Thursday, June 23, 2011

Bizarre Visual Artifact of the Week

Here's a moment in advertising history that beggars belief. Behold, gracing a Coca-Cola advertisement in the Ladies Home Journal: Stonewall Jackson pausing for a moment of refreshment. 1931. I kid you not. In this sesquicentennial year of the Civil War, here's some evidence of the domestication of that conflict, then seventy years after the fact. The romance of the Lost Cause, with a little soda pop to wash it down. Holy Crap.

(My memory of this image includes the copy below, curiously cut off in this particular scan. I'll dig it up--the copy only makes it weirder. The two-color printing [red and green!] is something else, too.)

Check out the soda jerk's hands in the strip on the right edge of the format. An extremely strange spatial discontinuity, seemingly just tossed off.

That would be a super-groovy device when James Rosenquist used it in Pop Art paintings thirty years later. Advertising is the research and development arm of modern visual culture.

Haddon Sundblom developed a great many memorable adverstising images, chief among them the Santa Claus Coca-Cola ads. According to the company website, Sundblom was signed to work on Coke campaigns in '31, so the genre scene from the War of Northern Aggression would have one of his earliest projects for them. (It may come as a surprise, but I did not find Stonewall Jackson on the Coca-Cola site. And yes, I know that Coca-Cola is based in Atlanta.)

And of course, Sundblom had a birthday on the 22nd of June (1899-1976). Which would be yesterday. Still running a teensy bit behind.

Images: Haddon Sundblom, Stonewall Jackson on the march...ready for a fresh start after a short rest period, Coca-Cola ad, Ladies Home Journal, October 1931; James Rosenquist, I Love You With My Ford, 1961; Haddon Sundblom, For Sparkling Holidays, Coca-Cola ad, circa 1935.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Rockwell Kent

I am working up to a series of posts on the neglected subject of the history of illustration. I'm toiling away on a diverse set of projects at the moment–excited about 'em all–so can't guarantee the timeliness of those posts, but I'm thinking about it quite a bit.

Last week I hit on the idea of using birthdays to prod me to post bits of things here and there. I flagged Flagg on this basis (see previous post).

Next up on the calendar is the ever-surprising Rockwell Kent. The engraver-painter-writer-political agitator entered the world on the summer solstice, or yesterday. To be specific, June 21, 1882. (See what I mean about timeliness?)

I won't attempt to encapsulate the career, which was a complicated affair. But his book illustrations played a big part in that career, including having a hand in Moby-Dick's re-emergence in American letters.

A few years ago I picked up an estate sale copy of Kent's Paul Bunyan, which features full-page illustrations. But the initial caps he created for the chapter beginnings are really something. On the spectrum between letter form and picture they hang out decidedly toward the latter.

There are a ton of them, and some strain to be understood. But the best of them are fabulous, including the "S" shown above.

They're ingenious, and appropriate to the content.

When I imagine having to design and execute these things, it makes me tired. Thinking them up sounds fun, but banging them out must have been a chore!

Visually speaking I have tended to associate Paul Bunyan with the Disney short of the same name, primarly due to the backgrounds, some by the great Eyvind Earle. This slide courtesy of Dave Maupin, a student in my Commercial Modernism class last semester who's also interning for me this summer. So Dave dug out the Disney slide for a research report last April, and also scanned some of these Rockwell Kent images less than a week ago. I have the Bunyan short on a DVD. As I recall the short is a bit boring, but a great deal of fun to look at. Maybe we'll dig it out this summer and get some screen caps.

Here's another Earle background from that film.

More to come...

Images: Rockwell Kent, selected illustrations and initial capitals, Paul Bunyan, by Esther Shepard and designed by Rockwell Kent, Harcourt Brace, 1924; Kent, Early November: North Greenland, oil on canvas, 1933; Eyvind Earle, backgrounds for Paul Bunyan, animated short, Walt Disney Studios, 1958.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

James Montgomery Flagg Turns 134

James Montgomery Flagg was born on this day in 1877 in Pelham Manor, New York. Flagg drew from the moment he'd left his crib, and by the age of fifteen had joined the staff of Judge Magazine, for whom he worked for many years, while doing a great many other things as well. Above, Flagg horsing around with a studio aid of sorts. Somehow funny and creepy at the same time, the picture captures his rakish temperament.

Flagg's early work made use of the high contrast vocabulary of pen and ink, made possible by photoengraving technology in the era just after the technical regime of wood engraving.

Flagg mimicked Charles Dana Gibson, ten years his senior, until he'd outgrown the influence. But like Gibson, Flagg traded in images of lovely ladies–the hotties of the aughts, as it were. Presumably his consort above is a nod to his reputation.

I can remember someone saying "She's a dish," in reference to a comely woman, but this would seem rather literal, wouldn't it? For the time, this is pretty racy stuff.

I got these images from an oversize album of pictures published by Judge in 1907. Presumably these were all reprints from the magazine, which after a sputtering start in the 1880s was doing quite well in the first decade of the 20th century. Flagg's work figures prominently in the book.

As Flagg matured, so did the technical innovation of the half-tone screen. Halftones made it possible to photograph a piece of source art–say, an inkwash drawing–and reproduce those tones mechanically, by shooting through a screen or scrim which separated tonal passages into dots of greater and lesser densities. A big deal, that, as it eliminated the tradesman who otherwise would have had to manage that translation.

Here are a series of details to show increasing levels of magnification.

The inkwash drawing from which this image was reproduced relies on gestural strokes that remain quite visible in the halftone version. Flagg was a bravura paint-flicker, sort of a pop version of John Singer Sargent.

These screens were an improvement on early commercial versions in the 1890s, though they still hadn't gotten to the point of being able to reproduce the hottest whites photomechanically.

Hence the light gray tone which overlays the entire image.

James Montgomery Flagg is best remembered for his propaganda posters from World War One, including the instantaneous visual cliche, Uncle Sam wants YOU for the U.S. Army (which had been published on July 6, 1916–with a different caption–on the cover of Leslie's Weekly). Above, a poster from 1917.

These images represent a small slice of Flagg's diverse and voluminous output. He's worthy of further study.

But in the meantime: Happy Birthday, Monty Flagg.

Images: James Montgomery Flagg with female dummy, photograph, published by Bain News Service, April 26, 1913, from the George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress; Flagg, Kitty Cobb, pen and ink, 1912; Flagg, Good Enough to Eat, inkwash reprinted in "Yours Truly" and 100 Other Original Drawings, published by Judge Company, 1908; Flagg, Woman (who looks like a young Angela Lansbury), 1902; series of halftone screen details; Flagg, Civilization Calls Every Man, Woman and Child, World War One recruitment poster, 1917;

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Serials & Wordmarks

I have been talking with a friend and collaborator about a project.

The discussion has included an appreciation of wordmarks that announce publications, especially serials. How does a magazine or a comic or other serial make and then keep a promise to its readers? The answer of course is both verbal and visual, in a number of ways. But from the earliest moment, the wordmark is part of the implicit contract.

Since I look at comics and pulp covers and magazines pretty often to begin with, these are obvious sources.

I’m also attracted to particular corporate logotypes, especially from the pre-international style period.

Package designs, too, especially one- and two-color jobs: soda bottles, caps, matchbooks, ashtrays, etc.

There’s much to be said for classical simplicity: the mark that works in a single color, again and again and again.

A Vogue Turkey cover, courtesy of coverjunkie.

But there’s also fun to be had with variable color, especially as a way of creating variety in the context of continuity. Crime Does Not Pay, a classic of the genre, helped inspire a backlash against such comics in the mid 1950s.

Holiday Magazine used a single color wordmark, except when it didn’t.

These two George Giusti covers, seven years apart, use an alternating two-color palette that responds to the rest of the cover.
I used a variation of this approach on the Ulcer City logotype, modified here for publishing purposes.

Another variation, using variable color and typographic vocabularies, by the great Olle Eskell.

Chris Ware draws and designs with a unified sensibility. Above, a typographic flourish from a Rusty Brown narrative from 2006.

I bought the book because of the cover, in a bookstore in Moab, Utah that no longer exists. (I was just there, and made a beeline for the store, but it had been replaced by a "Old-Time Photography" studio. Arrgh.) The design and production reference debossed, richly colored book covers from the Childcraft series.

The original Childcraft covers are totally killer artifacts. White, blue and black inks stamped on red leather. ("Leather.")

Of course Alex Steinweiss belongs in this conversation, even though his album cover designs were, by definition, one-offs; they had to make a visual promise that somehow connected to the music on the recording. In this particular case I’m focused on the visual unit of the clarinet and the word “Mozart,” including, especially, the secondary level of internal articulation on the instrument, with the contrast level expertly controlled.

The cruder pulp cover workmarks have their charms. I love the Super Science mark from the top of this post. The Rangeland Romance mark brings a little less to the party. But the vernacular energy of the pulps is undeniable. Typically they feel composed by sign-painters, not designers.

I admire both, the folk version and the professional; intuitively I work to fuse them in my own projects.

The pulps and adventure comics are truest to the spirit of the serial, as a cultural matter. The saga. Finally, two last examples.

A theatrical serial, born on the comics pages, transplanted onto movie screens: Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. (A little grandiloquent?!)

And of course, the hand-drawn wordmark for Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates.

Images: Designer unknown, Super Science wordmark, A Popular Publication, 1943; Robert O. Reid, cover illustration, Collier's, August 3, 1940; designer unknown, wordmark for Zenith Radio, circa 1925; designer unknown, bottle cap designs, Ritz Grapefruit and Jurk Lemon soda, mid-twentieth century; designer unattributed (though somebody has to know this–a little help?), Vogue Magazine wordmark; Cuneyt Akeroglu, cover photograph, Vogue Turkey, 2010; designer unknown, wordmark for Lev Gleason’s Crime Does Not Pay, early 1950s, with various color treatments; George Giusti, cover designs for Holiday Magazine, 1957 and 1965, respectively; D.B. Dowd and Melanie Reinert, Ulcer City wordmark, 2004, modified 2009; Olle Eskell, Mord i Pingst wordmark, 1953; Chris Ware, wordmark for Rusty Brown, from Acme Novelty Library, 2006; Ware, cover design for the Acme Novelty Library based on midcentury Childcraft book covers, 2006; Milo Winter (speculative), cover design for Childcraft Books Volume 14, Science and Industry, Field Enterprises, 1949; Alex Steinweiss, Mozart: Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in A Major, record jacket design, Columbia Records, 1947; designer unknown, wordmark for Rangeland Romance, a Popular Publication, January 1948; designer unknown, title slate, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, Universal Pictures, 1940, based on Alex Raymond's adventure strip Flash Gordon; finally, Milton Caniff, wordmark for Terry and the Pirates, 1944 (that is, this particular strip is 1944; an earlier form of the mark appeared in 1934, when the strip debuted).