Monday, May 10, 2010

Remembering Frank Frazetta

Today I join a host of fantasy fans pausing for a moment to mourn and remember the life and works of brilliant fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, who passed away from a reported stroke at the age of 82.

A few months back I watched a highly recommended biography on Frazetta's life and work, Frazetta: Painting with Fire, in which a claim was made that Frazetta should be considered one of the greatest painters of the 20th century. Not fantasy painters, mind you, but among all painters, across all genres.

I'll admit that I reacted with a healthy dose of skepticism upon hearing that claim. But as the images in the film unfolded my resistance faded, and by film's end I was drinking the Kool-Aid. I love Edward Hopper and Winslow Homer, but--and I'm not sentimentalizing or expressing undue affectation here--I think Frazetta was every bit as talented as those guys. Heretical as it may seem, I believe that Frazetta could have painted works like Nighthawks or Eight Bells had he chosen to do so. He simply elected to work in a fantasy medium.

Frazetta was an artist who could sell books by his covers alone. On my bookshelf are the complete line of Lancer/Ace Conan books, as well as Joy Chant's Red Moon and Black Mountain and several Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan and John Carter of Mars books. I bought them long ago simply for their evocative Frazetta-illustrated covers. Only later did I discover that they were pretty good books by pretty good authors, too.

I have Frank to thank for that. He showed us glimpses of other worlds and larger-than-life heroes with an inimitable savage style, blending darkness and light and brilliant splashes of color to create muscular warriors and wondrous vistas. May he rest in peace.

10 comments:

Barad the Gnome said...

Aye, tip a pint to a titan among fantasy artists. I'll wager there is more of his artwork in my house than any other artist. Huzzah!

Trey said...

What a loss for fantasy illustration. It's the end of an era.

David J. West said...

I had a chance to watch "Painting with Fire" awhile back, I ought to buy a copy just to have for my kids sake when they are a little older.

editor said...

A comment on the NYT obit made an excellent point: Fantasy art is the last refuge of classicism and Frazetta was probably its greatest practicioner. The commentator argued that, in an earlier age, Frazetta would have been on his back on a scaffold painting a ceiling with scenes of creation and damnation and hailed as a genius.

Which he was, whether "high art" cares about his style anymore or not. He truly was one of the greatest artists of his epoch — or any other — not just the preeminent figure in his chosen genre. I predict that he will soon be accorded the stature that Chandler and Hammett achieved as great American writers, period. The kind of stature Howard is slowly reaching, beyond the genre ghetto.

Anonymous said...

he was the creator of the canon of Conan and the modern barbarian hero...
an excellent comment that of the NYT...
Francisco...

Brian Murphy said...

Editor: That's a great point made by the NYT commenter. I couldn't agree more--Frazetta was that good.

Taranaich said...

A fitting tribute, Brian (though on your TC tribute you preemptively stole a bit on something I've been working on - great minds think alike!)

The NYT commentator was completely correct. If Frazetta was born in Renaissance Italy, his art would be adorning cathedrals, the walls of castles, and would be housed at the Louvre nowadays.

Anyone seeking to make a distinction between "real art" and Frazetta because of their genre or the fact that it's "done for money, not for art" is willfully ignoring history. The Mona Lisa was a commission for the wife of a silk merchant. The Sistine Chapel was a commission to decorate someone's ceiling. Caravaggio made a career out of the Catholic church seeking to entice people away from Protestantism with vivid depictions of their religion.

What's the difference, I ask?

If there was the technology for vivid paintings to go on the cover of books in the 16th Century, you can bet your life that the likes of Leonardo would be making work for them - just as surely Frazetta would be making art for churches and nobility.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Al, great, great post over on The Cimmerian today (Saturday, May 15. I hope you don't mind me sharing the link.

I completely agree with your point about the ridiculous-ness of the commercial vs. "real" art argument. It's pure intellectual snobbery by the same types who refuse to acknowledge anything of literary value in the works of Howard and Tolkien, simply because their works are popular and don't fit into their insular, established canon of "high art." Garbage.

Taranaich said...

Link away, Brian! It's the first of a series that I'll likely do over the next few weeks. I had been working on this in the background, but with Frazetta's passing I thought it timely.

Funnily enough, it's only after studying art for years that I realized just how worthless the distinction is. Besides, so many illustrators are classically trained anyway, they might as well be considered part of that school.

STAG said...

Its true about the covers selling books...Edgar Rice Burrows' "Pellucidar" series was re-published in the mid '60s with Frazetta covers, and I snapped them up. It was a couple of years before I ever got around to reading them...and found them to be competently written, as one would expect from Burrows. I still have them...

Then there was the time I blew the rent money on a set of Frazetta art books.

I always got the impression that Frazetta was really an impressionist. His skies, sea scapes, backgrounds tend to great swatches and splashes of random mood settingm often surreal colours with some very crisp focus details. The result of course, is a style often imitated.