College of Fine Arts University Art Galleries

Utopian Visions Explained

What do we mean, at the UAG when we say we are displaying illustrations? What does it mean to title an exhibition of illustrations "Utopian Visions?"  Sometimes words are not enough and you have to see what we mean with your own eyes. The exhibition that was previously on display in the John A Day gallery, in the Warren M. Lee Center for Fine arts is a project that took us, the curators, a full year to complete. In the fall of 2011, Zach DeBoer, an art student taking an independent study through the University Art Galleries, found 300 illustrations, tempera or casein paintings on illustration board, in the UAG's storage facility. Zach began to organize the illustrations. Matt Presutti, another student taking an independent study, completed the cataloging of all the 300 illustrations. Their independent studies resulted in the exhibition "Utopian Visions." We found that title accurately described the illustration's mixture of fantasy and brutality, of fear, anxiety, and yearning for a new world after the traumas of WWII.

Most of the illustrations do not have signatures because many of them were produced in assembly line like fashion. One artist would choose the subject and making a basic drawing, another would color (aka paint in) the piece, and then another person would add text to the illustration, and a photographer would take a picture of the illustration with the text, and then an editor or publisher would determine where to crop the image and how the final picture would be printed in a pulp magazine or book cover. Matt received a grant to travel to the Society of Illustrators in New York City to find out more information about the illustrations. Through the staff's help there, we were able to start identifying who made the pieces, when they were made and in what publications they were printed. In between researching the illustrations, we read a lot about the history of the mid-20th century-when advertising took on a new role in American's lives through an increase in consuming goods and services. Today, we take these things for granted because we are bombarded by advertisements. But these illustrations had a unique task. They had to lure viewers to the magazine or book being sold. They had to capture the imagination and curiosity of viewers. They had to sell masculinity, sex, efficiency, and speak to a traumatized group of people-the American public after a world war. Now we know that advertisements sell more than just a product-they sell lifestyles. The illustrations, fifty years removed from the immediate postwar context, are still alluring for viewers. And the illustrators obviously tried to accommodate the need to sell a product or lifestyle and keep their artistic integrity intact. One example is Cloud Studios, an alternative art group who made book cover illustrations in the 1960's. Here we see a group utilizing montage and photomontage, not just traditional techniques of paint on board. They were very subversive, even when making "commercial" art. They used funky colors, neon pinks, greens, and created fantastic worlds that fit into their progressive beliefs of the role of the visual arts in society. You can see the difference between the original illustration art and what happened when they were turned into book covers. In the Abominable Snowman, there is a huge shift in colors and you can see how beautiful the colors and brushstrokes look in the original illustration versus the cramped image at the bottom of the book cover. These are examples of the book cover illustrations and the books we were able to identify and purchase from amazon.com.

The other half of the illustrations in the exhibition were reproduced for a genre of magazines we call "men's adventure magazines." Here, you have an interior story illustrations for "R Guy" magazine called "The Driving Lesson" (1968). The painting is in black and white for easy, cheap printing. Interior stories in pulp magazines were never printed in color. And the format also indicates it is an interior story illustration, since it is wider, meaning that the illustration would have spread over two pages. Right now, to find an original, vintage men's adventure magazine would be considered a rare and expensive thing. Here you see the original painting for the Driving Lesson, without the text. The white space was where the title and beginning of the story would be in magazine. Interior story illustrations had to capture the essence of the story. Without reading the story, the viewer can tell the nature of the drama-theft, take over, sexy women, and fast cars. The piece is truly film noir-haunting, and for this curator, disturbingly sexist.

These are original illustrations and a unique exhibition. As far as we know, many of the original illustrations that were reproduced for pulp magazines and book covers were destroyed or never exhibited in a museum or gallery. Other than the Society of Illustrators in New York City, this exhibition presents a rare and special area of art history-commercial art before photography usurped the role of the illustrator in commercial advertising.

driving-lessons-illustration

"The Driving Lesson" (1968)
Full Illustration
Notice the white space in the lower left corner where the title and beginning of the story would have started.

driving-lessons-illustration-close-up

"The Driving Lesson" (1968)
Close-up



Cloud-Studios-medusa-illustration
Cloud-Studios-medusa-book
Cloud-Studios-woman-illustration
Cloud-Studios-woman-book
snowman-illustration
snowman-book