Al Hirschfeld

I promised you something lighthearted today, so how about the wonderful drawings of Al Hirschfeld?

OK, so maybe you’re familiar with Hirschfeld. Maybe you’re seen the documentary on his life and work, The Line King on PBS. Maybe you’ve seen his work in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Maybe you’ve seen the USPS postage stamps featuring his drawings of famous comedians, or, most likely, maybe you’ve just seen his wonderful caricatures of movie, TV and broadway stars, or rock, classical and jazz musicians in the pages of the New York Times and other publications. (Image at left, above, is Myrna Loy and William Powell, in their roles as Nora and Nick Charles, along with their dog, Asta, of course, from The Thin Man, one of my favorite movies from the 1930’s).

Maybe you’ve heard about Hirschfeld’s penchant for hiding “NINA”, his daughter’s name, in the lines of his drawings, often several times with a “hint” number penned next to his signature indicating how many times it was worked into that drawing. Maybe you’ve heard the (possibly true) rumor that the US Army would have their bomber pilots look for the hidden”NINA”s as part of their training to pick out hidden enemy targets during WW II.

OK, so maybe Hirschfeld is old hat to you, been there seen that, but my suggestion is to look again. Even though you’ve heard it before, just look at his lines.

Swooping, swirling and careening across the page like a crazed NY cabbie trying to make time through cross-town traffic, Hirschfeld’s lines look like they were drawn just to be as loopy and wild and zingy as possible, with no thought of actually doing anything. Yet, they define their targets with such succinct clarity that they could not possibly exist for any other purpose than to make those amazing faces.

And what faces they are; Hirschfeld’s caricatures stretch the limits of how exaggerated a likeness can be, but do so with an economy of line that would make a master of Chinese ink painting sit up and take notice.

Yes, notice his lines and then notice the space where the lines aren’t, the negative space defined by the lines and filled with the most eloquent and meaningful emptiness. So few lines, so much character, both in the character of the person, and the character of the line.

There is an “official” site at, managed by the gallery that represents his work in New York. The images quality is better, though on the New York Times archive. I list some other resources below. There are also a number of excellent and inexpensive collections of his work. Hirschfeld’s Hollywood: The Film Art of Al Hirschfeld, Hirschfeld’s New York and Hirschfeld , as well as Hirschfeld On Line and an interview in The Comics Journal Special Edition: Winter 2004: Four Generations of Cartoonists (along with Jules Feiffer, Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware).

OK, so you think you know Hirschfeld, but have you seen his non-caricature straightforward drawings, such as his Gibson-like portrait (image at left, bottom) of 1920’s Vaudville and film star Betty Compson? No? How about his etchings of his travels in North Africa, his watercolors of Bali, or his illustrations in watercolor and gouache? No? Didn’t think so. Neither had I until just recently.

There’s only a smattering of them around, but you can see some of them in an online exhibit on the Library of Congress site. This 2002 exhibit is based on a gift of original drawings given to the Library on its bicentennial. It shows something of Hirschfeld’s other sides as an artist, as well as some of the development of his elegant, and eloquent, lines.


Dino Valls

Dino Valls
I’ll start by suggesting that the paintings of Spanish painter Dino Valls are not for the faint of heart or easily offended; and I’ll be back tomorrow with something more lighthearted if you care to return then.

Though they contain little in the way of outright violence, and may seem mild in a culture inured to slasher films and gore-soaked video games, Vall’s paintings are overflowing with disturbing suggestions of pain, isolation, physical discomfort and psychological distress (I’ve chosen one of the most innocuous to display here).

For example, in his painting Martyr, the bust of a young woman appears to be a true bust, stopping below the shoulders where it apparently sits on a red cloth surface. A pair of hands casually rest on the surface in front of her. There is no blood or indication of violence, yet the hands can only be hers if they are separate parts. She has a halo behind her head, medieval style, in the form of a circular saw blade.

I don’t profess to understand the conceptual basis for Valls’ painting, which is obviously some kind of statement about the dark side of the human condition, nor do I find his images appealing in terms of what they portray. I can’t help but respond, however, to the the extraordinary level of skill with which they are painted.

The subjects of his paintings, usually young women, occasionally young men, are portrayed with an uncanny immediacy that makes their presence in his disturbing imagery even more emotionally resounding.

Valls’ paintings are painstakingly crafted with the application of layers of tempera over which he lays transparent oil glazes. His technique is steeped in the traditions of old master Dutch and Italian painting, which he has studied extensively.

Vall’s also has a thorough knowledge of human anatomy. He trained as a medical doctor and surgeon before turning to painting full time. You can see the influence of his medical training in his subjects as well. There are often portrayals of cold, vaguely threatening medical instruments, young men and women being poked an prodded by the hands of unseen manipulators, measured with calipers, or even dissected. In his painting Noxa, a red shroud is pulled open with medical clamps, as if a surgical opening in a body, through which one of Valls’ rosy young faces peers while being lighty poked by a photograph, also held in a surgical tool.

The common theme I take away from his work is the treatment of people, and their parts, as objects. Body parts, arms, legs, hands, heads, are treated as parts, as if pieces of department store dummies or sculptural casts, but painted as very much living flesh. These suggestions are mixed with medical imagery, religious iconography, references to medieval and Renaissance painting and an undercurrent of sexuality, though the latter seems more intended to disturb than to arouse.

His young subjects are often represented as if their bodies are intersecting with objects, one another, or with stone floors. Bodies intersect with themselves in siamese twin fashion, or as in some unfortunate accident of space and time in which they are merging or being separated.

Through it all, the expressions on the beautifully, almost lovingly painted faces are not indicative of torture, but at most appear vaguely disturbed, as if recently scolded or informed that they have been assigned an onerous task. In fact, it is his faces that are sensual, where his portrayal of nude figures is actually less so and feels (to me at least) clinical.

His faces, particularly those of young women, are painted with extraordinary finesse and uncanny attention to intimate details, like small creases of skin near the eyes, delicate indications of freckles and moles, and the presence of extra blood vessels near the surface of the skin expressed as rosy cheeks and ends of noses, accented by pale skin elsewhere, as if trying to emphasize that they are very much alive in contrast to the way they are portrayed as objects and parts in the paintings.

According to some of the critical essays quoted on his site, Valls does not paint from live models or even photographs, but invents his figures; which I find remarkable because he manages to paint his figures, and particularly faces, with a kind of immediacy and tactile vibrancy that makes them emotionally visceral.

There are a few of his paintings for which I do like the subject matter as well as the technique, showing rooms in which the perspective and geometry of space are distorted, but for the most part, his images are haunting and disconcerting, but powerfully painted.

Note: the site linked here contains images of nudity, suggestions of sexuality and violence and is Not Safe For Work. Avoid it if you’re likely to be offended.

Dan McCarthy

Dan McCarthy
The “About Me” section of Dan McCarthy’s web site simply has three photos of him pulling screen prints, a photo of a dog (presumably his), and the unhelpful legend, “more soonish..”.

Not very informative, but the prints are pretty much the story. Though there are sections of posters, paintings and even T-shirts on the site, they all seem to carry the flavor of his prints.

The prints themselves are very graphic, beautifully designed and often carry themes of trees against the night sky and, a subject I’m always keen on, dinosaurs, particularly as portrayed in the form of their skeletal remains. The one above, for example, is a 4 color screen print on 100lb Stonehenge printmaking paper (a wonderfully textured paper that I like as a drawing paper for chalk and conté). Oddly, McCarthy doesn’t indicate the size of the edition on the pages that describe the individual prints, but some of them are listed a sold out, so I presume the runs are reasonable numbers (I don’t know the limits of current screen printing materials).

Check out this fascinating print (unfortunately sold out) that is essentially a short graphic story, the biography of a carbon atom.

His posters share some of the same themes, notably skeletal winter trees and skeletal paleo images. Even his paintings are very graphic and share the same thematic direction.

His drawings are a bit different, but I’m particularly fond of them. They remind me very much of drawings I used to make when I was younger, of telephone wires, poles and transformers. (I was just fascinated with the idea of lines drawn across the sky.) Mine were just sketches, though. McCarthy’s are more fully realized silhouette drawings, carefully composed and strongly designed.

McCarthy’s “news” page does seem to have a recent update, and lists newly added prints, so maybe the “more soonish..” promise will be realized with more images and a bit of background about this fascinating artist. Until then we’ll have to extrapolate, like paleontologists, from the bones we can find.

Link via Paleoblog and Drawn!

Evelyn Pickering De Morgan

Evelyn Pickering De MorganEvelyn Pickering knew at a very early age that she wanted to be an artist.

At a point in the mid-19th Century when it was possible, but still not entirely acceptable, for women to do so, she convinced her parents to allow her to attend art school. She enrolled at the Slade School of Art in London, which had only been established two years earlier in 1871. The school’s principal was Sir John Edward Poynter, and the young Pickering was trained in his classical style.

She was also influenced greatly by her uncle, Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Her visits to him in Florence exposed her to Sandro Botticelli and his contemporaries, and she would show that influence through her career (as you can see in her depiction of Flora).

She gradually moved away from classicism and into the allegorical style that would put her in the retro-avant-garde milieu of the Pre-Raphaelites. She was one of the first exhibitors at the Grosvenor Gallery, along with Edward Byrne-Jones, George Frederick Watts and Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema. Like Marie Spartelli Stillman, she became a follower Byrne-Jones, who was one of the major figures of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and was also deeply influenced by the work of Botticelli.

When she was 32, Pickering married ceramicist William De Morgan. They became involved not only in art but social issues of the day including women’s suffrage, prison reform, pacifism and spiritualism (hey, just a couple of crazy hippies from the 1800’s). There is a De Morgan Centre in London, dedicated to the study of 19th Century art and society, built around their lives and work.

Her paintings share the Pre-Raphaelite characteristics of a refined, richly detailed style in the portrayal of literary and allegorical subjects. The image shown here, Queen Elanor and Fair Rosamund, portrays a colorful legend, contradicted by the real histories, of Henry II’s queen finding her way, by use of a spool of thread, through a maze constructed by the King to protect his mistress, in order to kill her.


Claude Lorrain

Claude Lorrain
Landscape has always had a place in Western art, but it wasn’t until the 17th Century that it came to the foreground, so to speak.

French master Claude Lorrain is one of history’s great landscape painters. His name was actually Claude Gellée. He is better know by Lorrain, from Lorraine, the region of his birth, and is often simply called “Claude” (like “Elvis”),

He essentially created the concept of the “classical landscape”, a form that was to dominate landscape painting for over 200 years. Based on the Roman Compagna, the low-lying countryside around Rome, that was essentially littered with the ruins of classical structures at the time, classical landscapes are views that often contain elements of the architecture of antiquity and an attempt to present nature in an idealized way.

Lorrain really loved the actual study of nature, however, as revealed by his numerous detailed drawings and studies done from life, a practice uncommon until then. In both his paintings and ink and wash drawings, Lorrain is not only painting landscape but space, and the way both form and space are defined by light.

His earliest known work Landscape with Cattle and Peasants, is in the Johnson Collection here in Philadelphia in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

To allow for the expectations of patrons at the time, Claude would soon populate his canvasses with gods and mythical events, but the figures were small in relation to their surroundings and you could tell it was really the landscape itself that was the focus of his interest.

Lorrain’s figures are almost like decorations for the landscape, in a reversal of the traditional role of landscape as a background for figures, as in the image above, Landscape with dancing Figures, sometimes called The Mill (large version here, detail here), of which he did two versions, the other being called Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebekah (large version here).

In fact there has been some suggestion that he would hire out the work of painting in the people in some of his paintings to other artists. The story goes that he would tell patrons he was selling them the landscape, and the figures were thrown in for free.

Lorrain became so popular, and his work so much in demand, that copies and forgeries of his paintings became a problem. In response, he created a remarkable book called Liber Veritatis (Book of Truth) containing almost 200 drawings, copies he made of his own works, catalogued by date and annotated with the name of the patron and the place where the painting was to hang, copies of which were circulated through the major art buying centers of Europe (and here you thought the whole copy protection thing was something new).

Lorrain was influential on generations of landscape painters, including greats like JMW Turner.

For those who live in the northeast of the U.S. there is an exhibition called Claude Lorrain: The Painter as Draftsman at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts, which runs from now until April 29, 2007. It then is supposed to move to the National Gallery in D.C. for a run from May 27 to August 12, 2007, but I can’t find a listing for it on the NGA site.

Although the exhibition features 13 of his remarkable oil paintings, it is the 90 drawings, many of them pulled form the great collection of the British Museum, that most interest me. These, to me, are Lorrain at his finest and most personal. Like Rembrandt, Lorrain loved nothing more than to immerse himself in the beauty of nature by drawing from life.

Link via Art Knowledge News

Forget the film, watch the titles

Forget the Film Watch the TitlesWhat a great idea this is. The Submarine Channel, a web based launching point for independent film and multimedia producers, has started a new feature called Forget the film, watch the titles.

This is the start of an ongoing collection of animated film titles, featuring examples of both opening and closing film credits divided into sub-genres like Animation (meaning animated characters), Motion Graphics (animated graphic design), 3-D (animated 3-D computer graphics) and Mixed (title sequences that use multimedia or mix the previous techniques).

Film titles are an art in themselves, usually done by a different creative team than that of the main movie, and often much better than the movie itself. (A case in point are Jamie Caliri’s wonderful closing titles to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which are unfortunately not part of this collection.)

Don’t be disappointed, as I was initially, that Forget the Film Watch the Titles. is not yet a huge compendium in which you can look up your favorite title sequences and classics like the Saul Bass gems. The project is just in its infancy, and the collection is small (maybe 20 or so in all at the moment). It’s an ongoing project and it’s going to take a while because they’re trying to do this by the book and secure permission to display the title sequences, a laborious process to say the least.

Think of it like a new blog, just starting, but promising and fun to check in periodically to see what’s new and watch the collection progressing. There are enough titles here for you to get a feeling for what they’re doing, and they do have some good ones (images at left, top to bottom: Nanny McPhee, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Made in Yu, Moog).

Link via Cold Hard Flash