I have written before about Douglass Crockwell’s strange double life as avant-garde film maker and mainstream commercial illustrator. The fact of his personally driven cinematic activities throws an odd light on his illustrations, tempting us to look for hidden depths below the always perfectly finished surfaces. Every tilt of the head or furrowed brow, a clenched fist or tension in the shoulders, an outstretched hand, a vacancy of expression – it easily tempts us to conclude that the surface contentment is an illusion and deep unresolved emotional conflicts simmer below. This may be no more than wishful thinking, guided by an erroneous assumption that an interest in experimental film would be incompatible with accepting a middle class status quo. Perhaps Crockwell was perfectly adapted to his dual existence and had no difficulty pursuing two totally unrelated projects. Perhaps his illustration work was a way to subsidise the unremunerative film work. What can be said with some certainty is that the subtle articulation of light and shade through pictorial space betrays the presence of a cinematographic eye when it comes to illustration.
This selection with one exception is drawn from the extended series of over a hundred illustrations commissioned for the Beer Belongs campaign that ran in American magazines during the mid-1950s. The aim was to lift the consumption of beer out of the blue collar gulag and reposition it as the first choice of the educated, materially successful middle class. The air of studied informality under pressure and alcohol induced jocosity supplies more than a few unintentionally comic images. Taken together they offer a remarkable survey of mid-century affluence – there’s a great selection to be seen on Robin Benson’s Past Print blog. The definitive guide to Crockwell’s excellence is to be found at the Alphabet of Illustrators. Final thought – Rockwell or Crockwell? It’s Crockwell for me; he may have the occasional wobble into sentiment but he never takes us to the maudlin extremes that Rockwell routinely inhabits. The Crockwell composition has a spatial complexity and ingenuity that Rockwell never even aspired to. Crockwell made inspired colour choices to create mood or sometimes subvert it while Rockwell simply coloured in his modest tableaux. Rockwell’s triumph was to ingratiate his way into the American Pantheon with prodigious quantities of flattery and treacly charm. It may be that Crockwell has the last laugh – the elderly moneybags in the first illustration has more than a passing resemblance to the great curator of the American Dream and just may be a sly reference to Rockwell’s formidable earning power.