Art as a storyteller -- it's doing better than ever

A good place to find out how American illustration is faring these days is at the New York Historical Society's exhibition here, "Twenty Years of Award Winners: The Best in Contemporary Illustration From the Society of Illustrators annual shows."

It is the first show of contemporary illustration at a major museum, and includes more than 100 works in all media from traditional oil on canvas to TV film and fiber art.

To many, the art of illustration is hardly art at all. How could it be, they argue, if it must concern itself as much with another's idea or product as with the realities of art -- if it must modify its formal integrity to give pictorial life to the words of an author, or to sell magazines?

Besides, they ask, isn't storytelling in art now taboo? aren't we done with it once and for all?

To anyone who sees a great deal of what is being painted today (and I'm not referring to those who visit only those galleries representing one very specific point of view), this last question will sound laughably naive. For, despite what we may hear or read, storytelling in art is alive and well, and in fact is doing better now than it has in years. And illustration itself is moving forward at a rapid pace.

There is only one problem. Illustration is a high-risk field as far as the survival of genuine originality (as opposed to novelty) is concerned, and presents a particular kind of dilemma for a young artist of talent and imagination. While his originality may be his greatest asset, he often cannot express it because clients are seldom willing to risk their money on something dramatically different or untried. And yet, unless he can find clients who will accept such risks, his creative potentials can be easily and permanently curtailed.

The best illustrators have all somehow managed to survive this situation, have continued to grow creatively -- and have ultimately arrived at the point where their special brand of originality was acknowledged to be a valuable commodity.

History indicates that the outstanding illustrators have always been those with a highly personal style and point of view, one that never changes, regardless of how or where it is applied. Thus Durer, Blake, and Goya remained totally themselves in all professional situations, and Gustave Dore, while he may have adjusted his style a bit to various projects, never alteredm it to suit a client.

The good illustrator, then, is a creatively imaginative artist before he is a story or product salesman.

Charles Bragg is such an artist. His delightfully wacky universe of pudgy people, animals and things is a immediately identifiable as those of Arthur Rackham or Edmund Dulac of earlier years. In his field he is unique, just as Jack Benny was in his or Fanny Brice was in hers.

Bragg has one work in this show at the Historical Society, and it stands head and shoulders over everything else in it. "Chimeras" consists of two very small oils mounted within one frame, and is as perfect a piece of illustration as one is likely to find anywhere. Everything in it, from its highly sophisticated technique to its marvelously sardonic point of view, is of a piece, part and parcel of Bragg's uniquely private universe.

Although they don't match Bragg's entry in quality, there are other highly individual pieces in this exhibition. Outstanding among them are Robert Jones's wonderfully insane "Trick or Treat," Wayne Anderson's imaginative "Ratsmagic," Murray Tinkelman's pen-and-ink drawing "Rhino," John O'Leary's "Music Any Way You Want It," and Robert Giusti's delightfully zany study of a smug cat, "Irving's Delight."

Among the more straightforward illustrations, I particularly liked Stan Hunter's "The Sun Also Rises," Bernie Fuchs's delicate "Casals," Seymour Pearlstein's casually but shrewdly executed figure study "Toby and Jack," Fred Freeman's precisely rendered "Duel of the Ironclads," and Robert Heindel's fanciful "Sybil."

But I mustn't forget Judith Jampel's remarkably life- like fiber sculpture of "Sam Erwin," Fred Otnes's intriguing assemblage "We Americans," or Lynn Sweat's charming series of monoprints, "Birds without Words." Nor, tucked away in a corner, an example of the type of illustration very popular 30 or 40 years ago but seldom seen since: Tom Lovell's "Continental Soldier." It may look a bit old-fashioned, but it's one of the best-painted works in the show.

Finally, there is one small picture that in many ways is the loveliest of all those on view. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' gentle and lyrical 1964 "The Herald Angel" holds up as beautifully from a distance as design as it does close up as illustration.

All in all, this exhibition at the New York Historical Society is well worth visiting. There are enough good and interesting pieces in it to offset those that are derivative or gimmicky. And there is enough technical expertise on display to satisfy any young illustrator eager to see how it is done.

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