A Mixed Salad

Front Cover (published by Quirk Books, a very appropriate name)

It took decades for Disney to bring Destino, Salvador Dali’s Surrealist screenplay, to animated life (I blogged about it here) but for movie buffs the unHoly Grail of Dali’s film work has to be Giraffes on Horseback Salad, a treatment Dali worked on as a starring vehicle for Harpo Marx. The seemingly anarchic, gleefully rambunctious Marxes seemed like a perfect fit for Surrealism; both the brothers and Dali were arguably at their creative peaks in the 1930s, when Giraffes first took what little shape it had. But were they really a good match? Could they be? Let’s see one possibility…

Dali and Harpo, the latter playing the Surrealist harp Dali had made.
The strings are barbed wire, so Harpo bandaged his fingers for the right effect

We have only notes and sketches showing what Dali envisioned; whether there ever was a complete script is not clear. A young man, Jimmy, is living a frenetic life of work and idle pleasure, but he is drawn into the mysterious presence of the Surrealist Woman, who transforms life around her but is herself enigmatic and vaguely defined. Groucho, Harpo, and Chico are her assistants, who are not always helpful, but they provide the personality the Surrealist Woman lacks. Jimmy’s life is thrown into chaos, with profound consequences for him.

As the notes progressed, Dali moved Harpo from a sidekick role to center stage: Harpo would be Jimmy, with his usual personality manifesting itself very rarely, as a new personality that is revealed in Jimmy through his experience with the Surrealist Woman. Clearly, this is a terrible idea. Harpo’s silence was integral to his persona; to change him into a bland, shallow romantic lead would have sunk the film from the start. It would keep Harpo at center stage, as Dali intended, but to what end?

A double-page spread; artist Manuela Pertega recreates Dali’s “The Lips of Mae West” (1934-35) on the right-hand page
Dali’s original. Copyright the Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation

Writer Josh Frank has been a Marx Brothers fan since childhood; this book is his own what-if: an expansion and completion of Dali’s unfinished idea. Frank began by imaging that Irving Thalberg, the brilliant MGM producer whose death in 1936 at only 37 years old, did not die. Thalberg had carefully cultivated the Marx Brothers at MGM, taking their frenetic humor and meeting a more traditional movie musical halfway; no one else would take such care with the Marxes after that. Frank makes a logical assumption, namely that Thalberg would insist on songs in the film, and provides some pretty credible lyrics. He teamed up with comedian and writer Tim Heidecker, who worked to give detail to Dali’s often-allusive and elusive notes. They found a Spanish artist, Manuela Pertega, to render the script into graphic novel form.

You might say this is not what Dali and Harpo intended, and you’re likely correct, but Hollywood usually did that. I once described the MGM approach as “pin the story to the wall and throw writers at it.” This is not the film that would have come out, but that’s all right. It is surprisingly filmable, even by the standards of the time; today, with CGI, there’s nothing here to make a special effects company break a sweat. There is also nothing as daring as Dali and Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), which remains the definitive Surrealist film. Frank and Heidecker attempt to keep Groucho and Chico in their usual characters, though too many of the jokes feel like retreads of familiar Marx material. Harpo, as I noted, was not so lucky.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the book, and its brief glimpse into an alternate world. Consider it a work of fantasy, a pastiche (which it certainly is) and even a spoof. Anyone can write a Marx Brothers movie, but it takes just the right mind – which Dali did not have – to write a great one.

It’s a good question whether Surrealism could be put on film today. Though we have the technical skill, the mindset has changed; codes of morality and cultural assumptions have been rewritten extensively in the passing decades, and humor has changed with them. We love the Marxes because their humor was unique. A survey of other madcap comedies of the period, such as W. C. Fields’ “Million Dollar Legs” (1932) or Wheeler & Woolsey’s “Diplomaniacs” (1933) will bring a lot of laughs, and a deepened appreciation of the Marxes and their writers. Had MGM gone with Giraffes in some form, it would likely not be this one, and that’s okay.

Endurance

The President’s House, watercolor, 1814-15, by George Munger (1781–1825). Munger’s most famous works are of the damage to the White House and the Capitol during the War of 1812. I chose this image as the one of the burnt Capitol felt a little too near the mark.

I thought it might be a good time to remember that our country is not just objects; beliefs are more valuable than things. While all art will cease to be, through entropy, disaster, or human action, what must be protected is the ideas that make life worthwhile and civilization possible. Complacency leads to vulnerability. The long-overdue – almost fatally overdue – resistance to neo-fascism is a welcome development. It took the defiling of a national symbol to tip the scales, which is to our shame, but here it is and here it will continue.

Burning buildings are rarely the symbol of victory people take them for.

My Eyes Are Up Here

A “lover’s eye” from the Skier Collection, Birmingham, AL, photo by M. Sean Pathasema

After moving cross country – not for the first time – I find myself in western Massachusetts, reveling in the snowy weather I remember from my New England childhood. It is cold, bright with the unique white light that comes from sunlight reflecting off snow, and suffused with Christmas spirit. I am working in retail for now, to rebuild our finances after the move, and it allows me the uneasy privilege of being regularly among a lot of people. Not the best thing, these days – I am at high risk, and “essential” as a result – but for someone interested in human nature I suppose I am fortunate.

In watching people mingle and shop, a recurring moment caught my eye. Two people, intent on their lists and purchases, pass by when a flash of recognition lights one face. “I didn’t recognize you with the mask!” says one, and a conversation erupts. I’ve seen people stand for 10 minutes, quietly joyful to talk to someone outside the four walls of their lockdown. But I have to wonder: what is it about masks that makes people unrecognizable?

Bela Lugosi as Dr. Zorka in The Phantom Creeps (Universal, 1939)

There is a trope found in several serials made by Universal Pictures in the 1930s-40s, in which a character is rendered unrecognizable by shaving their beard. A mask can be a similar, but more easily observed, disguise. It is almost as though people do not look at the eyes in order to recognize a face.

Yes, the obvious conclusion is that people are often so caught up in their own affairs to pay attention, and have no training in looking closely – “You see but you do not observe” as Sherlock Holmes put it in A Scandal in Bohemia (1891) – but I wonder if there is something more. People spend so much of their lives with eyes downcast, especially in this age of cell phones, that the recognition of another in eye contact comes as a surprise. “Only connect,” E. M. Forster’s famous phrase (from Howard’s End, 1910) might be rewritten as “Only observe.” Eye contact can be the prelude to intimacy on many levels; there are many variants of “the eyes are the windows of the soul” going back to the Gospel of Matthew and likely before. “Lover’s eyes,” such as the one shown at top, were tokens to remind someone of their beloved, a memento of connection. The Universal Pictures cliche both acknowledges the absent way most people look at others, while misunderstanding the primary focal point of the human face.

M. C. Escher, Eye, 1946

The eye has been thought of as more than a portal, but a recorder: the myth that the eye retains the image of the last thing it sees was once thought of as fact, and was studied by scientists and included in crime fiction. As a chronically shy person, I understand the impact of eye contact. It is central to establishing connection; as a part of foreplay, it is the first contact made. Now that we are limited in many ways we must value that connection more than ever. Seeing someone on a screen is not the same thing.

Stupid Museum Tricks, continued…

From time to time I have commented on examples of poor museum governance/management. It seems that this will be an ongoing series, as people in positions of power at museums often have little idea how to do their jobs. Can I provide examples of that? Read on…

The Everson Museum in Syracuse, NY, has deaccessioned a notable Jackson Pollock painting, Red Composition, from 1946 (above), an early example of Pollock’s mature drip works. The museum’s intent is to use the money to diversify its holdings, purchasing works by women and people of color. So, brownie points to the museum for good intentions, rather than selling works to offset financial deficits.

But there are two questions, one currently unanswerable, to consider. First, was there not a better way to raise funds for new acquisitions that did not involve selling off work from the collection? It’s not like the Everson had spare Pollocks lying around, or that they will never want a Pollock for an exhibit ever again. To this, the answer is an undoubted yes, there are better ways.

At the core of a museum’s operation is the Board of Trustees. They are the ones who are responsible for the institutions financial health. When deficits threaten, they are the ones who are supposed to step up and give more. It is their duty to hire a Director and curators who will advance the museum’s educational agendas and grow the collection. Selling a painting is a cheap work-around; a responsible Board would have set up a fund and endowed it themselves.

The second, as yet unanswerable question: how do you buy new art knowing that you are trying to replace an irreplaceable work? Will someone be able to look at a gallery full of work (the Everson got $12 million for the Pollock, which was the low end of the $12-18 million estimate) and say, “Yeah, it was worth selling a Pollock to get this”? And if the answer is No, what then?

Brice Marden, 3, 1987-88

The questions above have been at least postponed in the case of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s sale of three paintings, by Brice Marden, Clyfford Still and Andy Warhol, was stopped after strong criticism. As with the Everson sale, the money was intended to be used to purchase other works and diversify the museum’s collection. Once again, the best intentions do not justify bad procedures. At least this time, after promised donations were withdrawn, Trustees (and artists) Amy Sherral and Adam Pendleton resigned, and discussions with the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), the sale has been delayed. I hope they abandon the sale completely and formulate other plans, though I doubt it. The museum’s statement on the postponement includes this: ““Our vision and our goals have not changed. It will take us longer to achieve them, but we will do so through all means at our disposal. That is our mission and we stand behind it.” If the goal(s) are all about diversification, well and good; if the sale itself if one of the goals, not so good.

Too often Museum authorities look to easy ways out. The Covid-19 pandemic, often cited as justification for ethically questionable decisions, does not explain anything. There are examples of this kind of poor judgement going back well before the pandemic. Trustees view their positions as a feather in the cap, not a burden to be carried. It is the former, but also the latter. Stop taking collections apart to build new ones. You can’t make a better future by dismantling the past.

Philip Guston Not Now [updated]

Let’s start with this Reginald Marsh cartoon from The New Yorker in 1934. Look at the drawing and see if you can figure out what’s going on – don’t look at the caption. Then read it. Once you know what’s happening, the crowds faces become sinister – that man in the center smiling! – and the whole thing is disturbing as hell.

Art and politics are inexorably intertwined, because politics is part of life. (I’ve written about this here.) The idea that political issues are somehow sensitive is largely a lie. That is why it is particularly egregious that The Tate Gallery, London, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, have elected to postpone a show of Philip Guston’s work, to be titled Philip Guston Now, for four years. The show, originally due to open this year, was delayed once due to Covid-19; that was understandable. This second delay, according to the press release, given time “until a time we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the centre of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.”

This is nonsense, and an insult to all the educators at the four museums, whose job it is to interpret and explain the themes and concepts in each show to the public. I’m skimming through the press releases as I write, but I assume (hope) that a catalog of the show is to be published [UPDATE: there is]; in which case these issues have already been at least touched upon by the author(s). In other words, the work has been started long before, and does not need years more interpretation.

Philip Guston, Riding Around, 1969

Philip Guston (1913-1980) was… and here I am trying to avoid hyperbole or artspeak. Unique? Distinctive? He was a talented abstract painter who, in the late 1960s, abandoned abstraction for a broadly cartoony style rich in social commentary. Richard Nixon and the Ku Klux Klan were regular targets for his work, which drew inspiration from the comics he loved, especially the graphic genius of George Herriman. (Heck, any excuse to slip a Krazy Kat strip into this blog…)

George Herriman, unfinished Krazy Kat strips, 1944

There is no need to wonder at why this show was delayed: the reason is fear. Fear of political reprisals (the National Gallery and the Tate are government-owned institutions) and memories of earlier “culture wars” in which museums bore the brunt of conservative attempts to control what is taught. Guston’s politics are clear, making him an easy target for white nationalist apologia and demagoguery. Right-win anger over the removal of Confederate monuments could be channeled against museums that show such obviously liberal art. At least, that is what I think they are thinking. No museum would come out and say that, so they resort to dancing around the subject, and make themselves look bad.

Philip Guston, San Clemente, 1970

It seems unlikely, after such a public humiliation, but the directors of these four museums should reverse this decision, and open Philip Guston Now as soon as possible. The huge logistical challenges posed by delaying a show – will all the loaned works be available in four years? Will the extra expense render the show too costly? – lead toward the worst-case scenario of the show’s total cancellation. There’s no need to delay this exhibit; indeed, our fractious sociopolitical climate makes Guston more important, his work more relevant, than it has been in years. Now is the time for Guston. My chief regret is that he’s not alive to chronicle today’s world. The last thing we need from art museums today is cowardice.

Lastly, a statement from Musa Mayer, Philip Guston’s daughter:

UPDATE: The show has been re-rescheduled, moving its opening closer to the pre-reschedule dates. The tour:

Tate Modern, London, February 4 – May 31, 2021
National Gallery of Art, Washington, July 3 – October 3, 2021
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, November 7, 2021 – February 6, 2022
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, March 6 – May 30, 2022

R.I.P. Ron Cobb

Ron Cobb (1937-2020) gave shape to the present and the future. Even if you’ve never heard of him, you’ve seen his work. His cartoons from the 1960s are eerily prescient, describing not only the times but today; I’ve argued that we are in many ways reliving the 60s, and Cobb reinforces that argument.

Ron Cobb, 1966

Before I knew who Cobb was I saw his work on Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 album, After Bathing At Baxter’s, the band’s most daring and experimental work. The colorful, San Francisco-inspired plane stands out against an otherwise black-and-white landscape, evoking a hippie mix of something from Wacky Races (1966) mixed with a Rowland Emett cartoon and a dollop of illicit drugs:

Cobb’s art for After Bathing At Baxter’s

You know his future from the films he worked on. The cantina scene in Star Wars (1977) has long been a favorite with fans, and Cobb helped bring life to its alien inhabitants. The look of the Nostromo in Alien (1979) was in part a Cobb design. The DeLorean in Back to the Future (1985) also benefitted from Cobb’s touch.

Cantina creature, from Star Wars
Spaceship design for Alien

Cobb was able to retire after Steven Spielberg gave him a small percentage of the profits of E.T. (1982). Most Hollywood films don’t turn a profit, thanks to creative accounting, but E.T. was a blockbuster.

I wish I had more to say about Cobb, but his work explains itself. All I can add is emotion. How many ways has my imagination been shaped by Cobb designs, or by second-generation designs inspired by Cobb? I can’t count them. “Don’t try to touch me with words,” said the Airplane in “Young Girl Sunday Blues,” off After Bathing At Baxters. Writing about art is like touching with words: frustrating, at times revealing, adequate and inadequate simultaneously. Ron Cobb suffered from dementia in his final years, which robbed him of the awareness of his own greatness. We who survive him will remember for him, and treasure his impact.

I don’t know what will happen to his website, but for now it can still be found here. There ought to be a retrospective exhibit/book – perhaps something for George Lucas’s museum to tackle, or the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Union

Another shot of the author awkwardly posing at Meow Wolf

It seems a lifetime ago that I reviewed Meow Wolf Santa Fe, though it was February of this year, and through the pandemic haze news has trickled of their next installations, slowed or paused by Covid-19. I was, and am, enthusiastic within limits; Meow Wolf is a good idea, decently executed. For a first try it is quite the success, and I’m not just speaking financially.

But today I am writing to support the Meow Wolf Worker’s Collective, as they seek to unionize Meow Wolf’s employees. It’s been almost 2 years since I voiced my support for the New Museum’s unionization efforts, and since then there has been a heartening groundswell in such efforts at newspapers, magazines, museums, and elsewhere. Unofficial word that Meow Wolf’s management is unenthused about these efforts is disappointing. Artists are often preyed upon or misused at a business level; what other field does “exposure” appear as a substitute for pay?

A mural in the hallway by the restrooms at Meow Wolf Santa Fe.

I have asked my name be added to the Collective’s letter of support, wherein the public can stand with the union’s efforts. I suggest you do the same.

While I’m here, I also suggest you look at The New Yorker Union’s site, which is stylish and does a good job of explaining their demands.

Hero Pulps

While writing a science fiction mystery story recently, I hit a spell of writer’s block. I felt myself inadequate to the task of setting a mystery in an unusual context. To correct that I set out to read a variety of hero pulps, magazines in which the lead novel is always about the same character. Hero pulps really took off in the 1930s, and some lasted as long as twenty years, but their impact on pop culture continues to this day. After sampling some of the most prominent, I thought I’d share brief impressions of them. This is a random selection of issues, often chosen by availability; I make no claim toward any being “typical” or “classic.” Even the worst was enjoyable.

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The Spider, August 1934

The Spider (1933-1943)

So! many! exclamation! points! If ever the phrase ‘breathless prose” fit a magazine then this is it. Millionaire playboy Richard Wentworth fights crime not only in his Spider guise, but in various other getups as well, and he seems to have an easy time of it, despite gunplay and so! much! hyperbole!
The plot of the issue I read, “Prince of the Red Looters” was inconsequential. There were bad guys. The Spider defeated them. Characterization, humor, were all for more expensive magazines. The prose, as indicated above, was workmanlike but overblown. Subtleties like character were left for more subtle outlets, like comic strips (okay, that’s an exaggeration, but not much of one)
Written by many hands over the years, most often under the pseudonym Grant Stockbridge (often Norvell Page was the hand behind the pen) it managed to last ten years, fading out .
The Spider was immortalized (if that’s the word) in two Columbia movie serials in 1938 (The Spider’s Web) and 1941 (The Spider Returns). Columbia was one of the cheapest serial producers, and their formulaic methods and low budgets show all too well. Warren Hull, known largely for his radio work, was pleasant enough, though his portrayal is identical to his other performances – for example, his Mandrake the Magician, a Columbia serial from 1939. Later paperback reprints have kept the Spider’s fandom alive, though I really don’t see why. Perhaps I read a dud.

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A reprint of The Phantom Detective, February 1935

The Phantom Detective (1933-1953)

The Phantom Detective is another millionaire playboy (is it coincidence that the Great Depression breeds a generation of wealthy crime-fighters?), this time Richard Curtis van Loan. The weakness of the plot in “The House of Murders” (a family inheritance is at stake) undermines the story, as well as the Phantom Detective’s limited use of actual detective methods. He just seems to know things, or plot elements fall into his lap. Unlike the other pulp heroes here, the Phantom Detective never made it to the movies.
The cover to this and The Spider are both typical pulp: a woman in peril, the hero either present or observing.

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The Shadow, November 1932

The Shadow (1931-1949)

“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows…” Thanks to radio and the movies, the Shadow has had a life well beyond that of his titular magazine. In fact, The Shadow began as a radio character, narrating mystery stories on Detective Story Hour (1930), and grew into his own magazine and eponymous radio series, a movie serial (another Columbia cheapie, though better than some of theirs), and a number of almost-forgotten feature films from the 1930s-40s.. The Alec Baldwin movie (1994) was not much of a success, though rumors continue to swirl about a new feature film.
Lamont Cranston is the Shadow’s true identity in movies, though in the magazine he is actually Kent Allard, and only sometimes impersonates wealthy playboy Cranston. The radio show gave him a love interest, Margo Lane, though her role is often more victim than paramour. The Shadow has some associates, but their roles are limited. On radio, the Shadow’s ability to cloud men’s minds allows him to become invisible; in the magazine, he skulks about, but cannot disappear. On the whole, it’s better (given a choice) to be the radio Shadow.
In The Five Chameleons, a group of criminals seek to gain a large sum of money by manipulating the banking industry in a couple of modest-sized towns. Some gunplay is added to keep it from being too dry. The Shadow must investigate when an innocent young man is framed for a killing connected with the plot. If my description is longer than the first two magazines, it’s because this story is actually memorable, when the Spider and the Phantom Detective novels were not.
There is a chapter wherein the Shadow sits in his bat cave (he had one before Batman) and researches the events so far. It does nothing to advance the story. You can feel the author (Walter B. Gibson, who wrote the stories under the pen name Maxwell Grant) worrying that his story will not meet the required word count.
The cover could be said to illustrate the novel, but the composition is so striking it doesn’t matter. That must have stood out on the newsstand. So far as I know the Shadow’s large, broken nose is never mentioned in print.

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Doc Savage, October 1939

Doc Savage (1933-1949)

Only some of the hero pulps have lasting fandoms, the Shadow being one due to its life on film and radio, but Doc Savage, despite a single, misunderstood film adaptation (1999), continues to appeal. Paperback reissues of many of the books were published, and there is talk of another movie.
I’ve listed these in order of quality, and Doc Savage is just about at the top. The author, Kenneth Robeson (a pen name – the majority of the novels were written by one man, Lester Dent) has a nice touch of humor that leavens the action and keeps pretentiousness at bay. What other pulp hero would be reluctant to take the NY subway, because people kept stopping and asking for his autograph?
Doc’s deficit, in my opinion, is an excess of sidekicks, which does keep Doc from being insufferable (he is always right, and I suspect he can walk on water) but you can feel the writer trying hard to squeeze them all in. Doc Savage frequently used fantastic elements in his stories. This one, “The Stone Man” involves a secret society of albino Native Americans in Arizona, trying to keep their hidden land from greedy white men. It’s no world-beater, but the action is quick and the desert setting (what little there is of it) enlivens the plot. As a recent (now former) resident of Arizona I was amused to see it presented as wild, untamed land, full of mystery – some of it still is!
One quibble: this cover is quite bland. Although it does illustrate a scene in the story, it gives little indication of the scope or unusual nature of the plot. Walter Baumhofer, who created many Doc Savage covers, was told to make Doc look like Clark Gable, but he ignored orders; his image of Doc, like the large-nosed Shadow, became definitive.

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Captain Future, Spring 1941

Captain Future (1940-1944)

Last but definitely not least, CF was the only science fiction hero to lead his own magazine, though Doc Savage dealt with futuristic and fantastic elements so often he almost qualifies. More to the point, CF for most of its run was written by one of the pioneers of the space opera subgenre, Edmund Hamilton. Hamilton was given the standard format for a hero pulp: stalwart, handsome hero, quirky sidekicks (Otho, an android grown in a vat, Grag the robot, and the disembodied brain of scientist Simon Wright) and he took it from there.
The origin of the solar system’s humanoid population (every planet is not only habitable, but stocked with humanoid species), spelled out in Star of Dread (Summer 1943) is remarkably similar to the explanation given in Star Trek: the Next Generation. I won’t specify what that explanation is. Read the novel or watch the TNG episode “The Chase,” from season six. There are non-human species as well; the intelligent ones invariably come from outside our system.
The cover illustrates the story and meets the pulp prerequisites as well. The clumsy, square robot is as described in Hamilton’s novel. Not the most photogenic menace, but at least it’s accurate. CF’s gun shoots colored smoke rings, a detail not described in prose, but rendered by several illustrators over the years.
Of all these pulps, CF is the one I wish had gone on, not only as a magazine (wartime paper restrictions shut it down) but each individual novel could be longer. So many adventures are packed into each novel, you could expand every chapter without padding. The 1978-79 anime series was a faithful adaptation, though I wish they had stuck to the 1930s-40s designs. A few new CF stories have been written by author Allan Steele, which seek to update the good Captain to more modern sci-fi style, but why? It’s fiction – the universe does not have to be scientifically accurate to be science fictionally accurate. But I wish Steele well; anything that keeps CF in the public eye is okay with me.

Movement

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Eowyn and the Witch-King of Angmar by Greg and Tim Hildebrandt

I was just the right age for the Brothers Hildebrandt‘s J.R.R. Tolkien calendars, which helped define Middle-Earth iconography in the 1970s. As time had marched on I still remain fond of them, but years of studying art have shown me holes in their compositions. Though most of this post is not about the Hildebrandts, this is the place to begin.

Eowyn and the Witch-King of Angmar is a good example. I could ask many questions – why are there so few dead soldiers in such a war-torn scene, for instance – but my eyes cannot stop staring at the Nazgul. He’s all wrong, not in his costume, but his pose. This is a seated model, probably photographed and adapted by the Hildebrandts. Perhaps the model was draped in some costume similar to the final figure. But there is no energy in the post. The sleeves do not billow in the wind; you could almost imagine the Witch-King swinging his legs and humming a tune. It’s an idle pose, and saps the scene of its drama. Of course Eowyn is going to win this battle – her opponent doesn’t look like he’s trying!

Photographing models is not new – Maxfield Parrish is a good example of an artist using photo references to fine effect. But when the Hildebrandts fail a character can seem separate, almost pasted in, unable to interact with others in the scene.

In contrast, I want to peek at the career of Jay Jackson (1905-1954), a pioneering African-American cartoonist and illustrator. Jackson’s a good choice because energy is central to his compositions. He most definitely did not work from photographed models. His people have their own shape, and move with their own swash and drama. Jackson does not have a Wikipedia entry (why not?) but you can read more about him here and here.

Let’s start with Jackson’s autobiography, published in Fantastic Adventures magazine for October 1941. Fantastic and its sister, Amazing Stories, were published by Ziff-Davis, and gave Jackson regular work during the early forties. Raymond A. Palmer, who edited both magazines, was a keen juvenile, slam-bang action oriented SF and fantasy, and his flair produced a visually distinctive, enjoyable, if not always inspiring or scientifically accurate, set of magazines.

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Legs are central to Jackson’s art. They channel the energy of the pose. His scratchy linework adds to the mood.

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Illustration from Fantastic Adventures, September 1939

Even when his drawings are slapdash and unsuccessful (this one below is a prime example of lesser Jackson) there is energy to spare. (Thanks to my brother Richard for the scan of this one.)

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from Fantastic Adventures, January 1942

Jackson’s magazine illustrations are sketchier and at times more cartoony than his cartooning. Look at this postcard below – Jackson must have been a leg man.

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And the drawing below shows considerable polish – the art editors at Ziff-Davis seem to have preferred his line work, but this is as good as any of his contemporaries.

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To close I want to digress into a little rant. There is a trend in contemporary illustration that does more than suck the energy out – it renders illustration superfluous. You’ve seen them: a collage of elements related or tangential to the story, rarely depicting a single scene, but establishing a vague mood – visual wallpaper, I call it. In science fiction and fantasy this is a particularly egregious trend, as those genres regularly feature things outside our plebeian world – in other words, things that cry out for illustrating. Fortunately, this modern trend in illustration is resisted by a lot of genre artists. I often go back to magazines of the 1940s because my father read them as a teenager, so I have held issues in my hands and parsed their various artists with close scrutiny.

Jay Jackson was not the best illustrator Ziff-Davis used by far, but he deserves his time in the sun, both for the things he did well, and for the bad things he avoided.

Questions over Supper

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Giampetrino and/or Giovanni Boltraffio, The Last Supper (after Leonardo da Vinci), c. 1515-1520. Oil on canvas. ( © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photograph by Prudence Cuming Associates Limited)

The news that you could now study a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous and sadly deteriorated Last Supper set me thinking. This excellently preserved work, by Leonardo’s students Giampetrino (possibly Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli, active 1495-1549) and/or Giovanni Boltraffio (c. 1466-1516) allows us to see detail well beyond the misty ruin that is Leonardo’s original. Giovanni Boltraffio is one of the most successful of Leonardo’s pupils, and is often mentioned as the true creator of the Salvator Mundi that aroused so much comment a while back (I blogged about it a couple of times – though the jury remains out on its true attribution, and will be out until we can get another look at it.)

While the Boltraffio’s have done a fine job recreating the fresco on canvas, their use of color is too limited, their skill in depicting fabrics is below the Master’s standard. However, they had the blessed luck in seeing the work when it was relatively new, and it allows us to gain a little more insight – or, in my case, raise a few questions as to Leonardo’s composition.

I’m also posting this painting below, another copy, this time possibly made with Leonardo’s own input – it appears to have been made from the Leonardo’s original cartoon, and was likely overseen by Leonardo’s pupil Andrea Solari, with the assistance of others, perhaps even Leonardo himself.

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Andrea Solari (and others?), The Last Supper (after Leonardo da Vinci), c. 1520, collection Tongerlo Abbey, Belgium

I know my images are not all that great, but you can find the Boltraffio online now, in high resolution.

Let’s set the scene: from left to right, Bartholomew, James, son of Alphaeus, Andrew, Judas Iscariot, Peter, John, Jesus, Thomas, James the Greater, Philip, Matthew, Jude Thaddeus, and Simon the Zealot. Jesus has announced his impending betrayal, and the others are expression shock, dismay, doubt, and more.

Looking at these images, I kept stopping to wonder why Leonardo made certain choices. Yes, Judas (fourth from right, with his face in shadow) is clutching what might be a bag, perhaps containing his 30 pieces of silver – that is clear enough. He is also knocking over a salt cellar, something hard to see in the fresco, but evident in the copies. What I wonder about is Judas’s left hand, which is reaching out, across the table. I thought at first he was reaching toward the bread roll in front of St. John (sixth from left, just before Jesus), but the angle of his hand and arm are wrong. He seems to be reaching for Jesus’s glass of wine, which Jesus himself is doing also.

Jesus, it seems, is not reaching for the bread roll by his plate, but is gesturing toward St. James the Greater’s roll.

Bartholomew, on the left edge, is clutching something white in his right hand, a piece of fabric, perhaps. The tablecloth shows no sign of disturbance, and none of Bartholomew’s clothes are that color. Is he the only person at this table with a napkin?

It’s hard not to notice that not only is Judas’s face in shadow, but his skin is noticeably darker than anyone else’s. This is especially evident as he is placed close by John, whose pale skin and marked feminine features make him stand out. Were John sitting up straight, instead of examining Peter’s hand (why?) he would challenge Jesus for the viewer’s attention.

Thomas looks like an afterthought, popping his head around James the Greater to make sure he gets in the picture. Thomas makes an emphatic gesture with his right hand, the index finger straight up, but Leonardo chose to slip Thomas’s left hand into the shadows between James and Philip. There isn’t really any need to put that hand in; the whole composition is peppered with gesturing hands (silent movie acting long predates silent movies). Why then put in this passive, shadowy hand?

While I’m speaking of hands, let’s move down to the right, to the next-to-last figure, St. Jude Thaddeus. He raises his right hand in a gesture of surprise, responding as much to Jesus’s words as to the reaction by Simon the Zealot beside him. But look at Jude Thaddeus’s left hand. It lies on the table like something dead, his open fingers echoing similar poses by Simon and Matthew, but there is no energy there. Is Leonardo suggesting that Jude Thaddeus (scholars debate over whether Jude Thaddeus is one or two people) had a crippled hand? I don’t know of any legend that says this, but, then, I was raised Episcopalian, and the lives of the saints is more a Catholic discipline.

Jesus gestures toward bread and reaches for wine; appropriately enough, there are no flaws in his design. These copies allow us to see his feet, which were destroyed in the fresco when the monks cut a door through the wall in the 1600s.

Leonardo’s original is still there, despite centuries of weather and war, in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. As to my questions, only Leonardo could say for sure.