Merlin

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Merlin building Stonehenge (14th century) from Folio 30r of British Library, Egerton 3028.

The Arthurian magus in art and illustration. Despite the antiquity of the Arthur legend there doesn’t seem to be much early representation of Merlin outside a few drawings in old manuscripts. The British Library’s folio showing the raising of Stonehenge is the oldest known depiction of the ancient structure.

Most of the pictures here are illustrations for the Merlin and Vivien section of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, the first book of which was published in 1859. Vivien (or Viviane, Nimue, etc) is the sorcerous Lady in the Lake who either imprisons Merlin underground or in a tree depending on whose account you read. Edward Burne-Jones’ The Beguiling of Merlin has long been my favourite of that artist’s paintings. This is only a very small selection of possible pictures, of course. A more complete catalogue would include Nicol Williamson in John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981), a performance that some find overly mannered but one that I’ve always enjoyed.

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Merlin and Vivien (1867) by Gustave Doré.

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The Beguiling of Merlin (1874) by Edward Burne-Jones.

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Weekend links 77

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Art by Tessa Farmer.

• An exhibition of Tessa Farmer’s art is running at Viktor Wynd Fine Art, London, until October 30th. On Saturday, October 1st, Strange Attractor hosts Good Neighbours: Faeries, Folklore and the Art of Tessa Farmer also at Viktor Wynd.

Unearthing The Psychedelic Harp: “David Moats talks to harpist and songwriter Serafina Steer about her work with John Foxx and Patrick Wolf, being classically trained, the difficulties of doing live soundtracks and psychedelia.”

• And speaking of psychedelia, Arkhonia is still blogging up a storm here, here and here about the lost Beach Boys album, Smile, the farthest Brian and co. ventured into the tripped-out weirdness of 1967. The complete original recordings will finally be released in November.

• “‘We’ve arrived at a level of commodification that may have negated the concept of counterculture,’ Gibson says in the Paris Review.” William Gibson profiled by Thomas Jones.

One of the qualities I always stress when talking about this design work influenced by Surrealism is its enormous boldness and creative freedom, which is something of a paradox in many cases, since the Czech and Polish designs were created under communist regimes. So, while Uncanny documents a significant current in the history of 20th-century visual culture, the show also has a polemical intention aimed, quite deliberately, at our circumstances now. Students who encounter these images in lectures sometimes feel constrained by their conception of what they — or their teachers — regard as acceptable in today’s marketplace. At times, this has struck me as being a form of insidious self-censorship. (more)

Rick Poynor: Jan Svankmajer and the Graphic Uncanny.

• The exhibition curated by Mr Poynor last year, Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design, is now showing at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam until early December. Related: MizEnScen’s somber, surrealist collages.

Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (1921) at Golden Age Comic Book Stories, the Urtext of buccaneer imagery.

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Another of those homoerotic religious pictures: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1876) by Léon Bonnat. Via Babylon Baroque.

• Celebrating the 250th anniversary of Laurence Sterne’s marbled page: Emblem of My Work.

John Martin’s Pompeii painting finally restored after 1928 Tate flood damage.

The Spectral Dimension: “where the paranormal and popular culture collide”.

The Writing of Stones (1970) by Roger Caillois at 50 Watts.

Mercury Arc Rectifiers.

• When silliness was an avant garde strategy: video from 1974 of Brian Eno performing China My China and (in better quality) The Seven Deadly Finns. (Go here for lyrics of the latter.)

Weekend links 28

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The Expansion of the First Great Ornamental Age: 3 Distances (2009) by Seher Shah.

Great Female Artists? Think Karachi. “One reason for the unusually high ratio of female artists in Pakistan has to do with the fact that the art industry has not traditionally been viewed as a lucrative business by men, says South Asian art historian Savita Apte, who administers the internationally renowned Abraaj Capital Art Prize. Until very recently, creatively inclined males tended to focus on fields such as advertising or illustration, leaving the art field wide open for some very talented women.” Related: artist Seher Shah (and also here).

• Hardformat looks at the luxury/collectors/whatever edition of the forthcoming Brian Eno album. “What’s the music like?” Colin asks. Indeed.

Strange Flowers is “a celebration of the most extraordinary, eccentric and unfairly forgotten figures of the past 200 years”.

Warsaw Warble: Illustration and design in Poland, 1917 to 1938. More marvels from A Journey Round My Skull.

• Strange Attractor hosts talks at London’s Little Shoppe of Horrors throughout the autumn.

• Barney Bubbles in Mojo and more details of the new edition of Paul Gorman’s BB book.

• A blog devoted to all things having to do with Howard Pyle (1853–1911).

Erik Davis on Dreaming, Writing, Philip K Dick and Lovecraft.

10 Reading Revolutions Before E-Books.

Secular Exorcisms by Evan J Peterson.

• RIP Jean Benoît.

Street haikus.

I Put A Spell On You (1965) by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins; I Put A Spell On You (1965) by Nina Simone; I Put A Spell On You (2001) by Natacha Atlas.

Frank Frazetta, 1928–2010

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Conan the Adventurer aka The Barbarian (1965).

How to appraise Frank Frazetta? In November last year I wrote about this Conan portrait for an SF Signal Mind Meld feature on favourite book covers:

The covers that launched a thousand imitators. Lancer’s series of Conan books in the 1960s were the first appearance of Howard’s barbarian in paperback and came sporting cover art by Frank Frazetta. A great example of artist and subject being perfectly matched, these are the standard by which all subsequent barbarian art must be judged. Frazetta’s painting of a brooding warrior lord (which he reworked slightly for its poster edition) is for me the definitive portrait of Howard’s hero, battle scarred and proudly malevolent, with a chauvinistic blur of trophy female clinging at his feet. Other artists can do the muscles and monsters but none capture the physical presence and brute animality of Howard’s characters the way Frazetta does.

I found Frazetta’s work through the great series of fantasy art books which Pan/Ballantine published in the 1970s. I hadn’t read any Robert E Howard at the time, I only knew the diluted version of the Conan character in the Marvel comics series but Frazetta’s work was so powerful it was a spur to search out Howard, especially when I read that the writer had been a pen-pal of HP Lovecraft. I was never as interested in Frazetta’s other staple inspiration, Edgar Rice Burroughs, probably because Tarzan was too familiar from films and TV.

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The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta (1975).

Both Howard and Frazetta defined a milieu which combined an intensity of vision with a projection of their own personalities into the worlds they created. (Many of Frazetta’s protagonists resemble their creator.) Both suffered from having that intensity of vision watered-down by ham-fisted imitators or the vulgarisations of films and comics. Howard’s Conan stories at their best are a blend of heavyweight adventure story with supernatural horror; many of them were first published in Weird Tales magazine alongside other masters of the weird like Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. What impressed me about Frazetta’s paintings was the way he managed to capture a sense of eldritch weirdness as well as the more obvious barbaric adventure in a manner which eluded so many of the sword and sorcery illustrators who followed. What’s even more remarkable when you read interviews is that he seemed to do all this instinctively. He’d learned from looking at earlier artists such as J Allen St John, Howard Pyle, Frank Schoonover and Roy Krenkel, and found the means to apply their painting style to his own internal aesthetics and sense of drama.

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Swords of Mars (1974).

Aesthetics is one of the things I always come back to with Frazetta. I used to pore over these paintings wondering how it was that all the details of weapons and decor seemed absolutely right. Nothing was ever over-worked or too elaborate. Where did this invention come from? The other obvious feature is a raw sexiness which pervades everything. I’ve had people tell me that Frazetta must have been bisexual because of the equal care he lavished on his male and female figures. I’ve always disagreed with this. The point about Frazetta’s world is that everything is sexy: the people, the decor, the architecture, the animals, even the monsters; so naturally the men are going to be as sexy as the women. In addition, he wasn’t afraid of giving his men real balls (so to speak) unlike the endless parade of costumed eunuchs filling the comic books. These figures may be dealing death but they’re filled with vigour and life when they’re doing it.

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Bran Mak Morn (1969).

I said everything is sexy; I’ll make an exception for the extraordinary painting of Bran Mak Morn and his tribal horde, a picture of feral nightmarishness that goes beyond mere illustration and makes you feel the artist has shown you an atavistic glimpse of ages past. Robert E Howard would have been thrilled to see his characters brought to life with this kind of visceral intensity. For years Howard’s fiction was dismissed as pulp, now he’s a Penguin Modern Classic. And it’s as a modern classic that I’ll continue to think of Frank Frazetta.

Unofficial gallery site

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Frazetta: Painting with Fire
The monstrous tome
Men with snakes
My pastiches
Fantastic art from Pan Books

Buccaneers #2

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Continuing from yesterday’s post, these nameless characters were sketches for a proposed comic strip that writer Jamie Delano and I were planning in the mid-Nineties. We had a feeling that the long-neglected pirate genre was due for a revival and talked about a revisionist take on buccaneering which would dispense with the Robert Newton antics and steer closer to the brutal reality. Among the touchstones there was On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers, the anarchist pirate community in Cities of the Red Night by William Burroughs and the ferocious scalp-hunters in Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece, Blood Meridian. There was also talk of throwing some voodoo into the mix, hence the veve tattoos. It wasn’t to be, of course. Little of my work has ever resembled mainstream comics fare and Jamie’s publishers, DC Comics, had already been underwhelmed by the detailed style I was using in the Lovecraft and Lord Horror comics. When I tried presenting them with some trial pages in a more open style I was told that they’d been expecting to see more of my detailed line work…

We had a couple of other characters planned, including a tattooed islander inspired by Queequeg from Moby Dick, but the samples here are the best of the sketches. The shark- or whale-jaw false leg was my own invention and something I’m fairly sure I’ve not seen before. I’ve no idea whether such a thing is workable but it was a nice touch.

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