great French philosopher, Etienne Gilson, has said that a human being can only appreciate one or, perhaps, two masterpieces in a given day. That level of concentration, contemplation and deliberation is long gone. And, of course, most modern art is not deserving of that time investment anyway. Frazetta is the exception here.


Back to our main point…big or little, sketch or finished oil, a masterpiece can be defined as the amount of pure authentic life is transferred to the viewer. If art can be considered a flow of soul from the depths of the artist’s imagination to the paper or canvas, then a masterpiece is present if that work is pure, not derivative, and sings with the powerful imaginative voice of the artist. It is an artist discovering perfection within himself and giving birth to that perfection in his studio. As another great French philosopher Jacques Maritain explains, an artist has a flash of creative intuition within him that generates the birth of art. Life is born and, at the same time, new beauty is given to the world. The world becomes enlarged by this. Human life has been touched, expanded, deepened, and transformed. Great art is fully transformative. Frazetta has done this on many occasions. He has achieved perfection. I have seen people cry once they entered the old Frazetta Museum. They were so immediately and profoundly touched, that their emotions were spontaneously unleashed. It is an amazing sight to see. I’ve seen it happen several times. Great art has a special “presence”. There is no other word that describes it better. Art engages us; its presence exerts a hold on us; it penetrates us and thoroughly enhances our lives. Thomas Aquinas describes it this way: “Actualitas rei est quoddam lumen ipsius. The actuality/reality of a thing is, in a way, its light.” Beautifully expressed is it not? The actuality, the very reality of something, is a light that reveals the world in its majesty and beauty and truth. Yes, it is mysterious. We are talking about a phenomenon that really does transcend language. Words are but one type of communication. Truth is transmitted by many different modes of communication, i.e. sculpture, poetry, music, etc. We are on the outside looking in, trying to express something that cannot be logically explained. Thank God for the mysteries around us. We must be sensitive to them, cherish them. They push us to a creative apprehension of life. We cannot lose that. If we lose the world, then we also lose our basic humanity, our magical souls. The great German poet Holderlin summarizes it quite succinctly:

“Poetically man dwells.”


©2011 Dr. Dave Winiewicz


20 comments:

  1. Sir,your text make me almost cry.In the spirit of your words i would like to recommend a book that i think everybody must read."Alexis Zorbas" by Nikos Kazantzakis.Thank you.

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  2. Yes, indeed! I will always remember the quote:
    "On a deaf man's door, you can knock forever!"

    Thank you.

    DAVE

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  3. Great post and image , had not seen it before .

    Odd Nerdrum said , " you are about to die , there is a Rembrandt and a Mondrian on the wall- which do you want to look at?" If there were a Rembrandt and a Frazetta on the wall and I was keeling over , I suspect i'd end up looking at Frazetta .

    Wish he would have painted out the animals as in Catwoman instead of the figure - that is one hell of a rough .

    Any chance you have a save of a rough of a barbarian on a beach facing down a tidal wave with tentacles coming out of the wave ?

    Best Al McLuckie

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  4. I found this to be your greatest essay penned by your goodself. You have managed to articulate what some practising artists feel (myself included) quite effortlessly. I do not have enough hands and fingers to count how many times I have seen people snap pictures of masterpieces instead of letting themselves be spellbound by their glory, I do confess to doing this myself, however only after I have digested a particular pieces genius. I have just returned from the Rijks museum in Amsterdam and I have to say I was surprised how many didn't take pictures - do the Dutch have a greater appreciation/understanding..i doubt it, just luck. I also take your point in that there is an almost unnatural blockage occurring with man and nature as video games, movies and technology in general evolve which I believe removes people from god given natural beauty. I believe art tools such as photoshop also to grow on the same branch as this subject - only my opinion. I'm a traditionalist to the end! Please keep 'the good stuff' coming

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  5. Thomas Aquinas' quote echoes McLuhan's (or, rather the other way around. McLuhan's quote, for all its profundity is a mere echo of the Aquinas quote).

    Dave, you have expressed the same unease that I have felt in a way that I could not. I am fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the world and all around I shake my head to see kids (and adults sometimes) with their phones ignoring the amazing vistas before them and only taking pictures of themselves.

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  6. Thanks Al!

    Yes, I'm working on getting an image of that Conan rough.

    DAVE

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  7. Yes, as artists turn to computer art production, then the death of traditional art is not far away. Computer coloring is something that I just can't warm to. The hand cannot be separated from DIRECT contact with the surfaces.

    DAVE

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  8. I live in the southwest and see that same phenomenon every day.

    Beauty has been sacrificed.

    DAVE

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  9. I concur with your thinking on this. I often go walking with a camera and watch for birds. It seems that I see the amazing sights out on my walks when I don't have the camera along. But this prompts me to think, "It doesn't matter that there is no photo of it. I saw it."

    I was also moved to wonder, was Frazetta killing something with the repaints? I enjoy some of the reworked art but something was lost for every gain. I am thinking specifically of Cat Girl. Recently a friend put up comparisons of the two pieces, and I noted that the sense that something (and what exactly it was is up for grabs) was about to happen was lost in the repaint. With every cat poised to move and with all the things Frazetta used to tie his original girl and the leopards together something drained away. Did this happen with other repaints as well?

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  10. Yes, the question of the repaints is a BIG topic. Some worked and some did not. I argued with Frank constantly over 25 years on this topic.

    DAVE

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  11. I still don't think Frazetta is the best of the best, but he IS among the best. There are too many artists who excel in different areas, and I enjoy all of them (same with music, films, etc.).

    As for myself, I don't take photos in museums or in natural panoramas, as there are already so many digital prints out there. Besides, the camera really can't record what a truly observant person sees firsthand. For example, the Royal Mile, the Great Mall, and the Castle in Edinburgh, Scotland are quite a fabulous vista which no photograph can adequately represent (unless perhaps it's the size of the silver screen). You simply have to see it yourself.

    I'm privileged to have been to the Frazetta museum in Stroudsburg, PA numerous times, and it's sad to think of that collection as slowly breaking apart in sales to private collectors.

    Alec S.

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  12. Was Frank listening to Billy the Kid, the Copland piece, when doing this?

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  13. Yes, the overture is called the Big Prairie. Very moody.

    DAVE

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  14. By the way, Dave, why is the Frazetta museum going to open in Texas? When I last spoke to Ellie, she said she and Frank wanted the core collection of 100 paintings to go into a museum in NYC after they had passed away, and sounded as if some arrangements had already been made. The sons are still in Pennsylvania, and the daughters are in Florida, so Texas was a surprise to me.

    Best,

    Alec

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  15. The director Robert Rodriguez has taken over the direction of the museum. Austin is his home base.

    DAVE

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  16. Seeing this great Frazetta rough at the top of your blog is truly inspirational. If I created one piece of artwork as powerful as that I might not die happy, but as an artist I would not die disappointed. All artists seek to make an impression and we're even somewhat content if WE are the only who sees it. The validity is deeply set in our consciousness. It's the reason we strive. If one other set of eyes responds it's like a good drug. Once hit with success this often becomes a rare thing. Comfort softens the edges and public and peer respect means we aren't as hungry as we once were. No one wants to be criticized all the time but it's nice to have people to convince of your relativity in the world. Once dead, it's done. We have to live through the body of our work or be utterly forgotten. I'm not successful. But I am middle aged and well fed. Such a bane...
    Anyway, this piece resonates deeply and in a primal way. The cover art painting hasn't survived, I know, and that's too bad. Some have fairly bashed the finished painting as something that never worked for them. Not me. It's among my favorites like the image used for Burroughs' Moon Men. Such coiled tension, explosive with it potential, Frank really had a way of bringing home as if we KNEW what was going to happen next.
    Anyway, seeing this made my day. I wish I could get a well scanned copy like the one used as the header. If that's at all possible please let me know. I'll cover the expenses of course.

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  17. Thanks for the response, Rick!

    As for a copy...the next time it's seen will be as the cover of a book. Mine, hopefully!

    DAVE

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  18. Came upon your blog today and read this post along with others. This particular post is particularly poignant to me and resonates in my perceptions both as a sculptor/artist and an educator. Beautifully said, and alas all too true.

    As an aside about 'repaints' or final versions vs. the original concept, I have to say that though I enjoy the all treasures of the Uffizi in Florence, the permanently-on-display paintings pale in comparison to the always rotating displays in the library of drawings/prints by the masters. I find the vitality and immediacy of the drawings far outshines the 'finished' works in the main galleries, and I try to share that with the students in the program. A few listen and see, but most of the students who are first-time visitors to the museum (perhaps naturally?) prefer the color, scale, and spectacle of those 'finished' works.

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  19. Thank you for the comments, Don. I have to agree. Most people gravitate to the finished works and neglect the wonder of that initial concept, that first surge of creativity.

    DAVE

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  20. Perhaps being an artist makes the sketches more powerful than the finished pieces or maybe it's getting that look behind the curtain. Frank's work certainly did not lack in vitality even in their finished versions, but for me getting to see the bones of the thing is very exciting but also relevant to the making of art. When we see the finished version we get to know very little about the process of creating the image. Even before I painted I had strange dreams about sepia under-paintings. Imagine how weird it was to see painters using that technique at the time I started to paint. Frank's pencil and color sketches shows those ideas as the explode from his brain on to paper. Refining them as paintings is great but also has a lot more thinking and sometimes over-thinking involved (I've ruined more than one piece of art by tinkering too long on it). Today more people, artists, laymen, whatever, have a real desire to see the ideas as well as the finished pieces even if we don't see the span that gets us to other side we get to see the start and the finish. That beats always seeing the finished goods.

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