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Jesse Hamm

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More on Frazetta. [May. 19th, 2010|08:53 am]
Jesse Hamm
I've been perusing the recent bloggings about Frazetta, and a few items
caught my attention.

First, my two favorite openers:

"Zelda art inspiration dead at 82."

"World-renounced artist and illustrator Frank Frazetta..."

And now, an exchange at BoingBoing:

Post #14: "As sad as this is, there is no end to the amount of amazing
artists alive and currently working in Frazetta's field of illustration.
To say that 'they sure don't make 'em like that anymore' is a pretty bold
insult to Frazetta's current colleagues."

Post #15: "They sure don't make 'em like that anymore."

Ah, internet snark.

Chuckles aside, it got me thinking. Do they make 'em like
that anymore? In regard to Frazetta's schooling, I'd say:
no, they don't.

Permit me a brief stroll through art history. During the Renaissance,
painters were taught through the apprentice system. A master would invite
a few young pupils to perform menial work in his studio in exchange for
personal tutelage, Mr. Miyagi-style. Once a pupil had achieved mastery,
he would form his own studio, and repeat the process. This training method
was very effective, but slow.

Eventually, the growing demand for painters gave rise to state-funded
academies, where schooling was standardized and "masters" were trained
en masse. This standardization quickened the training process at the
expense of artistic liberty. Building on all that came before, artistic
technique progressed to amazing heights, but with it grew the academies'
power to ensure conformity. (Think Disney.)

By the late 19th century, artists had begun to rebel against the academies'
strictures, and to splinter off into movements like Impressionism,
Expressionism, Fauvism, and so forth. Academic expertise was tossed out like
water from a poisoned well, and artists happily adopted primitive approaches which
lacked the rigor (and therefore the stench) of the academies. By the 1930s,
abstract and non-representational art were paramount; academic realism and
the training it required were a bad memory. Artists who had received and
embraced traditional academic training* were relegated to the periphery of
the fine art scene, where they catered to the elderly and parochial, or gave
lessons to hobbyists. And that is where we meet Frazetta's art teacher,
Michele Falanga.

Born in Italy in 1870, Falanga came of age in the late 1880s, at which
point he probably received the traditional academic education that was
still common for aspiring artists of the period. He eventually immigrated
to Brooklyn, where he set up a tiny art school, teaching locals of all
ages. There, around 1936, he enrolled 8-year-old Frank Frazetta.

Frazetta began in the traditional academic manner: drawing and painting
plaster casts of statues. According to academy protocol, students would
draw -- and later, paint -- statue after statue, for years ("Wax-on,
wax-off!"), before attempting to draw from a live model. This ensured a
mastery of tools, and how to accurately record shapes and the various
shadows which define them. These years of training granted the already-
talented Frazetta an exceptional grasp of light and form. (Here's an example
of such a drawing. Not by Frazetta, but he'd have done similar exercises.
For years.)

When he was 12, Frazetta progressed to the drawing of nude models.
However, instead of drawing them with the precision he brought to his
still lifes and statues, he was encouraged to take a highly gestural
approach. Falanga was unconcerned with bones and muscles per se; he
wanted his students to capture the models' movements and attitudes,
as expressed through posture and body language. Rapid, scribbly, sweeping
sketches, aimed at recording the spirit of the models' oft-changing poses,
refined the students' grasp of how a body moves and bends and struggles
against gravity. (This is probably where the stiffness of the academies
gave way to the healthier, more idiosyncratic mode of Renaissance
apprenticeship. Falanga's freeform approach to life drawing** spared
Frazetta from the rigid formalism of his artistic forebears. It's also
worth noting that Frazetta counted Segar as a major early influence.) This
phase of Frazetta's training continued for about two years.

At about this time, Falanga formed a plan: the teenaged Frazetta would be
sent to attend art school in Italy. What's curious about this plan is its
apparent redundancy. Wasn't New York a major center of the art world at
that time? Weren't there respected art schools in New York that Frazetta
could attend without leaving home, or struggling with an unfamiliar language?
Why send the boy so far? My guess is that Falanga knew what awaited
Frazetta in the New York art scene, and disdained it. Probably he had
rosy memories of the rigorous training he had received in Italy in the
1890s -- training which far excelled the self-indulgent scribblings he
saw in the American art world of the 1940s. He was a master of a
lost art, sending his star pupil to a far-off land to complete his training where
the master had himself been taught -- at the feet of some even-greater master.

Ironically, the schooling that (I'm guessing) Falanga remembered may have
disappeared from Italy, too, by the '40s. Either way, he wouldn't live to
find out; he died when Frazetta was 14 and too young to be sent abroad.
Falanga's influence was not in vain, however; he had poured the foundation
that would undergird his pupil's approach for the rest of Frazetta's life.
And when the student was ready, a new master did emerge: Hal Foster.

Foster was Frazetta's biggest "art hero." Though he eventually met the older
artist at least once, the lessons Frazetta took from Foster came indirectly: from
copying Foster's comic strips. But that was enough. The value studies and
life drawing Frazetta had practiced at Falanga's were ushered into maturity
under Foster's sublime influence. A fitting scenario, because among cartoonists
of the period, Foster was perhaps alone in having received traditional
academic training
(or something like it). Foster was much older than
his adventure strip peers, and had enrolled at the Chicago Academy of fine
Arts in 1919 -- before non-representationalism would have taken hold.
I don't know how closely his school resembled Europe's 19th century
traditional academic model, but the work of fellow student Grant "American
Gothic" Wood
suggests realism was still a priority there. In any case,
Foster favored the complex, balanced compositions and accurate drawing of
19th century masters, and unlike most of his fellow cartoonists, he used shadows
to define forms, rather than "wire-framing" their structures with lines.
This gave his work a solidity and a sun-baked glow that Frazetta, raised
on similar methods, could emulate more easily than others his age.

All of this gave Frazetta a massive advantage over his peers. Many were
unschooled in art, and even those who had attended art school would have
learned from teachers who themselves hadn't the benefit of traditional
academic training. By the '60s, anyone competing with Frazetta was essentially
pitting makeshift tools against a centuries-old mountain of tradition. His
paintings stand among theirs like Mad Max among the children of Thunderdome:
a witness to a culture that died before they were born.

Now, these are heavy claims for art whose spiritual kin is monster trucks
and skull-bongs. But Frazetta's lowly metier makes his popularity even more
impressive. After all, his appeal isn't limited to metal-heads and comics
geeks. Repeatedly, in the blogs that have appeared since his death, I see
this refrain:

"I grew out of this macho crap when I was 12, BUT...."


"...but even now, decades after I outgrew his subject matter,
I find it necessary to memorialize this man whose work still haunts me."

Bloggers who have absolutely no use for axe-wielding barbarians or their
big-breasted leg-candy are, for some reason, still awed by these paintings.

One might speculate that it's because the subject matter represents some
primitive archetype buried deep in these folks' brains. If that were true,
though, they would also add the reverent "BUT..." to their reminiscences
of He-Man, Willow, and Beastmaster. (They don't.)

I prefer to think that their rejection of Frazetta's subject matter is
wholehearted, and that their reluctant fascination with his work has a
simpler basis: Frazetta's pictures represent a tradition of advanced
artistry that has all but disappeared. Not merely accurate rendering
(which still thrives in the world of paperback covers, and which in much
of Frazetta's work is more interpretive than mimetic, anyway),
but a potent way of arranging colors, shapes, darks & lights,
precision & ambiguity, and body language that most of the
art world turned its back on a century ago.

In short, they just don't make 'em like that anymore.

*Here's some art by two of the last painters to receive traditional
academic training from 19th century masters: R. H. Ives Gammell
and Solomon J. Solomon. Their striking compositions, heroic figures,
impeccable draftsmanship, and stark-yet-sensitive lighting remind one
of a certain paperback cover artist. A younger half-brother, perhaps?

**For a great guide to gestural life drawing, check out Walt Stanchfield's
DRAWN TO LIFE, vol's 1 & 2.

[User Picture]From: sketchjournal
2010-05-19 08:59 pm (UTC)
His paintings stand among theirs like Mad Max among the children of Thunderdome>>

(Reply) (Thread)
From: tysoe
2010-05-20 06:06 am (UTC)

Very informative

I always wondered about those early years with Falanga. I couldn't find any information about this period and wondered what kind of education Frazetta got at the Brooklyn school.

You pretty much answered some of my questions here that I haven't found elsewhere, thanks.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: pfarley
2010-05-20 07:44 am (UTC)
For me, it all started when I was a child and saw that baby blue Econoline van parked in front of the arcade, with the Silver Warrior (and his polar bear chariot) airbrushed onto its side. It was the proverbial "sound of one hand clapping" -- I had never dreamed there could *be* art like this.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2010-05-21 05:19 pm (UTC)
According to Gil Kane, Frazetta used to sit next to him in life drawing class at the Art Students League in NYC (across from Carnegie Hall). This is something that never gets mentioned in any of the Frazetta bios (that he went to the League).

Alec Stevens
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2010-05-24 01:42 am (UTC)
I have a few jpegs of Falanga's around and they aren't very impressive. They were of normal 19th century peasant scene type stuff... waifish girl in front of brown door is the one I remember. I was not impressed with the draughtsmanship, certainly not near Lepage's or Duveneck's level for the same subject matter. Hardly what one would call a "master" .. more like "proficient". Although Wrightson once told me he saw a Falanga that was very colorful in the strange way that Frazetta's work was colorful, but I haven't been able to confirm that with my own eyes.

I think Falanga gave frazetta solid training in the precision of classical drawing and some comfort level with oil paint at an early age, maybe some appreciation of gesture, but Falanga, from what I can see, didn't know a quarter of the information in evidence in any given Rockwell or Pyle illustration.

So I think Frazetta's best "teachers" were the illustrations he was looking at and analyzing on his own (Pyle, Wyeth, Coll, Norman Lindsay, Rockwell, Wallace Smith, etc.) and his art buddies, like Krenkel and Williamson and the people in the industry who may have given him some pointers on technique. Since nobody he knew was as good as he was, one must assume most of what Frazetta learned was self-taught.

Alec Stevens... that's a very interesting new piece of info. Is there any conformation on it, and can you lay your hands on the interview itself? Or is that something you heard second hand?

kev ferrara
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2010-05-24 01:49 pm (UTC)
My point wasn't that Falanga himself was a great artist. (My "master of a lost art" remark was a tongue-in-cheek speculation about Falanga's view of the situation, rather than an assessment of Falanga's skills.) My point was that he taught Frazetta using the traditional method of drawing & painting casts, passed down by masters like Gerome, along with a lot of gesture drawing. This gave Frazetta a clear edge over his contemporaries. All of them had access to the work of Pyle, Foster, etc, but Frazetta had the advantage of a strong grounding in light & shadow, and gesture.

It's like if a coach, whose own athletic career was unremarkable, trained a boxer by making him lift weights, spar, and run, and then that boxer trounced other boxers who enjoyed sparring but rarely bothered with weight-lifting or running.

Some of Falanga's works can be viewed online, such as this one. It's not a great painting, but the high contrasts, preoccupation with figures, thin paint application (canvas showing through), and rapid, sketchy brushstrokes remind me of Frazetta.

Alec may even have heard Kane's account first-hand; he's been a New York-based pro for decades. But you might need to write him directly for a reply, in case he's not checking this thread.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2010-05-24 05:52 pm (UTC)
I've met Gil Kane, but I didn't hear this from him directly; rather, Hy Eisman (currently drawing the "Popeye" and "Katzenjammer Kids" strips and treasurer of the National Cartoonists Society) told me that Kane relayed this info to him, particularly in response to Frank Frazetta's allegation of having learned his anatomy in one weekend by studying and copying George Bridgman's anatomy textbooks.

(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: ext_236347
2010-06-07 05:18 am (UTC)

Ah so he did recieve training...

Thanks for this post. I always thought Frazetta was one of those persons that didn't receive training at all: his documentaries/bios all seem to say that he intuitively knew how to draw since he was a kid, specially regarding the story that he learned anatomy in 1 night, by copying the drawings of a certain book. Even he was taught as a child, he still was taught.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: williamstout
2011-05-11 05:55 pm (UTC)

Michele Falanga

Michele Falanga, at least from the painting in the link, seems to have been profoundly influenced by the paintings of the great (but now obscure) visionary (he inspired and launched the Orientalist movement), Spanish painter Mariano Fortuny. Fortuny's pen illustrations and etchings were pen illustrator Joseph Clement Coll's biggest influence as well.

I have to agree that Frank probably received his greatest art education from being exposed to the incredible art and book collections of Roy Krenkel and Al Williamson. Their vast libraries of turn of the century art and early 20th century illustration, plus their infectious enthusiasm for such works undoubtedly rubbed off on their artist friend with the photographic memory. Frank seemed to take a mental snapshot of whatever he saw, internalize it and then spew it (or an important element of it) back on to the canvas or paper filtered through Frank's own strong vision of what he wanted.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: smacdon2011
2011-05-19 10:25 pm (UTC)

Frazetta and Falanga

I just picked up a copy of and am enjoying the doc
[Error: Irreparable invalid markup ('<frazetta:>') in entry. Owner must fix manually. Raw contents below.]

I just picked up a copy of <Fire and Ice> and am enjoying the doc <Frazetta: Painting with Fire>. It's a return to youth for me in a sense. I'm a researcher in visual media and literature, but Frazetta is for me one of the first experiences I had with "art." Being a fairly high-falutin academic, I've looked and studied a lot of art since I first cracked open the Ballantine books on Frazetta (which, at 7.95, had to be saved up for a few weeks!).

Mr. Hamm's piece is quite good. Indeed, I think you put your finger on some interesting aspect of art training. But I would quibble with your contention that this sort of training stopped with modern art. For example, the Italian modern painter de Chirico (who predates Falanga and Frazetta by the way) included many images of mannequins, sculptures and architecture that could be considered as evidence of the continuation of the rigorous training you speak of, at least the importance of form and texture, etc. The results aside, training was not necessarily sacrificed (think of the surrealist Dali for example).

Mr. Stout's point is important. I wasn't familiar with Mariano Fortuny specifically, but "Orientalism" wasn't so much a movement than a cultural vibe in a lot of European art, literature, and music that can be found throughout the 19th century (think of Ingres for example, but there were many great and bad "orientalist" painters).

Orientalism has been heavily critiqued, but some of these images certainly linger on in popular culture, and in pulp art of the 1930s, and later in Krenkel, Williamson and of course Frazetta (and plenty of other artists). While it may have been "high" art in the 19th century, in the 20th century, it would be called (for better or for worse) a type of "genre" painting.

I've been looking for some of Falanga's stuff, and there is some for sale. Here's one: http://p3.la-img.com/378/1806/771534_1_l.jpg

Now this is not evidence that Frank Frazetta was painting in the tradition of his "master" or anything like that. I am very fond of Frazetta, even though (as Mr. Hamm put it) I don't go for the axes in the head so much anymore. But there are two things that link him to the earlier work of a painter like Falanga, one is the negotiation with the "real" (texture, form , the way Frazetta's paintings seem so "physically" present) and also the framing of a scene.

Frazetta lovers might not like it, but Frazetta framed his scenes very very
obviously. This is both the attraction and "artifice" of Frazetta and artists in the same "tradition" or genre. The scene is framed with a center and out of the center other details arise. Sometimes the background fades into swirls in Frazetta, and that might be for effect, but also because it's really the foreground that matters. Frazetta shows what he wants us to see. He's a bit pushy sometimes, but I still enjoy it very much.

(By the way, the William Stout I know is a wonderful illustrator known for Dinosaurs but who drew so much more. I still remember a very disturbing portrait of Ed Gein he once did, sheesh talk about lost sleep!)

Apologies for the verbosity. Wonderful article.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-05-23 08:53 pm (UTC)

Re: Frazetta and Falanga

Thanks for commenting, Smacdon. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece.

I think de Chirico fits the timeline I described. He trained in Europe around the turn of the century, before the values of abstract expressionism replaced traditional academic training.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2011-05-24 09:21 pm (UTC)

Re: Frazetta and Falanga

Thanks for the reply. I think your piece is interesting. But I'm not sure what you mean about the "values of abstract expressionism."

It's tempting to generalize of course, but it's impossible to claim abstract expressionist artists were not trained the same way as a Falanga or a Frazetta.

Let's take Willem De Kooning (you can look at one of his pieces here: <http://www.artst.org/abstract-expressionism/willem_de_kooning/dekooning_001.jpg.html>). De Kooning of course was originally from the Netherlands, so he was probably trained in "figurative" painting, which means he had to paint figures, models and all that.

Nevertheless, when Frazetta is learning as a young man abstract expressionists are just starting to get noticed (in the late 1940s). But they certainly don't start "dominating" the fine art world until the 1950s, and by then other stuff is coming up like Pop, and conceptual art etc (which does not mean they are "trained" any differently).

Frazetta could happily paint whatever the hell he wanted to (as long as he could make a living from it of course) and the abstract expressionists would probably have had litle effect on that.

There's an interview with De Kooning and he says something to the effect of, if you look really closely at a Norman Rockwell painting it's abstract. All you have to do is look closely at a Frazetta and you can see the same thing (in a way you've touched on that already in another article on his design). It's in his backgrounds certainly. And you don't get Frazetta's women's butts unless you make a globe shape first!

So "abstract" or "figurative," the basic "values" may not be so different.

Maybe someone should address the real innovsation in Frazetta, which has nothing to do with painting as such.

All the best.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2011-05-24 10:46 pm (UTC)

Re: Frazetta and Falanga

What I meant by "values of abstract expressionism" is a distaste for figurative art, which eroded the training of draftsmanship in the early 20th Century. Artists of the period simply weren't put through those paces anymore, and it shows in their attempts at realism.
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