Strengths and Weaknesses (repost)

This is a transplant from my old blog, slightly revised. Enjoy!

Don’t get me wrong… (extra points to you if you don’t start humming The Pretenders)…I think Barry Moser is quite talented.

Barry Moser, The Widow and the Tree

Barry Moser, The Widow and the Tree

My quibble is with how he composes his works. The image above, though nicely done, is probably not what you think of if you think of Barry Moser at all. You most likely think of this –


– static, unremarkable portraits that as often as not reveal the limitations of Moser’s approach. Moser saves this particular piece by putting Edgar Allen Poe at a slight lean, as though he were a bit hung over and not up to standing straight. But that’s not enough. A distressingly high percentage of his illustration work is like this – boring, safe.
I was reading a post on the website of Melville House Press, which was inspired by profiles of the San Francisco-based Arion Press (this is starting to sound incestuous) in the Boston Globe and Harvard Magazine. One thing struck me: publisher Andrew Hoyem’s instructions to Moser regarding illustrations for Arion’s edition of Moby-Dick:

No main characters—including the whale—should appear in an illustration, he advised; no major action scene should be rendered. The idea was to let readers create their own mental images of characters and scenes based on the author’s writing, with the engravings there only to help them fill in the visual details (like whaling equipment) that they weren’t able to envision on their own.

This is a fascinating approach, but one with its own pitfalls. Illustrate without showing the characters or major scenes? That not only eliminates Moser’s alleged strength, but challenges the idea of illustration itself. It sounds like Hoyem was asking for decorations, not illustrations. I understand the gift to the reader of letting his/her own imagination do the work, but it almost renders illustrations superfluous.

Nice, but even the title is generic.

Nice, but even the title is generic.

I love illustrated books; you may have read before – and if not I will keep repeating it – my assertion that all books should be illustrated. I grew up with illustrations that illustrated the story, radical thought though that is. The Scarecrow and Tin Woodman look like W. W. Denslow’s illustrations in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, because Denslow and L. Frank Baum decided they looked like that. Subsequent illustrators have brought their own imagination to it. Moser’s Oz is too derivative from many angles, but at least he shows us the characters.

The Cowardly Lion after being drawn out of the Poppy field.

The Cowardly Lion after being drawn out of the Poppy field.

Loser’s illustrated Bible, first published by the Pennyroyal Press, is similarly limited. Too many static portraits, or scenes that, while atmospheric, tell us little about the story. Now, this is actually progress: because so many generations past were illiterate, illustrations leaned toward being over-explanatory, or only touched on highlights. Can you identify the scene shown below? I’ll give the answer at the bottom of the page:


I’m going to end with an almost unrelated image: Lynd Ward, from his brilliant edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.


Ward’s technique is superior to Moser’s; his use of classical reference (in this case the story of Narcissus) is perfectly in keeping with the story. He shows us the characters and their actions yet leaves room for our imagination. I think Hoyem was right to steer Moser away from the bland portraits that are Moser’s signature. I just wonder if he went too far.

(Answer: Lot and his Daughters)


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