Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Frazetta, The One and Only

I was first introduced to the work of Brooklyn-born artist Frank Frazetta back in the late 1970's/early 1980's when my late brother gave me The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta Book One. Actually BOOK ONE through FOUR! (Talk about SCORE!). To my 12 year-old self, this was mind-blowing. Not only was the artwork "cool", with fantasy and sci-fi subjects like mysterious barbarians battling on horseback, giant snakes and rampaging dinosaurs, vampires, fairies, space rangers, and various sundry jungle creatures... but it also had semi-nekid women. And not just regular semi-nekid women, but the sumptuous full-bodied Frazetta kind. (The guy obviously ravished painting every creamy curve, bless his heart.) So yeah, Frank got my attention. And, Thanks bro.

But there was something else going on in these works, something more. I realized this a little later. Of course in an art book, these works are compiled together for appreciation from various sources. Originally most of them were commissioned to accompany and support a novel or some other literary work or cinematic production. But even taken completely out of context I noticed something. They told a story. And not just that. They looked like film grabs. As if someone actually filmed this scene and then took a single film still and used that for the basis of the painting. But these movies... were playing only in Frank's head. 

Not only were his hands skilled enough to exquisitely render his bold and sometimes nightmarish visions, but the guy could imagine a battle scene right down to every twist of sweaty sinew and even the glint of sunset on bloody chainmail armor. He might typically use his wife, Ellie, or just a mirror for visual reference and off he went. He had such a solid artistic foundation he just KNEW what things looked like. And his rich imagination gave him an amazing pool of ideas to literally draw from. He knew what to paint, how to paint, and what to leave out. Often his backgrounds were almost abstract washes of texture. Focusing the viewer's attention on the foreground action. He would sometimes add just a hint of background structure to set the scene. He graciously left room for your imagination to fill in the voids. Just as your mind processed the visual clues to the story unfolding. He invited the audience to participate and to customize their own viewing experience and develop a personal relationship with the image. When pondering his work... I always wondered what happens next. What happens right after this painting? I wanted another painting. He left me wanting more.

He did not have the luxury of telling his story in several frames as in video or animation. He somehow knew exactly how to pose his figures to most completely convey the action in a single image, and yet to also create a beautiful composition. (I think he's generally credited with popularizing the "Pyramid Pose" or "Golden Triangle" commonly used in film posters today.) His dynamic characters would be off-balance, falling down, slipping in the snow, the expression on the horses frightened, twisted and exhausted, hair flowing in faces, arms stretched to the limit grasping for the edge, waves crashing just so. Things always happening and more importantly, ABOUT TO HAPPEN. Man oh man the guy could paint a picture. You can actually feel the tension in the painting below. 

When I typically pose a character it takes time and in the end, they tend to look "posed". His stuff looks like it's moving right now. Full of theatrical gestures and bold exaggerated bodies in motion. Almost as if, if you were to look away for a split second and then look back, you'd miss some of the action. He, above all else, was a master of capturing the impression of something alive, using nothing but paint and his extraordinary imagination.  We were lucky enough to get to experience what he gloriously interpreted for us in his oils, but what he saw in his head must've been even more amazing and vivid. But only Frank saw that.

Near the end of his life, and after several health problems that forced Frank to learn to paint with his left hand, he opened the Official Frank Frazetta Museum, run by his wife Ellie. It was filled with dozens of his original works and sat on his pastoral estate in Pennsylvania. I read stories where fans had traveled from across the country to see his work in person, only to be graciously welcomed into his home by the man himself. Then upon Ellie's passing, the museum was abruptly closed amid some rather bitter unpleasantries of his children (involving an arrest). Not long after, at the age of 82, Frank passed away on May 10, 2010 and much of his work is now sold and/or scattered to collectors around the world.  I shall always regret not taking the time to visit his museum while he lived. But I will always appreciate the legacy he left for us all. Other painters may have a more "polished" style or exhibit more detailed environments, but few have had the pioneering spirit of Frank Frazetta and for that, most fantasy (and "genre") painters working today owe him a great debt for the trails he blazed. 

Sadly we've lost several talented visionaries lately. Ralph McQuarrieJean "Moebius" Giraud,  And now most recently, Thomas Kinkade, who oddly enough, along with James Gurney (later of Dinotopia fame) were the original background painters tasked with painting in Frank's style on the Frazetta/Ralph Bakshi production of the 1983 animated film Fire And Ice. And with Robert Rodriguez's planned remake of Fire and Ice in the works, hopefully the amazing art of Frank Frazetta will continue to reach new generations of impressionable youths and inspire the 12-year old boy in all of us. His was a fresh take on an old art form. There's worse things to get hooked on. Frazetta left us a legacy of art brimming with life, that will continue to live on in the hearts and minds of those it's touched.

It also serves as a celebration of women with hips and thighs... and that ain't bad either. 

Below is a nice visual montage of just some of his work.

Below is the trailer for the excellent Frazetta documentary "Painting With Fire".

1 comment:

  1. Freaking great man. You said it, all true. Thanks a lot.