Thursday, February 12, 2009

Leyendecker, Parrish & Sontag

Leyendecker, Parrish & Sontag: Those three should start a law firm. The name sounds really good...

Back from sabbatical, my teaching schedule is turning out to be brutal. I'm excited to be back, don't get me wrong. But I crawl to Friday.

I'm teaching a senior seminar for illustrators, a studio course devoted to onsite reporting and illustration: Reportage: Illustrated Perspectives in a Factual Landscape. The general nonfiction categories that the book/zinelike projects are required to address are social history, comedy of manners, informational subjects, memoir, and perspectival reportage. I put together a reading and viewing list for students late last year that articulates those categories and assigns examples to them. I've been meaning to post some of that document for GT readers, as I got a lot out of putting it together...

My second course is an academic culture studies offering, Commercial Modernism in America 1865-1965. A course by that title devoted to visuality might well cover a vast amount of material, from transportation design to typography. I have built the course around three basic areas, each of which permits me to address the interwoven histories of technology, distribution, commerce and aesthetics: periodical illustration, the comic strip, and design for animation. I am working on a series of essays on these and related subjects for a book project, so the production of course lectures is a highly relevant activity for my work in general. Which is wonderful. I'm having a blast. Yet. It's grueling.

(Funny, it doesn't look grueling.)

Today we spent a session addressing Maxfield Parrish and J.C. Leyendecker. The latter is the subject of recent book by the Cutlers (Laurence S. and Judy Goffam), of Newport, Rhode Island fame. The Leyendecker book provides extensive visual material, including reproductions of all 322 Saturday Evening Post covers that Leyendecker produced. The written material is mostly very good, though the authors struggle with the same problem that dogs all writers on illustration, which is the underdeveloped analytical framework for the subject. Individual careers are addressed, but the larger frame of commercial image-making tends to slide by. There is a game attempt to classify Leyendecker as an "imagist" in the mode of the literary school of the same name and period, which seems worthy of more consideration. I recommend the book for people serious about American visual culture.

In anticipation of the Leyendecker and Parrish material, I had the students read Susan Sontag's Notes on "Camp" from 1964, which sure holds up well. (My bias in assigned readings tends toward primary sources, especially criticism.)

I got to the bottom of this post and decided to add this italicized insert to a discussion otherwise dominated by J.C. Leyendecker: Maxfield Parrish is a big subject of his own, and one that merits consideration in the world of camp. He mounted the most successful invasion of American domestic environments by any artist in our history. My lovely wife hails from Michigan, and her family has a cottage near Holland. A copy of The Dinkybird, the bizarrely titled image of the youth on the swing (above) hangs among a dozen other family artifacts on the wall, all others local. Parrish, with the avid collaboration of printers and sales agents, insinuated himself into stunning numbers of homes. You can still by large numbers of Maxfield Parrish prints (including Dinkybird) now translated into digital giclee processes, sampling the dreamy repose offered by such images in the first few decades of the 20th century.

Above: Daybreak, 1922. This image, of vaguely sexualized pre-adolescent girls decamped to a sunwashed Arcadian villa, was issued as a single sheet lithographic print for home sales in 1922. It sold fantastic numbers of copies. It has been reliably estimated that Daybreak appeared on a wall in 1 out of every 4 American homes by 1930. End parenthesis.

Sontag's version of camp, which is of course seminal, includes a dimension that our more knowing period has forgotten: an abiding earnestness.

Below, two of her numbered notations:
18. One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp ("camping") is usually less satisfying.

19. The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious. The Art Nouveau craftsman who makes a lamp with a snake coiled around it is not kidding, nor is he trying to be charming. He is saying, in all earnestness: Voilà! the Orient! Genuine Camp -- for instance, the numbers devised for the Warner Brothers musicals of the early thirties (42nd Street; The Golddiggers of 1933; ... of 1935; ... of 1937; etc.) by Busby Berkeley -- does not mean to be funny. Camping -- say, the plays of Noel Coward -- does. It seems unlikely that much of the traditional opera repertoire could be such satisfying Camp if the melodramatic absurdities of most opera plots had not been taken seriously by their composers...

What Sontag identifies here as genuine camp has grown much rarer as we have maniacally embraced the ironic stance that late modern life has, in fairness, thrust upon us. Genuine camp is now almost unimaginable. The truly earnest now seem doomed to fundamentalisms of a thousand different sorts. And all tastes now seem like knowing ones. I suppose that certain territories in hip hop might involve truly camp sensibilities, but I am skeptical of this. The ghetto artifice is pretty thick, and the African American experience has always required a double awareness, the me and the me-they-see, especially when the cops drive by. In the early sixties, by contrast, the homosexuals cited by Sontag could use a me-they-see to maintain appearances, not suffer from them.

Sontag observed that the most accomplished practitioners of camp were homosexuals (pre-gay diction) and Jews. Presumably the prospect of childlessness, on the one hand, and a certain fatalism of Jewish history on the other focused such talents so strongly into athletic-aesthetics. There is in fact a blend of knowingness and tender feeling at the heart of camp, a sublimated risk; death forestalled by wit.

Which brings me to Leyendecker. The Arrow Collar man, first American sex symbol, carried the frame and bore the visage of Charles Beach, Joe Leyendecker's lifelong companion and lover. Beach became an object of female desire across the nation, in part because Leyendecker painted him as object of desire. Beach ran the household, and muscled out others, including J.C.'s brother Frank, also an illustrator, who subsequently trailed off into drink and dissolution. Norman Rockwell, who idolized Joe (as J.C. was known to friends) and lived in the same town for a while--New Rochelle, NY--was troubled by the control exerted by Charles Beach, but not particularly by the arrangement itself.

Leyendecker produced wildly successful works of culture--his 322 Saturday Evening Post covers established the graphic and narrative conventions of the modern newsstand. He worked constantly, lucratively, earned high acclaim. Yet he moved like a shadow in public. He granted few interviews, and did not call upon the editorial offices of the publications that sustained him. When he died, Beach destroyed all of his effects, as instructed. He left a giant pile of illustration work, and yet all traces of the man himself completely disappeared.

As a result, all clues to his work are embedded in the works themselves. And though Sontag did not mention him in her landmark essay, his work represents the camp aesthetic as plainly, wonderfully--riotously!--as anyone's, in any medium. The image below could scarcely be clearer in its intentions. Cheery little phallic growths respond to attention from a boy-butterfly bearing the mother of all watering cans. How's that for a resurrection!

By the same token, Leyendecker covered plenty of range, if always with rococo energy. As the Cutlers observe, like his fellow German-born American icon-maker Thomas Nast, Leyendecker produced lasting image vocabularies, including the iconography of Thanksgiving and football, as well as the New Year's Baby. I'd mistakenly thought the latter was the creation of Winsor McCay, and intend to review his first use of the image, which is in the ballpark, but Leyendecker's Saturday Evening Post cover of December 1906 features a modern putto with a pen, turning the page of a huge book. [Zed's dead, baby. Zed's dead...]

Images: J.C. Leyendecker, Cupid, Saturday Evening Post cover, February 15, 1936; Maxfield Parrish, Dinkybird, 1904; Leyendecker, six Saturday Evening Post covers, 1923-24 (with particular note of the homoeroticized lifeguard, middle bottom row); Parrish, Daybreak, 1922; Leyendecker, Kuppenheimer Clothing ad (with mermaid!), circa 1930; Leyendecker, Arrow Collar ad, Charles Beach, model, 1922; Leyendecker, Watering the Lillies, Saturday Evening Post cover, March 27, 1937; Leyendecker, Baby Forges Ahead, Saturday Evening Post cover, December, 1930.


David Apatoff said...

Thanks for another interesting post on a very interesting topic. I have one question and one comment.

Question: am I imagining things, or does Susan Sontag's evaluation scheme depend upon knowing the intent of the artist? I get the impression that in her view, an object can't stand alone, but might be good or bad depending upon whether the artist's "camp" was sincere or calculated. What do you think about that as a workable standard?

Comment: I enjoy the Cutler's Leyendecker book for its images, but I am surprised that a proven scholar such as yourself was not put off by the text, which often seemed screechingly inaccurate. Here is an excerpt from a review on Amazon: As just one example, the authors write: "After Leyendecker's precedent-setting career, Charles Livingston Bull, John Clymer, Steven Dohanos, John Falter, Anton Otto Fisher, Harrison Fisher, James Montgomery Flagg, Charles Dana Gibson, J.F. Kernan, Frederic Remington, Robert Riggs, N.C. Wyeth, and other famous artists went on to make their names with the Post." It's hard to imagine how a sentence could be more wrong. Several of the listed artists (Remington, Gibson, Fisher, Wyeth) "made their name" BEFORE Leyendecker made his, and were in fact dead before the end of Leyendecker's "precedent-setting career." Other artists on their list (Bull and Flagg) were Leyendecker's contemporaries, NOT his successors. In fact, Flagg was far more famous in their lifetime than Leyendecker. But most importantly, it's hard to think of more than two (or at most, three) from this list of illustrators who actually "made their names with the Post." Some did not work for the Post at all. Such errors are common in this book-- apparently, the authors feel free to simply make such things up.

DB, this strikes me as more than just the absence of an analytical framework for illustration art; this strikes me as extremely sloppy writing. (I was also dismayed to see a lot of unnecessary insults to Norman Rockwell and a lot of self-aggrandizement by the authors).

DB Dowd said...


I will have to come back to this as I am on the fly. But quickly: Sontag's "essay" is a sprawling text. She does address intention, but I will have to go back to the text to be precise about it. Later.

Re: the Cutler text. I agree that the sentence you cite is problemmatic. I will confess that I have not spent much time with the book beyond the images, only reading in spots. I should have been more limited in my assessment. I will review as time permits and try to address your criticisms.

David Apatoff said...

DB-- no rush. Normally I wouldn't focus on the text until I had looked at the pictures for a year. But I noticed that the Amazon ratings reflected a split between a faction that believes this is the best art book ever written (seriously) and a faction that liked the pictures but found serious factual and editorial problems with the text. So I paid some attention to the text and concluded that Judy Cutler is no Walt Reed. That's why I was interested in your take.

Louise Smythe said...

Doug, a bunch of us C-DESers were all talking at lunch today and we really love your class. It sucks that you're so bogged down, but just know that we're really getting a lot out of all of it and we appreciate everything you're doing. I think a lot of us are realizing things about our own art from analyzing what you show us in class, too, and that's something to be noted. Thanks!

Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

I just got the Cutlers' Leyendecker book last night and have not dived into the text in depth yet, so I am glad to find this analysis and discussion. His relationship with Beach has always been intriguing to me, both a muse and servant, almost a male mirror to the Gertrude Stein/Alice B. Toklas partnership.

DB Dowd said...

Dearest Junk Thief:

Delighted to hear from you. David Apatoff's criticisms of the Cutler's book turned out to be correct, and I should have gotten back here earlier to make a note of it. There are factual problems with the text, and too-sweeping statements tend to be the source of them.

That said, I am delighted to have their book in my library, because it adds biographical information of value and especially because it provides such a comprehensive record, especially of the SEP work.

Check back in when you've investigated the book--I'll be eager to hear your take!

Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

I've had a chance to read quite a bit of the book, and while some of it's insightful it left me wanting more and more depth. I'm curious about the inaccuracies since I don't know his career well enough to see them. It's definitely not the most elegantly written book, and there are a number of typos even in headlines.

It is a nice monograph of images, all the same, that I got at a great price used so I am glad to have it. I would, however, like to see an well written and investigated bio on him. The Gatsby/Grey Gardens/Gertrude & Alice aspect of his story alone merit more.