Friday, October 24, 2014

The Painter and the Cartoonist

     “Even a casual reader of ‘Dick Tracy’ finds his memory’s dam bursting with recollections … and images.” Richard Marschall, ‘This IS a Comic Strip!’, Nemo 17, Feb 1986
by John Adcock

CHESTER GOULD had many imitators among comic strip artists but he was one of a kind, as writer and artist. The only cartoonist whose influence on Dick Tracy I could ever discern was that of Frank Willard’s Moon Mullins, as can be seen in the faces of Detective Sam Catchem and characters in Tracy’s crowd scenes. Gould mentioned his admiration for Moon Mullins in an interview but Johnson’s influence was slight. Another strip, The Gumps by Sidney Smith, inspired Gould’s storytelling style.

With little to compare him to in cartoonist circles, writers over the years have turned to the fine arts for comparison. Chester Gould’s comic strip style has been described as realist, expressionist, Dadaist and surrealist, and — in one obituary — Gould was headlined as the “Father of Pop Art.” All of these comparisons are valid although Gould himself might have had minimal interest in Fine Art.

1967 — ‘Pacific’
THE FINE ARTIST whose work most closely resembles that of Gould (1900-85) was the Canadian painter Alex Colville (1920-2013), dubbed a “Magic Realist” (he personally preferred the term “straight realism”) who worked steadily from 1951 until his last painting in 2009. Colville, like Gould, was a unique artist and a private person. He reintroduced the practice of egg tempera into Canadian painting.

He had several younger Canadian imitators (Christopher Pratt, Ken Danby and Tom Forrestall) but didn’t consider himself the leader of any “school” of painting. Some of his followers among the photorealistic wildlife painters drifted into the controversial commercial print business. None of Colville’s imitators ever surpassed his stature among Canadian painters however. In 1967 he designed the Centennial Coins – beautiful bird, fish and wildlife designs issued to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Confederation.

“The thing that hit me hardest was the ancient Egyptian art and, of course, its main theme is death, eternity, and all that business.” Its secret lies in a system of mathematics that, millennia later, in a cold attic in Atlantic Canada, Colville uses to make geometric grids for the composition of every spooky painting he puts together. – Harry Bruce article Beside the Shadow of the Raven, 1977

1965 — ‘To Prince Edward Island’
COLVILLE practiced magic realism in a sharply defined realistic style, with elements of the fantastic and the emotionally psychological. His figures were strongly outlined and looked almost like cutouts pasted onto the painted backgrounds. Chester Gould’s drawings also mixed detailed realism with the emotionally disturbing, and both artists used a clear line, flat shapes, frozen time, and sharply defined grid-like structures to anchor visual space. Columnist Harry Bruce described Colville’s grids as ‘his ancient Egyptian geometry.’

“— in varying degrees, Dick Tracy proposed a new standard of precision, a rediscovery of precision such as only those artists, major and minor, who are entitled to be taken with full seriousness, ever deal with. Like Aubrey Beardsley and Max Beerbohm, Chester Gould insists, in his work, on presenting the terms and figures of darkness in the imagery of a superhuman, murderous daylight, the language of impeccable identification.” — ‘Flat Foot Floogie’ by Donald Phelps, Nemo 17, Feb 1986
Gould departed from realism only in his use of exaggerated caricature to delineate his human characters. My feeling is that if Gould’s style must be compared to fine art then magic realism is closer to the descriptive mark than expressionism or surrealism.

Colville’s paintings were widely reproduced in Canadian periodicals but I wouldn’t think that Gould was familiar with Colville’s work, or vice versa. If Gould knew of magic realism it would probably have been through the American paintings of Andrew Wyeth. Nonetheless a comparison of their works discloses a startling similarity of ideas and execution.

1955 — ‘Dick Tracy’, Star WeeklyNov 19
I already entioned the grid-like structure of Colville’s paintings and Gould’s panels, both used straight lines for horizons separating earth from sky, and both frequently cut off the heads of figures in their panels. (Gould often hid them behind word balloons.) Colville’s 1967 painting Pacific cuts off the head of the main figure as does River Spree from 1971. Woman with Revolver decapitates the head and feet.

“…frequently cut off the heads of figures in their panels…”

COULD Colville’s compositions have been inspired by Dick Tracy? Perhaps the question is not as far-fetched as it seems. Colville was eleven years old when Tracy made his debut in 1931. As a Canadian sponsored war artist he may have come across Dick Tracy in comic books, the choice reading of troops serving overseas. If Colville read newspaper comics in the 50s and 60s he couldn’t have missed Dick Tracy, which appeared in many comic sections including The (Toronto) Star Weekly, The Winnipeg Tribune and The (Vancouver) Sunday Sun.

1958 — ‘Birds of Canada; Robin’, by James Fenwick Lansdowne, August 23
I RECALL that in the 60s every time Alex Colville finished a painting it would be reproduced large-sized in the weekend magazine supplements like (Toronto) Star Weekly (1910), (Montréal) Weekend Picture Magazine (1951) and the Canadian (1965). Ken Danby, James Fenwick Lansdowne, and Robert Bateman were others honored with full page color reproductions. Turning to the comic supplement in the same package you would find the Sunday Dick Tracy.

1956 — ‘Dick Tracy’, Star Weekly, June 30
Life magazine stated that “Dick Tracy is bought every day in the year by 18,500,000 people, and is probably read by twice that number.” The Dick Tracy comic books claimed sales of 25 million. It would be more likely that Colville was familiar with Dick Tracy than that Gould knew of Alex Colville, who scoffed when newspaper articles referred to him as an international celebrity. Twenty American museums rejected showings of Colville’s 1984 Retrospective exhibition of paintings and Colville said “I can’t imagine more than five per cent of Canadians are aware I exist.” I think he was being modest.

1975 — ‘Dog and Priest’

Harry Bruce, Beside the Shadow of the Raven — Why death suffuses the art of Alex Colville, Montreal Gazette, Jan 15, 1977.
Alex Colville obituary, The Telegraph, Aug 22, 2013 HERE.
Chester Gould obituary, Los Angeles Times, May 12, 1985 HERE.
All Alex Colville images (copyright A.C. Fine Art Inc.) are reproduced with permission of Official site of Alex Colville HERE.

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