Wednesday, September 26, 2007
An Illustrated Life Indeed
Image courtesy of TreadwayGallery.com
I write this entry with the knowledge that this subject has already been touched on by the more popular illustration blogs around the net. But that said, it was only after my endless whining and lamenting to a close friend that everything I want to do has been done before that I was gently reminded that this blog is as much for my own fulfillment, if not more, as it is for my readers and visitors. So, despite posts on DRAWN!, Cartoon Brew, and Illustration Fridays concerning Todd Oldham's book, Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life, I post nevertheless.
I'm ashamed to say I did not know of mid-century illustrator Charles (aka "Charley") Harper before I saw the book in all its chromatic glory lying inconspicuously on a shelf cohabited by a stack of cable knit sweaters while at work at Anthropologie a few weeks ago. (But in my defense, as I stated in my first blog entry, this blog is an educational tool for me as well.) I cannot tell you how delightful it was to feast on the visual candy that the cover alone offers. It's a large book, 17 x 12 inches, and comes in a white cardboard box that mirrors the book's cover art. Inside is a comprehensive anthology of Harper's work dating from 1950 and covering Harper's artistic high-points, notably from his well known The Giant Golden Book of Biology and his illustrations for Ford Times magazine.
Be warned: the book costs a pretty penny. The retail price is $200 (it can be found on Amazon for closer to $150), but it's still a bargain compared to The Giant Golden Book of Biology which is evidently fetching over $400 on Amazon these days. That said, An Illustrated Life is one of those books that is as much a collector's item as anything, meant to be treasured and well-maintained. As such, it's a must-have, despite the $200 price tag (I'll be adding this to my Christmas list).
Sadly, however fittingly, Charley Harper passed away at the age of 85 this past June, the same month as the book release. Harper was a man of influential proportions, inspiring, according Cartoon Brew's Amid Amidi, artists such as Cliff Roberts, Scott Wills, and Nate Pacheco. His work has been described as "highly stylized" in a manner Harper himself dubbed "minimal realism." The use of shapes in their simplest forms, as an expression of geometric figures, delineates Harpers' work from other illustrationists of the time. In a fantastic interview with Cornell's Lab of Ornithology, Harper describes the process he uses to create a painting in this way: "I start with a sketch. For the Lab's painting, I cut out a lot of bird shapes and pushed them around until I was sure they were where I wanted them to be. This let me try different combinations and different compositions very easily, and then, when I finally decided where to put them, I stuck them down with rubber cement. That gave me the basis for the painting."
Image courtesy of Men's Vogue Online
What fans may not know is that Charley had an incredibly ticklish sense of humor when it came to word play - word play that often performed a valuable role in the painting process as well as for the sheer humor illicited from its being used as a caption accompanying his paintings. This makes for twice the treat for fans like myself who have always loved the practice of melding poetry with image. What's more, is Harper's admittedly awful puns are so silly and absurd that they're really quite funny. Take, for example, the captioning (again courtesy of the Cornell Lab Interview) that accompanied his painting of a group of terns entitled "Tern, Stones, and Turnstones" originally published in Beguiled by the Wild, the Art of Charley Harper. It reads: "If you’re terned off--I mean, "turned" off--by puns, don't go away. The ol' punster has terned (make that "turned") over a new leaf. I promise not to punctuate this paragraph with such punishments as no stone unterned, no U-terns--no more awful puns. Just the facts: a Roseate Tern and some Ruddy Turnstones share a pebbly beach along the … WAIT! I CAN'T STAND IT ANY LONGER! Ternabout's fair play. No terning back now. The ol' punster has passed the point of no retern. --Charley Harper"
Harper is also credited with illustrations from the Betty Crocker Cookbook, Dinners for Two. The Duotone illustrations are very reminiscent of prevailing mid-century art, but with a bit of a twist. Scrubbles.net has a nice devotional to Harper's work (cookbook image above courtesy of Scrubbles.net) and describes Harper's interlude with the Crocker cookbook in the following way: "The drawings exude a sophisticated whimsy -- and they're quite funny (in a sometimes sick way). Who else would decorate the meat section with a 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' scene?"
Image courtesy of TreadwayGallery.com
Fortunately for us, an array of Harper's work is available in all its full-color splendor thanks to An Illustrated Life. Oldham's book is truly reverent of Harper's life and work and provides a wonderful point of reference for illustrators and illustration enthusiasts who love mid-century design (or all good design for that matter).