Michelangelo and Sebastiano

A couple of weeks ago, thanks to a very good friend, I was lucky enough to attend the Member’s Preview Day of the National Gallery’s latest exhibition: The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo & Sebastiano. Rather than merely displaying examples of each artists’ masterpieces, the gallery has focused on and emphasised the friendship and collaboration between the two Italians. With in-depth information accompanying each work of art, an extraordinary story is told.

It goes without saying that Michelangelo is the more famous of the two – his name is well known regardless of whether people are able to bring his paintings or sculptures to mind. Sebastiano, on the other hand, is probably only heard of by those in the know – the artistically educated.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was a man of many talents and highly influential to the Renaissance era. Living primarily in Florence, he was respected for his sculpting, painting, architecture, draughtsmanship and poems, although is mostly remembered for the former two. Due to his exceptionally long life, Michelangelo’s career spanned more than 70 years, and as a result, was the leading figure in Italian art.

Art historians are exceptionally lucky, particularly regarding the lack of preservation methods of the time, that so much is known about Michelangelo. Not only have innumerable artworks survived, a multitude of written correspondence is also still in existence, providing a great insight into his career and personal attributes.

Michelangelo’s first major piece of work is arguably David (1501-4, Accademia, Florence) – a larger than life statue sculpted from marble and erected outside the Palazzo Vecchio. This statue has since become a symbol of Florence and Florentine art. Michelangelo could have had many other equally significant works during his time in Florence, however a great number of his commissions remain unfinished, largely in part to summons to Rome from Pope Julius II – something that occurred with later Popes, too.

It was Pope Julius II who commissioned one of Michelangelo’s most significant achievements: the frescoing of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-12). It can be surmised from letters and so forth, that Michelangelo was rather reluctant to take on this project, since he viewed himself primarily a sculptor. The finished painting shows representations of biblical characters, particularly those found in the book of Genesis, as well as the most important figure, Jesus Christ.

This brief account of Michelangelo’s life is typical of art books and encyclopaedias, but fails to mention the significance of his unaccounted for friend.

Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547) was a Venetian painter, although worked predominately in Rome, where he incidentally met Michelangelo and formed a strong friendship and professional relationship. It was through this connection that Sebastiano became known, developed his painting style, and picked up commissions as a result.

Although Sebastiano owes Michelangelo for a large part of his success, his early works prove that he already had an exceptional gift. His impressive painterly skills can be observed in Judith (or Salome?) (1510, National Gallery, London) in which he expressively demonstrates the character’s beauty.

Sebastiano may have been overshadowed by the great Michelangelo, however he was recognised for his portrait artistry, a skill that supposedly had no rival. Sebastiano painted portraits of a number of significant figures, including Pope Clement VII.

Initially, Michelangelo sought out Sebastiano with the intention of making his rival, Raphael, jealous. By providing Sebastiano with drawings and designs to use as starting points, Sebastiano was constrained to Michelangelo’s particular style and method.

As you walk around the exhibition, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the two painters. Sebastiano perfectly replicates Michelangelo’s distinctive approach to painting, causing him to rise in popularity and receive just as many commissions as his more experienced contemporary.

Michelangelo and Sebastiano became favoured artists of many noteworthy individuals, including various popes. As a consequence, other up and coming artists began to mimic the method, resulting in Michelangelo’s original approach being adopted as the new Roman style of painting – something that continued long after their deaths.

Wandering the gallery rooms of the exhibition, it is highly noticeable that the two painters were very keen on religious scenes, particularly the death and resurrection of Jesus. This will come as no surprise to historians due to the fact the Catholic Church dominated over most of Western Europe during the 1500s. Also, the demand for paintings would have come from those who could afford them – for example, the Pope – and the majority of commissions were requested to decorate churches and chapels.

As the pair’s careers progressed, they were often separated. Michelangelo was called to Florence whilst Sebastiano remained in Rome, however they did not let this hinder their partnership. As evidenced within the exhibition, Michelangelo and Sebastiano kept in touch through letters. These reveal the intricacies of both their friendship and professional relationship, often updating one another on the progress of their current commissions.

Unfortunately, Michelangelo and Sebastiano’s relationship was not to remain amicable for the entirety of their lives. Michelangelo continued painting until his death, whereas Sebastiano began to wind down in his old age – something that Michelangelo deemed as laziness. After Sebastiano’s death, his so-called friend made malicious comments about him, thus suggesting their friendship may not have been quite as it appeared.

The National Gallery have done a fantastic job at curating their latest exhibition. Although the most famous artworks could not be displayed (David and Sistine Chapel, for instance), the paintings, drawings and sculptures on display exude a phenomenal sense of awe and intrigue. The scale of some of the paintings are quite remarkable, and go to show the talent both Michelangelo and Sebastiano had.

The exhibition continues until 25th June 2017, so there is plenty of time for Londoners to visit these unforgettable artworks, and, as a bonus, learn about the artists themselves.

The Pros and Cons of Digital Technology in Relation to Illustration

The following essay was originally written in 2011 during my second year studying BA Graphic Design.

This essay will talk about the development of technology from the 15th century until the digital technology of today. It will also explore in detail the effects, both positive and negative, of digital technology in relation to illustration.

Over thousands of years the idea of what illustration is has changed, especially in recent years. Illustration most likely began with someone drawing in the dirt with their finger however now illustrations are being produced for book covers, magazines, posters, websites, and so on. (Zeegen, 2009)

Over the past six or so centuries, technology has developed in ways that have changed the process of producing written and illustrative work. “It is hard to imagine a world in which every image was unique. Prior to the fifteenth century, images were not only-one-of-a-kind but rare.” (Thompson, 2003) [Online] Before the fifteenth century, all illustrated books were produced by hand, making them also very rare. (Mugnai, 2009a) This would have taken time meaning that books and illustrations would have been expensive due to the limited amounts of copies. So at this time copies of books or even the originals would have been found in select places of status such as palaces and churches. (Thompson, 2003)

During the 1400s the printing press was developed by Johannes Guttenberg resulting in the ability to reproduce thousands of identical images. However it was possible to reproduce images before this. In Europe in the 1390s woodcuts were used which then led onto etching and engraving in the middle ages. Some examples of etching are the illustrations by H.K. Browne for Charles Dickens’ novels. (Fig. 1) By the nineteenth century artists were finding ways to add colour into their prints. Books were now becoming easier and quicker to produce and hence costs were reduced rapidly. (Kreis, 2004) This also meant that individual people could then own a copy of a book rather than having to go to other places to look at or be read to from one.

Once methods of printing had been invented there were less hand-drawn books being produced. By the end of the 18th century lithography was invented but this was soon replaced by the end of the 19th century with “photomechanical processes that made possible the reproduction of a wide variety of painting and drawing techniques.” (Columbia University Press, 2007) [Online] The 19th century saw the development of the Golden Age of the Victorian Illustration and also the beginning of the Golden Age of Illustration in America. This period saw a rise in printed book and magazine illustration due to the developments in printing technology. Illustrators from this time were inspired by pre-Raphaelite art, Japanese colour prints and art nouveau style. (Wigan, 2009)

After the two world wars illustration styles changed as illustrators were influenced by the different artistic movements of the time, such as, Pop Art and Photorealism. (Mugnai, 2009c)

In the world today methods of illustration are completely different to those of the past. Bruce Wands suggests, “Computers and the Internet have revolutionized the way people communicate and how they produce media” (Wands, 2000:p40). Styles of illustration have changed to fit the growing developments, such as more visual content is needed on websites and blogs therefore digital approaches to illustrations have increased. (Tallon, 2008)

Picasso once said, “computers are worthless. They can only give you answers.” (Zeegen, 2007b:p41) However as Picasso died in 1973 he was not alive to see the development of digital illustration. In recent years the computer has provided illustrators with an additional means in the process of creating their work.

Digital technology was the next step for illustration and has altered the nature of the discipline. “The digital revolution would take no prisoners – it was clear, adapt or die!” (Computer Arts, 2006) [Online] It was in the early 1980s that the computer began to be used for illustration. At this time computer screens could not display extensive colours and everything was displayed in a low resolution. Therefore Pixel illustration, “is arguably where the whole digital illustration shebang began” (Goldman, 2011) [Online]

Although Goldman argues that digital illustration began in the 80s he also mentions that a different kind of illustration emerged in the 1990s. Adobe Photoshop fully emerged at the beginning of the decade but in 1995 once the software had been developed “digital photo illustration was born.” (Goldman, 2011) [Online]

Soon, although there were illustrators who still preferred to produce their work by hand, less hand drawn illustrations were being used in magazines or on book covers and “images composed of squiggles and geometric shapes, courtesy of Adobe and Apple” (Stermer,2000:p30) began to appear instead.

The invention of programmes such as Photoshop meant that illustrators could edit their work digitally. For example, as Wands pointed out, illustrators could now work purely in black and white then scan their work into a computer and using digital software manipulate elements and apply colour on screen. This meant that artists no longer had to spend hours producing everything by hand and starting again when corrections were required. As well as Photoshop there was Adobe Illustrator, which allowed artists to create illustrations and enlarge them to any size due to the flexibility of such vector software. (Wands, 2000)

Photoshop and other software in theory offer more savings in relation to production. Today many comic book artists draw their work by hand but choose to add colour using digital software. In Goldman’s article he mentions another specialised software, Corel Painter. In similar ways to Photoshop this programme can be used to edit illustrations and photographs or create illustrations from scratch, however in a way that can imitate “the way that watercolour Paints behave when wet, with drips, runs and splashes.” (Goldman, 2011) [Online] This software is time saving as it is possible to produce something comparatively quickly with it, whereas to do the same by hand, for many people, would take a long time as the artist or illustrator may not have skills in a range of media and digital simulation may offer an alternative solution.

Digital technology has given those that are not confident at drawing by hand the opportunity to become illustrators. Computers have opened up new styles of illustration such as Pixel Illustration, as mentioned earlier, and Vector Art. Vector Art is an appropriate type of illustration to be used on websites as files are small in size whilst retaining clarity and are quick to download. Vector illustrations can also be reproduced at any scale without losing clarity and sharpness. Artists usually use photos or hand drawn materials as a template to draw around using digital software. (Goldman, 2011)

However, even though digital technology has become popular in relation to illustration, this does not mean that all illustration has to be entirely digital. Since the development of digital technology there has been a rise in multimedia art. This is where more than one type of media is used within an artwork for example painting, print and photography, and now more recently, digital images. This style of art was fairly popular in the 1990s where technological advancements were giving illustrators and designers new methods to experiment with. (Mèredieu, 2003)

Dave McKean is an example of an illustrator that uses a multimedia approach in his work. He has made many illustrations for book covers, CD covers and graphic novels. He has become widely known for his work with the writer, Neil Gaiman. McKean uses the computer to layer his multimedia compositions, a lot of which are often made by hand. He has a fairly positive opinion about the use of digital technology when producing illustrations. He has suggested that with a computer there is “obviously incredible control” (Miller, 2004) [Online] and it is a good way of layering images no matter what the media; digital or handmade work. McKean is a skilled draughtsman so combines traditional practices with the flexibility offered by digital software. (Fig.2)

His main negative view of digital technology is not one that really relates to illustration work but only that people end up spending most of their time sitting in front of a computer. He also says that many people assume that it is possible to use digital software to edit photographs to get the required affect, however depending on the image this is not always possible.

Despite McKean having positive views on digital technology he believes that illustration is in trouble. “I’m sure this is just the computer’s honeymoon period, but in the meantime, illustrators are having a tough time getting work.” (Miller, 2004) [Online]

Although digital technology has its positive aspects there are other people who have negative views on such developments. Roger Parker believes “recent advances in computer imaging are blurring the line between photos and illustrations”. (Parker, 1998:p93) Caplin and Banks tell us to “forget the ‘photograph’. Nowadays it is just another word for an image. All images are images, however they are produced.” (2003:p6) Françoise Holtz-Bonneau points out that digital images produced on a computer are either overly geometric or they are “excessively realistic in an all too perfect way”. (Mèredieu, 2003:p109) Rick Poynor argues that illustration generated using a computer has become “predictable and trite”. (1999) [Online] Many people have learnt how to use digital methods to produce illustrations, which after a while have become similar and clichéd.

As now it is not essential to be able to draw to be able to produce illustrations, Milton Glaser argues that the invention of computers has made illustrators unnecessary. (Arisman, 2000) If people can produce their own illustrations easily then they will not need to hire illustrators to do this for them. Karl Marx predicted a society where there would not be any professional artists as all people would be artists. “The particular way in which art is expanding and becoming diluted at present” would not please Marx, however he did foresee the possibility of these things occurring such as the blurring of the boundaries of the disciplines. (Mèredieu, 2003:p222)

“Anyone with a computer and a printer now has an artist’s studio, photography studio, film studio, printing press, and laboratory on their desk.” (Herriott, 2009:p6) Although this was said as a positive response to the advancements of technology, it backs up Marx’s view that it is possible that all men will be artists. Everyone will have access to technology that gives them the ability to make their own illustrations, which “makes illustrators unnecessary”. (Arisman, 2000:p55)

Neil Churcher writes about Marion Deuchars, a tutor from the Royal College of Art, in an article saying that she believes that drawing by hand, for example into a sketchbook, shows that the illustrator has design skills. However she thinks that computer aided design has lessened this importance as now it appears the most important thing is digital visualisation. Churcher refers to the graphic designer, Phil Carter, who says that “drawing is a skill that is sadly being lost”. (Churcher, 2002) [Online]

Steven Heller writes in his essay, The End of Illustration, that people are digitally changing aspects of others art works without their permission. (Heller, 2000) Therefore some artists have “willingly offered their pictures, carefully crafted over a career of individual commissions, to be used and misused… altered beyond recognition on attribution.” (Stermer, 2000:p30)

Milton Glaser has written about how he was once approached about a business plan, which would involve compiling a disk of illustrations that people could buy and use as they wished. So someone could buy the disk and then “use any image, for any purpose, modified as desired, combined with any other images, recoloured, reshaped, reconfigured… forever.” Illustrations, therefore, would no longer be unique. (Glaser, 1997:p258)

Glaser fears that the profession of illustration will eventually disappear especially if business plans such as these go ahead and succeed. If people are able to get their hands on such disks then the professional illustrator would no longer be needed or even wanted because, as Glaser points out, it is doubtful that clients will want to pay for illustrations when something similar could be acquired for nothing. For persisting image-makers, such as illustrators, artists and photographers, there is the risk they will not be well known, as they will just be “reduced to the level of anonymous image providers.” (Glaser, 1997:p259) If a disk such as this had ever been produced then illustrations would have become standard images that would get overused and boring. On the other hand, because of the overuse of the same illustrations again and again, people may desire new original visual approaches.

Traditionally a work of art was a unique thing as it was made only the once; there was only one copy. Nevertheless, once technology began to develop it was possible to make copies of these unique art works. The copy, however, would “lack the authenticity and aura of the original work, so be worthless.” (Hillis Miller, 1992:p20)

“That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” (Benjamin, 1936) [Online] Walter Benjamin wrote an essay in which he suggested the idea of aura in relation to artwork and the effect that mechanical reproduction had on this. By reproducing a work of art, for example, it is removing the original from its “domain of tradition”. (Benjamin, 1936) [Online] So even if the reproduction of the artwork is faultless, it is still lacking in something: “its presence in time and space”. (Benjamin, 1936) [Online] The work of art has been removed out of its original context. For example a religious painting would have an aura in the museum or church in which it is displayed, but this aura would be destroyed if it were to be used as a magazine cover as it has been removed from its original domain. Technology has also changed peoples reaction towards hand produced art because original artwork, such as a painting, was only “viewed by one person or by a few” (Benjamin, 1936) [Online] and its aura could only be appreciated by these people. However, once copies could be produced, these art works, now lacking in aura, were viewable by the public who would not value them in the same way as someone who viewed them in their original domain.

This essay was written before the digital technologies of today, as the first computers did not appear until the 1940s (Mèredieu, 2003). However Benjamin’s argument is still relevant today because it can be applied to digital technologies.

The idea of a loss of aura is evident in “photographs of photographs, photocopies of photocopies, and copies of video tapes” (Mitchell, 2004:p5) where each copy has a lower quality than the original. Matt Soar mentioned this idea of an aura: “that illustration beginning with the hand and ending with pens, brushes, or pencils has an affective quality – an aura”. (Soar, 2000:p33) He says that this quality cannot be created by digital processes such as photography and computer software.

Another example of this lack of aura are photographs of things. A photograph of an object is just that, a photograph of an object. By looking at it no one actually sees the original object, what is actually seen is “the original of a reproduction – with all the associated loss of aura.” (Rodman, 2007) [Online] Howard Rodman uses as an example the Eiffel Tower. The actual tower has an aura whereas the postcards, t-shirts and other merchandises do not have this aura.

Lucinda Rogers is an illustrator who produces everything by hand. This consists of mainly reportage drawing which involves her drawing on the spot. Deuchars says that when drawing no one can tell what the final outcome will be like, or whether it will be good, until it is finished. “You have to let it go on its own journey. What you have to do is to start without thinking.” (Churcher, 2002) [Online] With digital technology this is not possible in the same way.

Although many believe digital technology to have caused problems for illustrators and maybe even the end of illustration, Zeegen writes that before digital illustration grew in popularity, illustration was “only moments away from the final nail being hammered into the coffin.” (2010) [Online] Whereas some illustrators believed that all was not well for illustration, Zeegen (2007a) [Online] poses the question “Where did it all go right?” Therefore, digital technology has for some brought new life into the discipline, especially, as Zeegen also points out, through the growth of the Internet where “illustration has become more noticed on an increasingly global scale”. (Zeegen, 2010) [Online]

Overall there are many different opinions about digital technology and its effect on illustration. A Scottish illustrator, Bernie Reid assumes that digital illustration will begin to decline, whereas Michelle Thompson has expressed the view that she believes that both hand-rendered and digital illustration can both exist together especially as image-makers are benefitting from digital techniques within their hand produced illustrations. Peter Arkle, another illustrator, feels that there should be a growing interest in work that shows evidence of being produced by a human hand even if some of the illustration is digital as it really stands out. (Hyland and Bell, 2003)

Although digital technology may be an exciting new method and has made it easier and quicker to produce illustrations, Steven Wilson, who has done illustrations for The Guardian argues that it is “only as exciting as the ideas you have inside your head”. (Computer Arts, 2006) [Online] So illustrators are still needed to come up with the ideas for illustrations. Emily Alston, who uses digital methods, points out that “every illustrator and designer has the very same technology available to them, and if everyone uses the tools in the same way, nothing would ever stand out as different or original.” (Computer Arts, 2006) [Online]

Caplin and Banks believe that digital technology is a positive thing due to the fact that designs and illustrations can be produced faster than by hand but also they point out that “from cave painting on, image making has followed technological advancements and will continue to do so.” (2003:p7) So just as with development of the printing press, lithography and so on, digital technology is simply the next advancement of an ancient and continually evolving process.

On the whole digital technology has had a positive effect on illustration as it has brought new opportunities and methods to the field. With the development of technology, illustrations have become quicker to produce both from the reproduction point of view, with the development of the printing press and later computers; and also in producing the original image, thanks to digital software. There are, on the other hand, negative view points about digital technology as some artists fear that the more traditional methods will be abandoned and that the profession of illustrators will slowly decline because of the ability of everyone being able to produce or copy others work using software available to all. Overall, every time that technology advances, illustration is able to adapt to the new methods of producing, whilst still being able to integrate traditional methods. Therefore, digital technology is the next step in the continually evolving creative activity known as illustration.

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Fig. 1

Browne, H. (1849) My Musical Breakfast [Online]. Available from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/4/4f/Pickwick_papers27.jpg/220px-Pickwick_papers27.jpg [Accessed: 16th November 2011]

1

Fig. 2

McKean, D. (2008) Big Fat Duck Cookbook Sample 8 [Online]. Available from http://www.mckean-art.co.uk/ [Accessed: 16th November 2011]

References

Arisman, M. (2000) Toward a Holistic Procession: An Interview with Milton Glaser In: Heller, S. and Arisman, M. (eds.) The Education of an Illustrator New York, Allworth Press. P.53-57

Benjamin, W. (1936) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction Translated by A. Blenden (2005) [Online]. Available from http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm [Accessed: 1st November 2011]

Caplin, S. and Banks, A. (2003) The Complete Guide to Digital Illustration Lewes, ILEX

Churcher, N. (2002) Drawing Out Ideas [Online]. Available from http://www.lucindarogers.co.uk/design-week.html [Accessed: 13th November 2011]

Columbia University Press. (2007) Illustration [Online]. Available from http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/ent/A0824994.html [Accessed: 30th October 2011]

Computer Arts. (2006) Digital Illustration [Online]. Available from http://www.computerarts.co.uk/features/digital-illustration [Accessed: 11th November 2011]

Glaser, M. (1997) The End of Illustration (Or the War is Over, Part 2) In: Heller, S. and Finamore, M (eds.) Design Culture: An Anthology of Writing from the Aiga Journal of Graphic Design New York, Allworth Press

Goldman, R. (2011) Digital Art: Explore Illustration [Online]. Available from http://www.streetdirectory.com/travel_guide/114366/programming/digital_art_explore_illustration.html [Accessed: 31st October 2011]

Heller, S. (2000) The End of Illustration In: Heller, S. and Arisman, M. (eds.) The Education of an Illustrator New York, Allworth Press. P.23-28

Herriott, L. (ed.) (2009) 500 Digital Illustration Hints, Tips and Techniques Hove, RotoVision

Hillis Miller, J. (1992) Illustration London, Reaktion Books Limited

Hyland, A. and Bell, R. (2003) Hand to Eye: Contemporary Illustration London, Laurence King

Kreis, S. (2004) The Printing Press [Online]. Available from http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/press.html [Accessed: 30th October 2011]

de Mèredieu, F.(2003) Digital and Video Art Translated by R. Elliott (2005) Edinburgh, Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd

Miller, J. (2004) Dave McKean: Dark Digital Art [Online] Available from http://www.bulletsofautumn.com/mckean-art/readings/Dark_digital_art_2004.html [Accessed: 9th November 2011]

Mitchell, W J. (2004) The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Mugnai, F. (2009a) A Brief History of Illustration (Part I) [Online]. Available from http://blogof.francescomugnai.com/2009/11/a-brief-history-of-illustration-part-i/ [Accessed: 2nd November 2011]

Mugnai, F. (2009c) A Brief History of Illustration (Part III) [Online]. Available from http://blogof.francescomugnai.com/2009/11/a-brief-history-of-illustration-part-iii/ [Accessed: 2nd November 2011]

Parker, R. (1998) Looking Good in Print 4th Ed., Arizona, The Coriolis Group Inc

Poynor, R. (1999) Illustrate This [Online]. Available from http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/illustrate_this/ [Accessed: 9th November 2011]

Rodman, H (2007) Authorship in the Digital Age In: August, J. Authorship in the Digital Age [Online]. Available from http://johnaugust.com/2007/authorship-in-the-digital-age [Accessed: 31st October]

Soar, M. (2000) It Begins with “Ill” and Ends With “Digital”:The Riddle of Illustration’s Declining Fortunes In: Heller, S. and Arisman, M. (eds.) The Education of an Illustrator New York, Allworth Press. P.32-35

Stermer, D. (2000) What the Hell Happened to Illustration? In: Heller, S. and Arisman, M. (eds.) The Education of an Illustrator New York, Allworth Press. P.29-31

Tallon, K. (2008) Digital Fashion Illustration with Photoshop and Illustrator London, Anova Books Company Ltd

Thompson, W. (2003) The Printed Image in the West: History and Techniques [Online]. Available from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/prnt/hd_prnt.htm [Accessed: 30th October 2011]

Wands, B. (2000) The Influence of Computers and the Internet on Illustration In: Heller, S. and Arisman, M. (eds.) The Education of an Illustrator New York, Allworth Press. P.40-47

Wigan, M. (2009) The Visual Dictionary of Illustration London, AVA Publishing SA

Zeegen, L. (2007a) Illustration Renaissance [Online]. Available from http://computerarts.co.uk/features/illustration-renaissance [Accessed: 11th November 2011]

Zeegen, L. (2007b) Secrets of Digital Illustration: a Master Class in Commercial Image Making Hove, RotaVision SA

Zeegen, L. (2009) What is Illustration? Hove, RotoVision SA

Zeegen, L. (2010) A Decade of Illustration [Online]. Available from http://www.computerarts.co.uk/features/decade-illustration [Accessed: 11th November 2011]

 

Secondary Resources

Ascot, R. and Shanken, E. (2003) Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness Berkley, University of California Press

Grau, O. (2003) Visual Art: From Illusion to Immersion Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Heller, S. (2004) Ode to Illustration [Online]. Available from http://www.aiga.org/ode-to-illustration/ [Accessed: 24th October 2011]

Male, A. (2007) Illustration: A Theoretical and Contextual Perspective Lausanne, AVA Publishing

Mugnai, F. (2009b) A Brief History of Illustration (Part II) [Online]. Available from http://blogof.francescomugnai.com/2009/11/a-brief-history-of-illustration-part-ii/ [Accessed: 2nd November 2011]

Mugnai, F. (2009d) A Brief History of Illustration (Part IV) [Online]. Available from http://blogof.francescomugnai.com/2009/12/a-brief-history-of-illustration-part-iv/ [Accessed: 2nd November 2011]

Mugnai, F. (2009e) A Brief History of Illustration (Final) [Online]. Available from http://blogof.francescomugnai.com/2009/12/a-brief-history-of-illustration-final/ [Accessed: 2nd November 2011]

Triggs, T. (2000) What am I? In: Heller, S. and Arisman, M. (eds.) The Education of an Illustrator New York, Allworth Press. P.49

Wood, F. (2002) China: The Invention of Printing [Online]. Available from http://www.fathom.com/feature/122327/index.html [Accessed: 30th October 2011]

 

 

Piet Mondrian: (A), B, C

On a recent trip to the Tate Modern, a friend and I came across a couple of paintings by the Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). Without reading the accompanying title plaque, we both recognised the artist’s distinctive use of geometric shapes and colours. We learnt that these particular paintings were titled Composition B and Composition C, to which we both responded, “Where is Composition A?” Whether or not the Tate was displaying this painting (the website suggests it was) we never found it, but it made us wonder about the significance of these compositions.

With thanks to Google, I located a photograph of Mondrian’s Composition A, which conforms with his well known style, however contains significantly more colour.

composition-a-1923large

Having now seen all three of these compositions and compared them with each other, I was still none the wiser to their purpose or significance.

I wish to approach truth as closely as is possible, and therefore I abstract everything until I arrive at the fundamental quality of objects. – Mondrian

Born on 7th March 1872, Piet Mondrian, was one of the leading individuals in the establishment of abstract art. His early works were realistic representations with a delicate use of colour, however this all changed from 1907 onwards.

Mondrian was a pioneer of more than one art movement, the first significant one being Cubism. During the first world war, Mondrian was influenced by other painters of the time to stop using curved lines within his artwork. This led to the geometrical paintings Mondrian is well known for, and the development of another movement: De Stijl.

As the main face of De Stijl, Mondrian named his personal style Neo-Plasticism, a system that restricted artists to straight lines and basic colours (usually primary). During this period of time, the world was rapidly changing. The Great War provoked transformations in governments, societies, technologies and general day-to-day living. Mondrian attempted to find the undeviating reality buried beneath all the upheaval and believed that his strict, grid-like, asymmetrical paintings reflected this.

The art world may have moved on from Cubism and De Stijl, but Mondrian was a great influence on artists at the time, yet also the later industrial, decorative and advertisement art that began in the 1930s. His use of bold grids and thick black lines, encouraged designers to be more mindful of the ways artwork and typography are presented within a design. The grid structure was heavily adopted by the Swiss Typography movement, and is still used and taught today in design schools throughout the world.

Mondrian’s Compositions A, B and C, were essentially his way of coping with the destruction of the world he grew up in. By stripping back to the bare bones – black and white, primary colours – Mondrian was trying to reduce the world to its basic elements. The balance between black and white with red, blue or yellow are a representation of opposing forces that create a balance in the world, i.e. male and female, positive and negative.

Looking at the above paintings alone, you may conclude that Mondrian was an eccentric man, deliriously believing that he was accurately representing the world. However, if you study the progression from his early works to the ones he his more famous for, you will notice a gradual development of style, rather than a rapid, out-of-character change.

Whilst we will never know exactly what was going through Piet Mondrian’s head (unless we read his numerous writings), we can speculate that painting real life representations of landscapes and so forth lost the appeal after the destruction of countries as a result of war. Who would want to paint that, when instead you could focus on the true, never changing actualities at the heart of our existence?

I don’t want pictures, I want to find things out. – Mondrian

Revolution!

Russian Art 1917-1932

What do you think of when you hear the term ‘Russian Art’? The majority would probably picture geometric shapes, sharp angles and bright colours, but this is only an example of one genre of art that has emerged from Eastern Europe. It is one of the few styles that managed to spread to the Western world before the Russian government had an opportunity to crush it. Russian art is actually so protean, it cannot be summed up in a simple description. How would you describe British art, American art, French art, Italian art etc? So many movements have influenced artists, thus constantly changing the styles and fashions of each country. Russia was no different.

For centuries, Russia was under the autocratic rule of the Tsars until in 1917, provoking a civil war, Vladmir Lenin rose to power as a Communist leader. With this revolution came dramatic changes to Russian society, and art was swept up alongside it. Avant-garde artists were excited about the new developments and the opportunities they would bring about for creative individuals.  However, their eagerness was short lived.

Lenin and the Bolshevik party came to power so suddenly, they has been unable to gain the support of the majority; therefore drastic measures needed to be taken to ensure they gained popularity. This, however, was not going to be an easy thing to tackle in the profusely illiterate country. For that reason, artists were given the task of spreading ideology through the means of mass propaganda.

In April 1918, Lenin revealed his Plan for Monumental Propaganda, which relied heavily on artists and photographers to carry out. Paintings, sculptures and everyday paraphernalia were utilised in order to glorify Lenin and the Bolshevik party. Graphic designers were commissioned to design posters sporting slogans that honoured the party. The colour red was often used to represent the revolution.

One of the most shocking tasks Lenin demanded was the removal of artworks used by the Russian Orthodox Church, replacing the figure of Jesus with an icon of himself. It is hard to imagine how a predominantly Christian country would agree to let this happen, however, it did, and Lenin became almost saint-like.

After Lenin’s death, Russia became a very dangerous place to live, especially for artists who wanted to express their own voices. Joseph Stalin took Lenin’s place as leader of the Soviet Union. Throughout his dictatorship, Stalin made many changes and demands. One of these was the proclamation that Socialist Realism was the only acceptable artistic style. Gone were the opportunities for artists to experiment with their creativity. Ironically, the artworks accepted hardly revealed the truth about the Soviet Union, despite being classified as Realism.

Stalin believed that Russia was behind the times and was determined to industrialise the country. He introduced the concept of a Five-year Plan, which would set targets for every factory and farm belonging to the Soviet Union. Physical labour was demanded of all citizens in order to reach these goals. To encourage the population, Stalin commissioned – or more likely forced – designers, photographers, film producers etc. to promote his scheme. Photography was perhaps the preferred medium since its content is more believable than a painting and could be easily reproduced on posters and spread amongst the masses. However, these photographs were often staged in order to make situations appear better than they really were. Behind the lies of smiling faces, most workers were treated like slaves, often imprisoned or killed for not working as well as others. Thousands died from accidents, starvation or poor living and working conditions during this period.

Kazimir Malevich

The effects of the Russian revolution and Stalin’s dictatorship is evident through many artists’ changing styles. Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) is a significant example of this. Although Social Realism was not enforced until the very end of his life, the reshaping of Malevich’s personal style documents the gradual elimination of techniques by the Soviet Union.

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Black Square 1929 by Kazimir Malevich. Photograph: State Tretyakov, Moscow, Russia

Born pre-revolution, Malevich believed that art was a method of expressing spirituality, therefore outcomes need not be realistic, and could be based on metaphor rather than truth. At the height of his career in 1915, Malevich patented a style named Suprematism, a purely abstract art movement characterised by the use of geometric shapes and a limited range of colour.  A particular famous piece that symbolises this movement is Black Square.

Unfortunately, Malevich’s movement was eventually denounced by Soviet authorities on the basis that it failed to convey social realities.

Malevich attempted to conform to Soviet ideology, however was still adamant to work in an abstract style. Despite rebelling against the governments artistic rules and regulations, Malevich’s new paintings were accepted and displayed at the State Russian Museum in 1932.

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Woman with Rake, c.1932 Photo:as above

Presumably the subject matter of Malevich’s paintings were what granted him approval to painting in an abstract style. Depicted were anonymous figures showing peasant workers out in their fields. The blank faces and limited colour make up a characterless person that hides the truth about their working conditions. On the other hand, it also represents the loss of identity these people felt under the oppressive rule of Joseph Stalin.

At the very end of his life, shortly before dying of cancer, Malevich was painting in a style that the Soviet Union was enforcing throughout the country. Contrasting Malevich’s final self-portrait with an earlier one shows these dramatic changes and emphasises the control the Soviets’ held.

Although there were artists who refused to conform, yearning for the days when art showed the beauty and charm of Tsarist Russia, the world saw a utopian version, hiding the terrible truths.

As you can see, it is impossible to categorise something as “Russian Art”. There is pre-revolution art, which encompasses a wide variety of styles, and then there is Soviet Art, a “realistic” portrayal of Russia under Lenin, and then Stalin – as long as it expressed Communist ideology. Then, of course, there are contemporary artists living in a post-Soviet country, giving “Russian Art” a brand new meaning.

To fully understand the effects the Soviet Union had on the art world, it is best to see it with your own eyes. Luckily we have hindsight on our side, preventing us from falling into the trap of believing the lies and exaggerations shown in paintings and photographs.

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1931 is an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. You have until 17th April 2017 to go and see it.

 

 

Can a graphic novel ever achieve the status of a work of art?

The following essay was written in 2011 during the first year of my degree course. At this time I was aspiring to be an illustrator, therefore, of all the discourse lectures, the topic of graphic novels interested me the most. It was, perhaps, the most difficult question to choose, but I gave it my best shot. Although it was a challenge to find relevant theory to write about, I decided I would rather focus on something I was interested in, than pick an easier theme that bored me.

This essay will look at what a work of art is and whether or not a comic book or graphic novel could ever achieve this status. The word art can be broken down into different categories such as fine art and applied art. This essay will consider what art category graphic novels could come under or whether they are something else, for example literature or purely entertainment.

Art is a very difficult word to define, as there are so many different ideas about what it means. Even the definitions of the word can raise more questions. One perspective is that art is “commonly used to describe something of beauty, or a skill which produces an aesthetic result” Visual Art Cork (2011) [online]. However this in turn raises the question what is beauty and what counts as aesthetic? Another view is that art is produced because of thought and a creative impulse; yet again this definition can be questioned. Art, however, can be broken down into different categories such as: fine art, applied art, decorative art, design, and so forth.

Fine art is just as broad a topic as art in general. Usually people associate fine art with activities such as drawing and painting but over time other things have been included in this category for example sculpture, printmaking and illustration. “Art produced or intended primarily for beauty rather than utility.” Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia, (2011) [online]. Therefore it could be suggested that fine art is produced to look good, create a mood or evoke a feeling rather than for having a particular function. Nevertheless, as when defining art it is just as difficult to establish a clear definition for fine art as the media and strategies employed by Fine artists are constantly evolving and changing.

There is, on the other hand, a difference between fine art and applied art. Whereas fine art is principally aesthetically driven, applied art is focused on applying this beauty to functional objects. Chilvers (2004, page 29) refers to applied art as a “Term describing the design or decoration of functional objects so as to make them aesthetically pleasing.”

Therefore although there are similarities with fine art, the art is then being applied to everyday objects such as cups, magazines and other items that could have a greater impact on the everyday lives of people. There are also sub-categories for applied art such as interior design, graphic design and fashion design. The Bauhaus is an example of a school associated with greater cultural status being attributed to applied art.

Another type of art is sequential narrative art. “Art that contains a narrative communicated to the audience by a sequence of images (2 or more)…” Spiltink, (2011) [online]. So if there are two or more images that when put together tell a story this is sequential art. In a museum curators may hang paintings next to each other to create a connection or narrative however sometimes this relies on the audience to make the connection. William Hogarth (1697-1764) is a fine artist famous for his sequential art The Rake’s Progress 1734, Tate Britain (2011) [online]. These are eight oil paintings which gradually tell a story of the rise and fall of the character who inherits a fortune in his teens and dies penniless in Bedlam.

It is thought that sequential art dates as far back as the cave men and early cave paintings. Egyptian hieroglyphs are also a form of sequential narrative art. Comic strips and comic books use this idea of sequential art. One of the earliest forms of comic books was produced by Rodolphe Töpffer (1799-1846) during the 1800s through his histories en images or picture stories. Lambiek, (2011) [online]. He created a total of six titles including Les Amours de M. Vieuxbois (1839) which has been translated as Obadiah Oldbuck and was the first ever comic book to be published.

Comic books usually tell a story in a cartoon style drawn format. Despite being called comics they are not all funny. There are many different genres of the comic book form such as drama, adventure, politics or romance. Some of the most well known comics contain superheroes. Marvel is very well known for their comics relating to various superheroes including Iron Man, Spider-man, the Hulk and Wolverine. Marvel, (2011) [online]. A graphic novel on the other hand uses the same storytelling format as comic books but often deals with more mature themes and extensive storylines. Sometimes graphic novels are referred to as long comic books because they usually cover a story from start to finish.

A very famous graphic novel is Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986). In this book Spiegelman recounts his father’s experience during the Second World War in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz. Spiegelman originally created a comic strip based on events that his father and mother had told him about when he was a child. This in turn led him to interview his father several times to find out the rest of the story. In order for people to understand this historical story Spiegelman has filled it with metaphors.

“The central device of Maus, which gives it a lot of its riveting force, is Spiegelman’s trick of drawing Jews with mouse heads and tails and Nazis with cat heads. (Poles are pigs, the French are frogs, and anyone trying to be anything else wears the appropriate mask.)”          (Wolk, 2007, Page 343)

When Spiegelman depicts his father trying to get home he draws him as a mouse with a pig mask so that he is not recognised as a Jew by anybody. It is possible to see how considered Spiegelman’s work is through the way he uses animal faces to represent the different people instead of simply drawing people. (See figure 1)

“The book’s characters aren’t drawn as “realistic” animals, though; they’re cartoon animals, the mice’s faces stripped down to a simple outline, a pair of dots for eyes, and maybe if they are lucky some eyebrows.”   (Wolk, 2007, Page 343)

Spiegelman mixes the factual subject matter of the holocaust with cartoon characters. Even the cat and mouse idea is a traditional format of children’s cartoons. Despite the cartoon feel to the novel the story is about a horrible past reality. As Wolk (2007, page 343) says animal cartoons are usually smoothly drawn however Maus was mostly drawn with a felt tip pen in an untidy way therefore using the least resources as possible. This connects with the fact that the drawings portray characters that had to make do with what they could find. This style of drawing helps to recount the horrors of the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis and the pain the survivors experienced.

In 1992 Maus won the Pulitzer Prize for literature.

“The Pulitzer is considered to be one of the highest honours in writing, and for a comic book to be recognised alongside the year’s best work in literature and journalism was previously unthinkable.”            (Duncan & Smith, 2009, Page 1)

The result of a graphic novel achieving this prize can immediately make people presume that graphic novels and comic books are a form of literature rather than a form of art. Will Eisner, who Wolk (2007, Page 14) called “the late grandmaster of American comics” liked to describe comics as a “literary form”. They strongly resemble works of literature as they use words and have a narrative content as well as being printed in books. The word ‘novel’ in the term graphic novel is very misleading because to most people it means a work of fiction in a written form. This then could also make people believe that graphic novels are actually a work of literature.

On the other hand, comic books and graphic novels can fit in with some of the definitions of a work of art. Some of the activities included under then term “art”, Visual Art Cork, (2011) [online], are illustration, drawing and cartoons. The visual aspect of graphic novels are usually drawn rather than any other kind of imagery and also of a cartoon format therefore this description of art is also a description of comics and graphic novels.

Graphic novels do have a narrative content but this does not necessarily mean that they are literature. Duncan and Smith (2009, page 14) quote Steranko in relation to narratives: “The art of the pictorial narrative is, in fact, the original art form. Painting, sculpture and their analogous crafts are all offspring of the narrative work. Today narratives are called comics”. Here Steranko is saying that comics, and therefore graphic novels, are a form of art.

In contrast, Duncan and Smith (2009, page 48) claim that “As with other forms of expression, such as music, film or literature, the more commercial a medium becomes, the less artistic merit it seems to hold for its critics.” Graphic novels are produced to be sold and are therefore a very commercial medium. However as well as the commercial mainstream comics, there were underground versions, which contained subjects that had been banned from other comics. “Underground comics were more like art and less like comics” Ezinearticles, (2011) [online]

Roger Sabin (1996, page 8) claims that comics have been relegated to the status of “trash icons” and the creators of comics have supposedly never been respected as “artists”. “…not uncommonly, they remain anonymous while the characters they have created go on to become household names (everybody knows who Superman is, but how many people can name his creators?).” This is not always the case. Art Spiegelman has reached a degree of fame on a wider cultural level.

Before Maus was published in book form, Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly launched the magazine RAW in 1980. Within this magazine they published many avant-garde cartoons and most importantly the serialised version on Maus.

            “RAW didn’t try to demonstrate that comics could be art; it just assumed that was a given. Effectively, it was an art magazine whose contributors were all mighty interested in comics.” (Wolk, 2007, page 341)

Based on RAW’s opinion, comics are a form of art, and Spiegelman’s Maus appeared in the magazine, therefore could be perceived as art.

As a work of art is difficult to define it must be just as hard to work out what can or cannot be classed as art. As Sabin (1996, page 8). rightly asks, “exactly who decides which mediums qualify and which do not?” Sabin (1996, page 8) also suggests “The essential idea implicit in the history told in these pages is that comics may or may not be ‘art’, but they are indisputably an artform.”

As art is a difficult term to define it is not easy to answer the question: Can a graphic novel ever achieve that status of a work of art? After looking at different definitions of art it appears that graphic novels are not necessarily fine art because they are not created just for beauty however they are produced using some of the same methods that a fine artist may use. Art Spiegelman drew out his entire graphic novel by hand and drawing is one of the methods used by artists. Graphic novels are closer to applied art in definition rather than fine art because the imagery has been created with a purpose in mind. There are arguments that graphic novels are a form of literature especially as Maus won the Pulitzer Prize and they have a narrative content. Another reason that they might not be considered a work of art is because they are a commercial medium, which causes many people to not even think to regard them as artwork.

Being a commercial medium, graphic novels are so much cheaper than a work of art such as a painting by Monet. A painting is more expensive because there is only one original copy of it. Somberville and Hanna state that “This is why, when an artist dies, their work is suddenly worth so much more: because they can’t make anymore originals.” Ezinearticles, (2010) [online]. So a graphic novel would not become expensive like these kinds of works of art because they can easily be reproduced meaning that many people can own a copy.

Despite being regarded as literature, the narrative content of a graphic novel is visual and is told through a sequence of drawings. This can be considered as a type of art form: sequential art.

Overall certain aspects of a graphic novel can be considered art but because of its similarity to literature and its commerciality it might not receive as much artistic merit as an example piece of fine art.

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Figure 1 (Random House, 2011 [Online])

Bows, F. (2011) All about Underground Comix [Online]. Available from: http://ezinearticles.com/?All-About-Underground-Comix&id=5989603 [Accessed 7 April 11].

Chilvers, I. (ed) (2004) The Oxford Dictionary of Art 3rd Edition. New York: Oxford Unitversity Press Inc

Douglas, M, (2011) Sequential Narrative Art: A definition of what I do.. [ONLINE] Available from: http://spiltink.dreamhost.com/salgood/words/naritiveartpt1.html. [Accessed 19 March 2011].

Duncan, R./ Smith M J, (2009) The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture. New York, Continuum Press

Ellis-Christensen, T. (2011) What are Graphic Novels? [ONLINE] Available from: http://www.wisegeek.com/what-are-graphic-novels.htm. [Accessed 21 March 11].

Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia. (2011) Fine art – definition of fine art by the Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia [ONLINE] Available from: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/fine+art. [Accessed 19 March 2011]

ipL2 (2011) Graphic Novels. [ONLINE] Available from: http://www.ipl.org/div/graphicnovels/gnsHistBasics.html. [Accessed 21 March 11].

Lambiek (2011) Comic creator: Rodolphe Töpffer. [ONLINE] Available from: http://lambiek.net/artists/t/topffer.htm. [Accessed 19 March 2011].

Marvel (2011) Marvel.com: The Official Site | Iron Man, Spider-Man, Hulk, X-Men, Wolverine and the heroes of the Marvel Universe.Comics, News, Movies and Video Games | Marvel.com. [ONLINE] Available from: http://marvel.com/. [Accessed 21 March 2011].

Monsen, L. (2009) Graphic Novels: An Evolving Art Form Tackles New Themes. [ONLINE] Available from: http://www.america.gov/st/peopleplace-english/2009/May/20090508194958GLnesnoM0.3358576.html. [Accessed 21 March 11].

Random House, (2011), Maus I by Art Spiegelman (Figure 1) [ONLINE]. Available from: http://www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/graphicnovels/maus1_5.html [Accessed 21 March 11].

Sabin, R. (1996) Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art London, Phaidon Press

Saraceni, M. (2003) The Language of Comics. London: Routledge.

Smith, G (1987) From Mickey to Maus: Recalling the Genocide through Cartoon in e.d. Witek, J. (ed) (2007). Art Spiegelman: Conversations (Conversations With Comic Artists). Mississippi, University Press.

Somberville, D./ Hanna, M (2010) Why are Paitinings so Expensive? [Online] Available from: http://ezinearticles.com/?Why-Are-Paintings-So-Expensive?&id=4366454 [Accessed 7th April 11].

Spartacus (2011) William Hogarth. [ONLINE] Available from: http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/PRhogarth.htm. [Accessed 19 March 2011]

Tate Britain (2011) Tate Britain| Past Exhibitions | Hogarth – Hogarth’s Modern Moral Series: The Rake’s Progress. [ONLINE] Available from: http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/hogarth/modernmorals/rakesprogress.shtm. [Accessed 19 March 2011]

The Free Dictionary (2011) Applied art – encyclopedia article about Applied art. [ONLINE] Available from: http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Applied+art. [Accessed 19 March 2011].

Visual Art Cork (2011) Art Definition, Meaning: How to Define “Fine Arts”, “Visual Arts”, Aesthetics, Crafts: Classification Questions, History of Definitions. [ONLINE] Available from: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/art-definition.htm. [Accessed 19 March 2011]

Visual Art Cork (2011) Fine Art, Definition, Meaning, History: Academies of Fine Arts, Periods/Movements: Painting, Sculpture, Printmaking. [ONLINE] Available from: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/definitions/fine-art.htm. [Accessed 19 March 2011]

Wolk, D. (2007). Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Cambridge Mass, Da Capo Press.

Other images of artwork relevant to or mentioned in the essay:

Eastward Ho!

Not long ago, I visited the Museum of London with a friend because … why not? Whilst we were discovering the history of London (from prehistoric eras to the present day), we were both drawn to a particular painting hanging on the wall in the Expanding Cities – 1670s-1850s gallery. Neither of us were familiar with the artwork, nor the artist, but the bright colours were powerful and enticed me to have a closer look.

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Eastward Ho!

The painting, I learnt, was called Eastward Ho! by a man named Henry Nelson O’Neil, and was completed in c.1857/8. A minuscule notecard was situated to the left of the frame, providing an inadequate explanation and description of the artwork:

Soldiers are shown boarding a ship at Gravesend, leaving to fight in the ‘Indian Mutiny’ – the first Indian war of Independence. They are saying their final farewells to their loved ones. This immensely colourful and vibrant painting was Henry Nelson O’Neil’s most popular work.

The basic scenario has been explained, but who was Henry Nelson O’Neil? Why did he choose to paint this particular situation? How comes, if this work was so popular, I have never heard of it, nor him?  Let’s find out. Henry Nelson O’Neil, who are you?

Henry Nelson O’Neil

Henry Nelson O’Neil was born in Russia on 7th January 1817, however he spent the majority of his life in England, where he moved with his parents in 1823. Despite his origin of birth, his parents were British nationals, therefore his brief Russian beginnings had very little impact upon his future. Nothing is known about the O’Neil family, nor his childhood, until he entered the art scene in 1836 after enrolling at the Royal Academy.

The year 1838 saw O’Neil’s first exhibited artwork on display at the academy. Simply titled The Student, this picture – sadly unknown today – sparked off his career, resulting in almost 100 of his paintings adorning the academy’s walls during his life time. O’Neil produced a new painting almost yearly, experimenting with a range of subject matter. Art historians can assume the artist was an educated and cultured individual on account of his interest in painting scenes from literature and the Bible, as well as historical incidents.

O’Neil opted for striking colours, however his compositions were often criticised as faulty. It appeared that O’Neil was averse to demonstrating negative emotion in his artwork, resulting in unrealistic contexts. A particular example is titled The Parting Cheer (1861) which showed the emigration of British and European families at a time when this would have caused heartbreak, worry and despair. However, as the title suggests, O’Neil painted a cheerful atmosphere, implying that emigration was a cause for celebration rather than a time of uncertainty.

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The Last Moments of Mozart

More popular were O’Neil’s romantic scenes, particularly ones portraying the deaths of Mozart and Raphael. The Last Moments of Mozart (1849) shows the composer, moments from death, listening to a performance of his Requiem.

O’Neil also had a go at writing, publishing Lectures on Painting delivered at the Royal Academy containing a selection of talks he gave to students at the academy. Moving away from art, O’Neil also attempted a few pieces of literature, however he supposably was not all that successful in this venture. He also had a passion for music and enjoyed playing the violin. It may be assumed that O’Neil continued working until his death on 13th March 1880. His body is interred in Kensal Green Cemetery.

Compared with other artists of the era, O’Neil does not stand out amongst the greats, and today remains virtually unknown. The most significant endeavour during his lifetime is arguably his connection to the group of artists known as The Clique.

The Clique

Formed by Richard Dadd in the late 1830s, The Clique was a group made up of an assemblage of British artists, Henry Nelson O’Neil being amongst them. Not much evidence remains of The Clique‘s existence, however it is supposed that the group met up to sketch and receive opinions on their artwork.

The Clique apparently rejected academic high art in favour of genre painting – a term associated with the celebrated William Hogarth, who was probably a great influence to the group. They believed, like Hogarth, that art should be judged by the public, not by preexisting academic ideals.

Hopefully the Museum of London will continue to display Eastward Ho! as part of the exhibition, not only because it represents a particular event in London, but because it is one of the only remaining evidences of O’Neil’s existence. Although he may not have made himself known to the world, it would be a great shame to lose all recognition in the future.

The (Road) Signs of Typography

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From the moment we learn to read, typography has a significant impact on our lives. Without intending to, we absorb thousands of words a day, sometimes even beginning before we get out of bed. Posters dominate the walls of our towns, shops have unique lettering adorning their fronts, and even clothes often come decorated with typographic slogans.

Typography for many people evokes images of decorative lettering, expressive catchphrases, logos and artistic alphabets – such designs that have obviously been thought out and painstakingly developed. What tends to be forgotten is that every written word is a form of typography. Typefaces, including what you are reading now, have been designed; yet, apart from designers, fonts and such like are often dismissed or taken for granted.

One particular typographic design that we see everyday is displayed on road signs throughout the country. How many people look at a sign on the side of a busy motorway and admire the typeface, the layout, kerning, leading etc? No one does. We think, “Thank goodness that sign was there otherwise I would have missed my turning,” or “I’m glad that sign was there, otherwise this roundabout would be very confusing.”

So, who is the genius behind the helpful and effective road signs around Britain? In fact, it was a project by two designers executed at the turn of the 1960s. Jock Kinneir (1917-1994) and Margaret Calvert (1936) are the people who took on the ambitious project to create an easily deciphered signage system that, not only modernised British roads, influenced the rest of the world.

Since tomorrow, 11th February 2017, would have been Kinneir’s 100th birthday, I thought it worth learning about the designer(s) of a system that we now take for granted. Using carefully placed letters, numbers, symbols and colours, Kinneir and his assistant took on the most ambitious information design project to date, and made our roads, and the ever increasing motorways, a much safer thoroughfare to navigate.

When Jock Kinneir took on this project in 1957, he was already a proficient and admired graphic designer. Born in Hampshire, he developed the taste for art and design, resulting in enrolling onto an engraving course at the Chelsea School of Art. Due to the war, his career did not take off straightaway, however he eventually gained a position in the Central Office of Information as an exhibition designer. By 1956, Kinneir had opened his own studio and was teaching at the same school he attended on a part time basis.

Kinneir’s first major project was developing the signage system at Gatwick Airport, which was only just opening for public use. It is at this stage that Kinneir began his partnership with Margaret Calvert. Studying for a National Diploma in Design, Kinnier recognised her illustration skills and employed her to help him produce artworks and drawings for this notable project.

It was through the results of the Gatwick project that Kinneir and Calvert landed themselves with the road sign commission. At this period of time, motorways were only just being introduced to the UK, meaning that the existing signs were virtually illegible and un-thought-out having been erected many years after the roads were originally paved. Kinneir and Calvert’s job was to work alongside the development of the new roads, developing a coherent system that would be easy to read and understand when driving at high speeds.

It was agreed that a combination of upper and lower case was more legible than the standard block capitals that previous sign-makers had utilised. This meant that an appropriate typeface had to be designed or procured. By adapting the preexisting typeface Akzidenz-Grotesk, a sans serif font originally released in Germany, the pair generated a softer, friendlier version, now known as Transport. The signs themselves sported a blue background with white type, which was easy for drivers to spot against the backdrop of the British countryside as well as the stretch of tarmac ahead of them – both during the daytime and at night.

The motorway signage system was such a success that Kinneir and Calvert were asked to design the other, now familiar, signs on the rest of Britain’s roads. These include the simple triangle signs dotted about our roads, as well as the large green boards on the sides of primary roads, and the white versions on the others.

Calvert was responsible for the pictograms that many of our signs display. It was felt that, on occasion, it was easier to show a command using a symbol, rather than a lengthy instruction that drivers would not have time to read. Now, whenever a driver spots a silhouette of a boy holding hands with a little girl, they know to be extra vigilant of children running around in the area.

Kinneir and Calvert later went on to work with British Rail, hospitals and the army, designing signage systems that were so successful that they are still in place today. Imagine the perplexity of navigating around the country without any clear guidance!

John Kinneir died in 1994, but his legacy remains. Of course, his (and Calvert’s) design has altered slightly, the more developed towns, roads and cities become – unfortunately making some areas rather confusing – however, Kinneir is mostly forgotten, as the public take road signs for granted.

“It is sad but true to say that most of us take our surroundings for granted. Direction signs and street names, for instance, are as vital as a drop of oil in an engine, without which the moving parts would seize up; one can picture the effect of the removal of this category of information on drivers in a busy city or on pedestrians trying to find their way in a large building complex. It is a need which has bred a sub-division of graphic design with more influence on the appearance of our surroundings than any other.” – Kinneir, 1965

Next time you are on the streets, whether driving or walking, take a look at the signs you pass. Appreciate their simple design, the use of colour, the clarity of the typeface. These signs did not just appear there, they have been carefully thought out for your benefit. Try not to take them for granted, and make an effort to remember both Kinneir and Calvert’s names – you never know, they may come up in a pub quiz one day!

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