Monday, August 26, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Cartoonists Who Paint.
[Charles Dana Gibson 1890s]
by Rick Marschall

Well, we have reached the half-century mark! Not myself – I wish – and a couple columns until the one-year anniversary, another milestone; but 50 Crowded Life in Comics peregrinations of events I have witnessed or been party to, and characters I have met, both inky and human.

A little diversion in this encyclopedia of diversions, here. Some items from my walls, the best of friends in my daily “life.”

Many cartoonists are frustrated or aspiring painters – and vice versa, believe me – and many cartoonists paint on canvas, or they sculpt, whether as creative cobweb-clearing pursuits or because they are darn good at yet another form of expression. And we all should be aware, and take encouragement, that artists often tend gardens or master their favorite cuisines, as outlets no less soul-satisfying than painting.

As a collector I have sought pieces in the category of canvases executed by pen-and-ink cartoonists. Following is not all of the ones I have acquired, but ones currently on my walls (therefore… please forgive odd angles and perspectives; and occasional reflections).

The creator of the Gibson Girl inspired two generations of pen-and-ink artists who tried their hardest to draw like Gibson (and most who failed before finding their own styles); and a generation of American women and men who tried their hardest to look like Gibson’s characters. His depictions of the Gibson Girl and her circle, 1890s-1920s, freed young adults from Victorian trappings like bustles and facial hair (in, um, women and men, respectively).

The first framed piece is a story illustration, watercolors – rare as a Gibson mode – in the early 1890s. The second is a New Years drawing signed to a friend, 1925.

Kemble was a relatively unknown cartoonist whose drawings appeared occasionally in the New York Daily Graphic and in the fledgling Life magazine, late 1870s and early 1880s, when Mark Twain noticed his work and offered him the job of illustrating Huckleberry Finn. The “fit” was perfect, and Kemble was continually occupied until his death in the 1920s – many more books; comic strips; magazine gags; political cartoons; advertising work. Except for genre paintings, in gouache-grays, for Collier’s ca. 1901-1906, his medium was pen and ink. His work was often classified with that of A B Frost (they both illustrated Uncle Remus stories), and I do not know what this watercolor of a fox hunter was done for.

Art critic Thomas Craven called Zim a “technical cousin” of F. Opper, and so he was; a master of characters, native humor, and comic invention. Zim’s medium was pen and ink… also the lithographic crayon, ink, and brush: drawing on stone instead of paper. Many cartoons appeared in color, but were lithographs, not paintings. This drawing of a rural black fisherman is almost 35 inches high, and in mixed media of chalk or pastel, and watercolor or tempera. I have no idea if it was an elaborate “chalk-talk” piece – that is, created in front of an audience – or was ever published. I am a Zim fanatic, almost a completist, but I have never seen it in print.

There are some cartoonists whose color work has lived in our appreciative consciousness. George Herriman’s ink-and-watercolor specialty drawings come to mind. But these mostly were presentation pieces. Jimmy Swinnerton, who was active as a newspaper cartoonist from the mid 1890s to the mid 1950s, maintained a separate career as a painter. His specialty, and honor today, was in Southwest / desert / plein air themes and modes. This is a study, not a finished canvas, done (according to the note over his signature) of the Salton Sea, the man-made (and disastrously designed) lake between San Diego and Palm Springs. As a run-off of the Colorado River, it quickly became a huge, fetid lake. Jimmy did not capture the “Sea,” but the other-worldly desert environs, as throughout the Southwest, is what attracted him. (He was sent to the desert around 1905 because doctors thought he was dying of TB; he wound up outliving doctors and many cacti too). My son has fallen in love with Swin’s desert canvases, and has studies, finished canvases, and sketches.

When the revised and reformed Nemo Magazine 2.0 starts up (consider this a construction sign) I plan an article about the cartoonists of the Armory Show. That 1913 exhibition in New York was the landmark show that introduced America, in large part, to the latter-day French Impressionists, to the Cubists, to early German Expressionism; and (to Americans other than connoisseurs and investors) names like Picasso. It was a revolutionary show in extent and audacity – almost overnight, new artists and new style and modes overtook American art and criticism. What is little known is that many of the ground-breaking American painters had begun their careers (or financed them!) as cartoonists – John Sloan, George Bellows, Boardman Robinson; and among the important organizers were cartoonists like Walt Kuhn and Gus Mager. Further, there were working cartoonists, famous names from the Sunday papers, who exhibited in the Armory Show, and were grateful to be there. Rudolph Dirks was one such artist, with three canvases at the landmark event. This painting is not one of them, but the canvas – nearly seven feet long – combines Dirks’ two lives. Probably done around 1908-1912, the oil depicts woodland sprites in his exquisite Impressionist style; and, on the right, chanching upon the arborial scene (of nymphs, perhaps?) are Rudy’s two iconic young Noble Savages, Hans and Fritz, the Katzenjammer Kids.

As a collector, I classify paintings by cartoonists as Strokes of Luck when I find them.


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