Saturday, September 10, 2011

Frazetta: The Last Of His Kind

Rob Pistella sent me a link to a very interesting essay by Jesse Hamm concerning the early training of Frazetta and how this affected and molded his career. He is making the same point about Frazetta's incredible uniqueness, but he is doing it from a different perspective. I contacted Jesse and asked him if I could share his thoughts on my blog. He kindly agreed. Here is that essay:

And now, an exchange at BoingBoing:

Post #14: "As sad as this is, there is no end to the amount of amazing
artists alive and currently working in Frazetta's field of illustration.
To say that 'they sure don't make 'em like that anymore' is a pretty bold
insult to Frazetta's current colleagues."

Post #15: "They sure don't make 'em like that anymore."

Ah, internet snark.

Chuckles aside, it got me thinking. Do they make 'em like
that anymore? In regard to Frazetta's schooling, I'd say:
no, they don't.

Permit me a brief stroll through art history. During the Renaissance,
painters were taught through the apprentice system. A master would invite
a few young pupils to perform menial work in his studio in exchange for
personal tutelage, Mr. Miyagi-style. Once a pupil had achieved mastery,
he would form his own studio, and repeat the process. This training method
was very effective, but slow.

Eventually, the growing demand for painters gave rise to state-funded
academies, where schooling was standardized and "masters" were trained
en masse. This standardization quickened the training process at the
expense of artistic liberty. Building on all that came before, artistic
technique progressed to amazing heights, but with it grew the academies'
power to ensure conformity. (Think Disney.)

By the late 19th century, artists had begun to rebel against the academies'
strictures, and to splinter off into movements like Impressionism,
Expressionism, Fauvism, and so forth. Academic expertise was tossed out like
water from a poisoned well, and artists happily adopted primitive approaches which
lacked the rigor (and therefore the stench) of the academies. By the 1930s,
abstract and non-representational art were paramount; academic realism and
the training it required were a bad memory. Artists who had received and
embraced traditional academic training* were relegated to the periphery of
the fine art scene, where they catered to the elderly and parochial, or gave
lessons to hobbyists. And that is where we meet Frazetta's art teacher,
Michele Falanga.

Born in Italy in 1870, Falanga came of age in the late 1880s, at which
point he probably received the traditional academic education that was
still common for aspiring artists of the period. He eventually immigrated
to Brooklyn, where he set up a tiny art school, teaching locals of all
ages. There, around 1936, he enrolled 8-year-old Frank Frazetta.

Frazetta began in the traditional academic manner: drawing and painting
plaster casts of statues. According to academy protocol, students would
draw -- and later, paint -- statue after statue, for years ("Wax-on,
wax-off!"), before attempting to draw from a live model. This ensured a
mastery of tools, and how to accurately record shapes and the various
shadows which define them. These years of training granted the already-
talented Frazetta an exceptional grasp of light and form. (Here's an example
of such a drawing. Not by Frazetta, but he'd have done similar exercises.
For years.)

When he was 12, Frazetta progressed to the drawing of nude models.
However, instead of drawing them with the precision he brought to his
still lifes and statues, he was encouraged to take a highly gestural
approach. Falanga was unconcerned with bones and muscles per se; he
wanted his students to capture the models' movements and attitudes,
as expressed through posture and body language. Rapid, scribbly, sweeping
sketches, aimed at recording the spirit of the models' oft-changing poses,
refined the students' grasp of how a body moves and bends and struggles
against gravity. (This is probably where the stiffness of the academies
gave way to the healthier, more idiosyncratic mode of Renaissance
apprenticeship. Falanga's freeform approach to life drawing** spared
Frazetta from the rigid formalism of his artistic forebears. It's also
worth noting that Frazetta counted Segar as a major early influence.) This
phase of Frazetta's training continued for about two years.

At about this time, Falanga formed a plan: the teenaged Frazetta would be
sent to attend art school in Italy. What's curious about this plan is its
apparent redundancy. Wasn't New York a major center of the art world at
that time? Weren't there respected art schools in New York that Frazetta
could attend without leaving home, or struggling with an unfamiliar language?
Why send the boy so far? My guess is that Falanga knew what awaited
Frazetta in the New York art scene, and disdained it. Probably he had
rosy memories of the rigorous training he had received in Italy in the
1890s -- training which far excelled the self-indulgent scribblings he
saw in the American art world of the 1940s. He was a master of a
lost art, sending his star pupil to a far-off land to complete his training where
the master had himself been taught -- at the feet of some even-greater master.

Ironically, the schooling that (I'm guessing) Falanga remembered may have
disappeared from Italy, too, by the '40s. Either way, he wouldn't live to
find out; he died when Frazetta was 14 and too young to be sent abroad.
Falanga's influence was not in vain, however; he had poured the foundation
that would undergird his pupil's approach for the rest of Frazetta's life.
And when the student was ready, a new master did emerge: Hal Foster.

Foster was Frazetta's biggest "art hero." Though he eventually met the older
artist at least once, the lessons Frazetta took from Foster came indirectly: from
copying Foster's comic strips. But that was enough. The value studies and
life drawing Frazetta had practiced at Falanga's were ushered into maturity
under Foster's sublime influence. A fitting scenario, because among cartoonists
of the period, Foster was perhaps alone in having received traditional
academic training (or something like it). Foster was much older than
his adventure strip peers, and had enrolled at the Chicago Academy of fine
Arts in 1919 -- before non-representationalism would have taken hold.
I don't know how closely his school resembled Europe's 19th century
traditional academic model, but the work of fellow student Grant "American
Gothic" Wood suggests realism was still a priority there. In any case,
Foster favored the complex, balanced compositions and accurate drawing of
19th century masters, and unlike most of his fellow cartoonists, he used shadows
to define forms, rather than "wire-framing" their structures with lines.
This gave his work a solidity and a sun-baked glow that Frazetta, raised
on similar methods, could emulate more easily than others his age.

All of this gave Frazetta a massive advantage over his peers. Many were
unschooled in art, and even those who had attended art school would have
learned from teachers who themselves hadn't the benefit of traditional
academic training. By the '60s, anyone competing with Frazetta was essentially
pitting makeshift tools against a centuries-old mountain of tradition. His
paintings stand among theirs like Mad Max among the children of Thunderdome:
a witness to a culture that died before they were born.

Now, these are heavy claims for art whose spiritual kin is monster trucks
and skull-bongs. But Frazetta's lowly metier makes his popularity even more
impressive. After all, his appeal isn't limited to metal-heads and comics
geeks. Repeatedly, in the blogs that have appeared since his death, I see
this refrain:

"I grew out of this macho crap when I was 12, BUT...."


"...but even now, decades after I outgrew his subject matter,
I find it necessary to memorialize this man whose work still haunts me."

Bloggers who have absolutely no use for axe-wielding barbarians or their
big-breasted leg-candy are, for some reason, still awed by these paintings.

One might speculate that it's because the subject matter represents some
primitive archetype buried deep in these folks' brains. If that were true,
though, they would also add the reverent "BUT..." to their reminiscences
of He-Man, Willow, and Beastmaster. (They don't.)

I prefer to think that their rejection of Frazetta's subject matter is
wholehearted, and that their reluctant fascination with his work has a
simpler basis: Frazetta's pictures represent a tradition of advanced
artistry that has all but disappeared. Not merely accurate rendering
(which still thrives in the world of paperback covers, and which in much
of Frazetta's work is more interpretive than mimetic, anyway),
but a potent way of arranging colors, shapes, darks & lights,
precision & ambiguity, and body language that most of the
art world turned its back on a century ago.

In short, they just don't make 'em like that anymore.

Excerpted from:

All text is (c)2010 by Jesse Hamm


docdave said...

Tony Avacato writes:

Hope all is well. I just read your recent blog entry and felt compelled to respond in kind. The notion that a traditional art education is not readily available to the modern artist isn't accurate, nor is the assumption that such art produced under the rubric of the "classical academy" is no longer appreciated. While it's certainly not in vogue, due as much to the current technological tools available as to some fickle aesthetic, there is a thriving culture that respects such a tradition. I would suggest that even the Reilly School which produced most if not all of Fritz's contemporaries (Bama most notably) is, at least in intent, a part of that tradition. I've taken the liberty of attaching a link that I think will support my position. Also, as you alluded, Fritz was as much indebted to the popular culture of his time as he was to any classical influence, maybe even more so. What I find most troubling among contemporary artists is there lack of curiousity regarding not only said classical influences but the more recent illustrations of the past fifty years. There is definitely an attention-deficit malaise at work when it comes to many currently studying art, but I must strongly disagree with the assumption that the basic joy of creating and the complusion to do so in a fully-realized and well-executed manner died with Frazetta, or that some of those same sensibilities, encouraged in imagination, have atrophied to the point of irrelevance. Peace, Tony A.

John Ageeb said...

Pretty interesting read Dave.It would be hard for me to pick one quality of Frazettas that I think make his work so enduring.There are so many great things that contribute but even these probably wouldn't be as successful without the sheer artistry and knowledge behind them.That foundation is important.

Adrian Tysoe said...

It's a good article and there is some truth in it. There are still schools that teach in the traditional classic methods. Various atelier schools which take on a few individuals and train them in a similar way to how Falanga might have done with Frazetta.

There are also drawing courses by people like Gregg Vilppu that teach you to draw much like the old , starting with the gesture and capturing the action and rhythm of a pose as the foundation. Methods of old masters like Raphael, Michelangelo still sort of used today but mostly in animation than traditional fine art. Probably why Vilppu’s lectures and videos are still used at Disney.

But I do agree that the chances of another Frazetta leaping into the limelight are fairly slim. He arrived at a unique point in time and circumstances when all these different creative disciplines converged on him and he needed to grab those things and use them to their best advantage enabling him to become the great man he was.

Art college these days throw out most practical study outside of life drawing and encourage ideas which is all well and good but little actual instruction. The pressure on students to conform to modern ideas of what art is whilst comic art and illustration, especially fantasy being beat up on and being labeled kitsch, low brow art and quickly dismissed can be quite demoralizing to anyone who tries to go that route.

The other hurdle is that we already had Frank, and a whole industry has grown around fantasy making it hard to stand out as an original when your constantly drowning in other peoples imagery whenever you turn on the TV, step outside the door or go online.

rjpistella said...

Tony, I appreciate your comments. In fact I am friendly with Fred Ross who runs and has an incredible collection of master oils and drawings. I do think one should consider that Frank is the last POPULAR artist to embrace traditional fine art days of old, thousands would line up at museums to experience works by Bouguereau, Rosetti, et al... these artists were classical AND popular. So far 'classical academy' artists, while appreciated by some, fail to cross over to the masses as Frank did.

Jesse Hamm said...

David -- I'm pleased and honored that you're sharing my essay here on your blog.

In reply to Tony A: I think you overestimate the popularity of classical training, especially during the height of Frazetta's career in the '60s and '70s. Reilly was a (third-hand) heir to that approach, but I don't believe his classes produced anywhere near "most if not all" of Frazetta's contemporaries, and I'm afraid I don't see the relevance of the Bouguereau page you linked. (Bouguereau died in 1905, a year before Reilly was born.)

To be sure, Frazetta had plenty of peers who strove for realism, but few (if any) of them spent years on gesture drawing and cast drawing, so their work lacks the authentic light & shadow of 19th Century masters like Gerome, or the liveliness of Kley or other masters of gesture.

Classical training is on its way back, thanks in part to the efforts of folks like Fred Ross, and ateliers like that of Jeff Watts, but these recent developments are few and small compared to the art scene of the past century.