Thursday, 28 February 2013

Albert Dorne, commercial artist

Q: Have you ever painted what you wanted to paint – for your own pleasure, so to speak?
A: I have never felt a need to make pictures for my own so-called pleasure.

The anatomy of mid-century America and the post-war carnival of consumption were recorded in exhilarating detail by the illustrators of the period. There are some who had a greater range than Albert Dorne and some who explored in greater depth but Dorne intrigues for his single-minded pursuit of revenue and an absolute absence of artistic pretension. The publication of a book* devoted to the activities of a commercial artist and illustrator is something to be grateful for. It may be churlish to complain because, despite my hope for something a little more definitive and authoritative, it does shed some much needed light on the professional world of the mid-century illustrator. The authors have collected some fascinating detail (especially on the subject of the Famous Artists School) and some first hand reminiscences and a more handsome and comprehensive book was presumably outside the budget. Albert Dorne worked exclusively for advertisers and magazine publishers – there are no illustrated classic books for the likes of the First Edition Club and no collections of paintings of steamships or racing cars or regattas or exotic landscapes. Dorne claimed to have acquired his drawing skills through years of sketching as a teenage visitor to the Metropolitan Museum and he was not uninterested in Fine Art (he admired aspects of Cézanne and Picasso) but he had no ambitions to try his hand at anything outside his core activities.
*David Apatoff   Albert Dorne: Master Illustrator   Auad Publishing, 2012

Dorne saw himself as primarily a businessman – as he became successful he employed a team that eventually expanded to include an accountant, business manager, secretary and studio assistant. Keeping the reference files in good order was the most important responsibility of the studio assistant. Speed of execution and consistent excellence were his selling points in pitching to art editors and advertising agencies and he made a point of never delegating a single brush stroke to an assistant. An exceptional talent for caricature was his most popular attribute and much employed by corporate advertisers to give their product a human face. Shoot-outs, mass brawls and fisticuffs generated enormous volumes of business from Saturday Evening Post, Colliers and Lady’s Home Journal but viewed in retrospect an unrelieved diet of pop eyes, bushy brows, bulbous noses, droopy moustaches, pot bellies, Stetsons, suspenders and dungarees can rapidly get tedious. Rather more impressive is Dorne’s flair for handling animated crowd scenes seen to best advantage in the great series of images painted on behalf of Wurlitzer juke-boxes. These extraordinary tableaux burst with vitality and display a high order of spatial organisation. Dorne was proud to supply his clients with exactly what they wanted, free of all artistic pretension, and what they wanted was mostly caricature surrounded by white space. Coloured inks were his choice of media and he developed a method of application that equalled the density and depth of colour achieved by his colleagues working in body colour or gouache. 

Dorne’s public persona was formed by his working class New York childhood and he may have had more in common with an artist like De Kooning who liked to present himself as an uncomplicated proletarian. An assertive personality, a pugnacious manner, frequent profanity and an ability to charm when necessary are the qualities he was remembered for. Commercial success translated into a life of suburban affluence, hand-made suits and shoes and a custom Mercedes with all the accessories befitting to a self-made man born and raised in the East Side slums. The illustrations come from a trawl through the tear-sheets – most, but not all of Dorne’s work bears his distinctive signature. A few of these examples have no signature and are a result of guesswork that may stand to be corrected. 

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Bearing Witness

Bears are obliging creatures. They can be held up to terrify us with their implacable savagery or they can be infantilised to amuse us with their cuddly charms. We can thrill to the horror of being casually dismembered by an ursine enragé or be captivated by winsome tales of adorable cubs. In the postcard universe bears are working for Homeland Security and make well-behaved visitors at the tea table. Bears are useful product ambassadors for business – symbolising unrivalled strength or cheery good humour. In the world of books for children a useful guide to threat assessment is to relate it to the amount of clothing on the bear. A well-dressed bear is a benevolent presence whereas an unclothed specimen is unlikely to be well intentioned. Below we have a number of illustrators who have risen to the challenge including Rojan, Leslie Brook, Freda Derrick, Alfred Bestall, Arnrid Johnson, Clifford Webb and G H Thompson. 

Friday, 15 February 2013

Spirit in the Sky

An enduring cliché in the world of advertising is the spirit in the sky that imparts a celestial presence to an otherwise banal scene. An overarching symbol of wisdom or power floats in the heavens – an ethereal deity that guides the corporate destiny. In another approach we see the guiding hand of lifelong experience transmitting hard won skills through the generations. It’s all part of the eternal struggle to develop a corporate soul that can speak directly to the consumer’s innermost sense of identity. At least in the 1950s there remained some residual respect for the intelligence of the audience. Today’s advertisers are ever more confident that even the most odious, cold-hearted, exploitative businesses can be presented to the public as their best friend with the aid of a few cuddly toys, an ingratiating regional accent and an intensely irritating jingle interminably repeated. 

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Charles Laughton, actor and drinker

In this ad for Pabst beer we see the great Charles Laughton squinting into the California sun, holding a glass of chilled Blue Ribbon. It’s 1949 and Laughton has just turned fifty – and recently played the part of Simenon’s Inspector Maigret in The Man on the Eiffel Tower (released in 1950). Filmed on location in somewhat dishevelled post-war Paris in Ansco Color, the production had been fraught with difficulty. The original director had been replaced halfway through, after much internal conflict, by one of the cast (Burgess Meredith). Unsurprisingly the finished movie lacked coherence and consistency of tone – a curious combination of suspense and flippancy. The cinematographer was Stanley Cortez whose excellence was squandered on a meandering narrative and some mediocre acting. Laughton himself seemed uninspired and disinclined to take it at all seriously. But Cortez and Laughton would collaborate to infinitely greater effect five years later when Laughton directed his only film, the incomparable Night of the Hunter. Laughton had become a US citizen and at his first attempt made what would come to be regarded as “one of the masterpieces of American cinema” (David Thomson). When Laughton died in 1962 the critical standing of his film was basically unchanged from the initial indifference – the subsequent reassessment and rise to greatness would take place after his lifetime. Previous posts on Laughton here and here