Monday 21 November 2016

Fine Art vs COMIC ART

GUEST POST from my good friend David Jackson

"Tiger face" by Frank Bellamy

A previous post, "Frank Bellamy at Kettering Exhibition ended", includes a photograph of a word-balloon wall plaque inscribed 'Fine Art vs COMIC Art' and Norman's comment: "I enjoyed seeing the placement of oil paintings from the Alfred East collection alongside some comic covers, raising the perennial question of what is 'fine art'."

'Fine Art vs Comic Art'.  Result: it's a draw..!

Comics might have had the last laugh, in some cases all the way to the bank, or to a respectable art gallery, which can hold an exhibition of comics art without it being thought funny. But, within living memory, looking back over the not that distant past a very different picture emerges. At one time, Roy Lichtenstein notwithstanding [See David Barsalou's excellent site - Norman], it would be the exception for an art critic to express any appreciation for comics or illustration. It wasn't until I became aware of comics fandom that I even knew I wasn't in a minority of one.

Home Notes (27th July 1951)
"Impatient heart" by Judith Blaney - illustrated by FB

An arts programme piqued my interest a few years ago when commercial art of all types, even the printed versions, was finally, officially, brought in from the cold, as it were, and taken note of as a substantial sub-category of Art: 'Ephemera' - work which by definition is produced with no intention of being kept for posterity. Ephemera would also include highly regarded works from another age such as the Japanese woodblock prints of Hokusai and other masters which were originally sold as transient decorative pieces subject to fashion.

The Society of Strip Illustration was founded with the improvement of the standing of the profession as one of its objectives.The SSI Newsletter of May 1985 includes a quote sent in by me of Milton Schulman, then drama critic of The Standard, in conversation on Radio 4's 'Stop the Week':

"You've got an elitist approach to the art form.  You are basically saying there are certain things like the printed page which give people a more emotional and cultural thrill and impact than other things.  You start off with books and go to poetry, then you go to painting, then you go to opera and to ballet - descending, I'm saying - theatre ... telly ... comic strips". 

Just so we know where we stand...

Neal Adams himself has related how, when he was trying to break into the business, the comic book company men tried to 'save' him by not giving him a job - they wanted him not to waste his talent and to go into something more respectable..!

A young Barry Smith in turn found himself on the receiving end of unappreciative art advice - which he related in an interview but quoted here from memory - a life drawing class tutor noticed that Smith had added a helmet and spear, or suchlike, from his own imagination, and declared that it wasn't drawing, 'it's make-believe!'

Frank Bellamy's figure studies drawn from life models naturally seem, by definition, to belong in the category of fine art.
"Life Study" by Frank Bellamy

The 'set-up' scene, from imagination, reference or arranged props and models, particularly for decorative purposes, however, seems to be made into a contentious issue by not being a record of real life experience as it occurs, viewed directly and rendered on the spot.

In marked contrast, the depiction of imagined scenes never detracted from art establishment approval of favoured historical works of fine art.  There is a similar contradiction in the fine art establishment criticism which makes itself evident in dismissing the work of artists which is viewed as populist. David Shepherd, whose 'Wise Old Elephant' was an unexpected best-selling print on sale in Boots the Chemist, has had to contend with this. Jack Vettriano likewise and more so.  He was even criticised for the fact that his figures for 'The Singing Butler' were derived from the 'Illustrator's Figure Reference Manual'.  A volume also on other bookshelves (mine included) all this entire time without it ever occurring to anyone else to paint 'The Singing Butler' from it - had not Vettriano done so. Critics seem to have taken issue with his stylistic associations with early 20th century film noir posters and pulp covers.  Criticism seems to be that Vettriano's art 'is not contemporary art'.  How could it not be 'contemporary'?  He is painting it now!

Frank Bellamy would no doubt have seen the wry irony of Vettriano's great success and fortune, given Frank's stated lack of sympathy for this type of subject.

Fantasy Advertiser Vol.3 No.50 says:

FB:  I had a commission to do two love story illustrations for Home Notes, a women's magazine.  [...]  I was never cut out to do love strips for the IPC girls' paper.  I'd have a go, but I prefer something with a bit of meat and guts."

In Speakeasy #100 Nancy Bellamy said the same:

"When he first decided to go freelance after we moved down to London in 1949, or even before, he used to draw for Home Notes, and he hated those sort of girlie illustrations, static things which he hated drawing.  It wasn't his cup of tea at all, but he did them for the money.  He wanted to draw something with a bit of guts to it."

Frank Bellamy expressed a personal appreciation for the illustrator Norman Rockwell, and it is easy to see why. In contrast to the left-handed compliment by some fine art aficionado in response to viewing a Rockwell enthusiast's collection: "He sure is a hard worker."

FB collector Bob Monkhouse once gave a talk to a comic convention (engagingly as his real self rather than in his self-acknowledged 'TV persona') and described the reception of comic art by the UK general public as "Pearls before swine!"

This was the era in which Frank Bellamy worked.

But it was changing, even then, and Frank himself was at the forefront in changing it.

Sunday Times Magazine 5 October 1969
Artist posed by David Bellamy

To quote Frank Bellamy in Fantasy Advertiser (FA)   [compiled in this post from various sections of the interview]:

FB: This kind of work has been under-rated for many years.  Throwaway artwork to be looked at and immediately discarded.  This is a viewpoint I strongly disagree with.

FB:  I've always had a great regard for professionalism.  One of the best things that was ever said to me was when I was called a "professional's professional".  And this just underlines what I mean.  I'm a great believer in doing a professional job.

FA:  Surely, people are beginning to see that comic strips can do more than amuse, as can be seen from any of your strips in the Sunday Times Magazine...

FB:  Well, there were no adverse reactions to them ... no-one was turning round and saying, "Good God, what's this...comics strips in the Sunday Times Magazine?"

FB:  I've always liked using the the graphic approach instead of the ordinary comic strip way.  Almost a sort of pictorial journalism.  My work for the Sunday Times Magazine in particular was pictorial journalism.  I used this graphic technique for the juvenile market - though many of Eagle's readers were adults - because I've never believed in drawing down to the reader.  If I was drawing for a seven year old, I'd still be as conscious of what I was doing as if it was a cover for the Radio Times.
Radio Times 29 May 1971

In his BBC 'Edition' interview 30th November 1973 FB says:

"I wanted to bring out the page as a complete page, a spread as a complete spread, to make it a unit in its own right."

A discrete coherent original work of art.

The comic art form has always had more serious appreciation in France where it is acknowledged as "the ninth art". The graphic novel format in Japan found a wide general readership.

The experience of Frank's contemporary, Don Lawrence, contrasted working relatively unappreciated for comparatively unrewarding one-off final payments in this country, as compared with the creative rights, collected volumes of his work, an appreciative audience abroad, and the 2003 award of the Netherlands Knight of the Order of Orange-Nassau.

Possibly the indifference experienced here in Britain was related to the focus on primarily literary English, as opposed to the visual arts heritage; Shakespeare particularly.  Which is a bit of an oddity in itself, given that comic art - the graphic novel - is more of a 'theatrical play' on a page than a novel in type, as such, is.

'But is it art?'

"What is 'fine art'?" was the question, and it has a straightforward answer, which is: "'art for art's sake' rather than for commercial or functional use".  Self-expression.

Which would exclude Michelangelo to name but one.  The Sistine Chapel ceiling can be categorised as commercial illustration, albeit on a grand scale.  As someone once observed, the old masters and their vast commercially orientated studios would have all laughed themselves sick at the very idea of 'art for art's sake'.  As someone else [that's 10cc David - Norman] has put it: "Art for art's sake, money for God's sake."

It's arguable that it isn't a question of what art 'is'.

It's more a question of: 'do I want to look at it?'

The issue of what actually 'is' art was once illustrated by the following comparison.  A pile of bricks in a gallery is art and a pile of bricks in the gutter is just a pile of bricks but a Rembrandt which is lying in the gutter is still a work of art.

Oddly enough, and it is odd, the art world, claims its raison d'etre is being able to 'see past' the pile of bricks - or found objects, abstract colour, dribbles of paint, or whatever (or the material of which any work might be composed) - to perceive the genius of and in art itself.

And yet...

The fine art world for so long remained essentially unable to see past the fact of an original piece of comic art being commercially produced for a mass market juvenile readership.

It is a question of being able to see something which, literally uniquely, only one individual, was not only capable of producing, but it is something which we might have assumed to be beyond anything which any human being was capable of producing.

If the development over time of the unique Frank Bellamy 'look' came as a revelation to his fans it can only be imagined how much more so it came to Frank Bellamy.  His self-appointed task and motivation might well be imagined as answering the question: 'just how good can this be?'

It is self-expression at the service of professional purposes.

In the postscript to 'One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji', Hokusai writes:

"From the age of six, I had a passion for copying the form of things and since the age of fifty I have published many drawings, yet of all I drew by my seventieth year there is nothing worth taking in to account. At seventy-three years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants. And so, at eighty-six I shall progress further; at ninety I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning, and by one hundred I shall perhaps truly have reached the level of the marvellous and divine. When I am one hundred and ten, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own."  - "Gakyō Rōjin Manji" (The Old Man Mad About Art).

To borrow another unrelated quote from the web:

"There are two kinds of geniuses: the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘magicians’. An ordinary genius is a fellow whom you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they’ve done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it.  It is different with the magicians..."

The 1989 Speakeasy #104 Frank Humphris interview by Alan Woolcombe asked what he thought of the other Eagle artists' work, and he said of Frank Bellamy:

"His draughtsmanship was absolutely fantastic, far beyond the usual standard for cartoons and comics - in fact the word comic doesn't really apply."  

Eagle 13 Aug 1960 Vol.11:33 p.12

The above "Fraser of Africa" strip was reproduced in black & white in the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers Designers in Britain No.6. Many thanks David for such a much better expressed article than I could have done!  David suggested some illustrations to accompany the article. I've added one or two he may not have seen before as a thank you and also I thought I'd add to the debate by showing you the following.

Tim Barnes sent me this a long time ago. Now why is this fine art and the following an illustration to a story?

"A question of honour" by Henry Casson
from Boy'sWorld Annual 1965 pp116-117

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