Two new histories trace art's stepsister: illustration

The Art of Illustration, by Michel Melot. New York: Skira/Rizzoli International Publications Inc. 269 pp. $60. The Illustrator in America, 1880-1980, by Walt and Roger Reed. New York: Published for the Society of Illustrators by Madison Square Press Inc. 335 pp. $48.50. Illustration, in its broadest context, is any visual image related to written text. Illustration is thought of as a secondary art in most quarters. Called ``commercial'' art in a pejorative sense, it has been overlooked for serious study even though it touches the lives of most people. In America it is a field that has been the training ground for some of this country's most revered painters: Winslow Homer, Frederic Remington, John Sloan, and Edward Hopper, among others. Yet it has always had a difficult time finding a home in the cultural arena. But it does have a value as yet unplumbed, if only as a vivid record of the changing moods and attitudes of history.

In his book, Michel Melot, director of the Public Information Library at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, explores what he calls the history of ``fashion and us'' as expressed in illustration. Commencing with pictograms that ultimately became alphabets, and then documenting the budding relationship between word and image, he works his way through medieval illumination, scientific drawings from the Renaissance, 17th- and 18th-century book illustration, and then 19th-century Romantic illustration. There are chapters on writer/artists, illustrated newspapers, photographic illustration, advertising illustration, posters, contemporary illustrated books, art books, comics, and illustrated magazines. Some of the artists touched on are William Blake, Gustave Dor'e, Aubrey Beardsley, Jean Dubuffet, and Max Ernst.

Mr. Melot's knowledge is vast, and he covers much ground and in great depth. His text is generously illustrated. But only the hardiest reader will stay with this book, for his dense prose is a struggle. Statements like ``Writing about pictures is limited to what words can say about them,'' or ``The poster appears directly connected with the necessity of producing them'' reveal a quirky mode of thought.

In ``The Illustrator in America, 1880-1980,'' Walt and Roger Reed concentrate on American magazine illustration. The pages of their beautifully designed and produced book are filled with hundreds of biographies of illustrators. Introducing each decade is an essay written by an illustrator with knowledge of the era.

As an anthology of one phase of American illustration, this book is a handsome success.

But where the Melot book is too broad and deep for general consumption, the Reeds' book, although filled with beautiful pictures, is strangely limited in its scope. One would be led to believe that all illustrators are direct descendants of the Golden Age illustrators: Gibson, Flagg, and Pyle. There is little evidence of other trends, such as the push pin revolution of the '50s, although some of the artists are included. Where are the marvelous calligraphic illustrations of Ben Shawn and Saul Steinberg? Or the substantive industrial paintings of Walter Murch? And what of Al Hirshfield, a national institution? The list of those missing is pretty impressive.

As attempts at authoritative works on the art of illustration, both of these books fall short. Aside from the fact that they appeal to special interests, a flaw in both is that most of the art has been separated from the text it was meant to illustrate. How the illustrator has solved this relationship is one of the great strengths of this art, and it is unfair to expect illustration to stand alone against paintings done as an end in themselves. .

Neither of these books is going to solve illustration's basic problem -- bad public relations. What illustration still needs is a true history placing it honorably in the pantheon of the arts. It needs scholarly study and exposition that will broaden appreciation in the academic community and with the public. The best of illustration is on a par with any of its sister arts, and this should be made more apparent.

Charles McVicker teaches painting at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, N.Y.

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