domenica 16 luglio 2017

Fantasy Visuals: Frank Frazetta

When talking about the beginning of Fantasy Art, there is no clean transition from what was before, and what we can consider a new genre. Fantasy Art derives from a lot of sources put together: medieval illuminations, movie posters, comics.

But if we must name an artist who has been very influential at the beginning of Fantasy art and has contributed before and more than any other in shaping the genre to what it is today, then there is nobody competing with Frank Frazetta.

A Princess of Mars (1970)
Born in 1928 Brooklyn, NYC, Frazetta was an early genius. Since early school, his teachers had little to instruct him in the field of drawing. At age 8 he entered art school but again, didn't learn much: partly because he was a natural, and partly because he had distracted educators: and that's how he developed his own way of doing things.

At 16 Frank got his first job as an assistant in the comics industry, and eventually developed a career there, working for many different publications. But the turning point was many years later, in 1964, when Frank was already 36, married and with children. On that year, he painted a caricature of Ringo Starr for Mad magazine, which caught the eye of United Artists studios.

It was so that Frazetta started to work on movie posters, which paid a lot more money than comics and also allowed him to develop his talents deeper. "What's New, Pussycat?" was the first commission.

From movie posters to book covers the step was short, though. And that step Frank took, at a time when Science Fiction was booming and Fantasy literature was about to become big but, somehow, a clear visual identity of the genre hadn't developed yet. This is what Frazetta did: he provided a first identity to Sword & Sorcery. His first really iconic work dates from 1966, and it is dedicated to Conan the Barbarian.

That was the beginning of the legend of Frank Frazetta. He became very famous in the industry and influenced a whole generation of artists for Sword & Sorcery. He would work on calendars, advertising, movies (besides posters, he also provided creative support in animated movies), and album covers. In 1972, heavy metal band Dust was the first to let him draw the cover for their album Hard Attack.

Now, a few words on how Frazetta worked: his main technique was oil, although he mastered other media as well. He grew up with the realistic American approach at art which was drawing models all the time, but being a natural talent, he went beyond all his peers and, after a few years, he was able to draw from memory. This allowed him two advantages: the first was to be able to exaggerate traits that he wanted, beyond human possibility. Frazetta loved to draw brawny barbarians, Junoesque women and powerful beasts - mostly horses and great cats. None of these could possibly be real. Even the muscular ogres he occasionally drew were not built on human models in front of him, but out of his imagination.

Cona the Conqueror (1967)

Egyptian Queen (1969)

Thuvia - Maid of Mars (1972)

The second advantage he obtained was to be able to draw dynamic poses that other artists could not achieve, just because models can not freeze mid air during a jump, or a fall, or a run. A common trait of all the works of Frazetta is indeed this dynamism, the tension of movement in everything, not only in the characters, who are always the focus, but also in the landscape. You will rarely find straight lines of perspective, but a tangle of curved lines evoking chaos and evolution.

Spider Man (1966)

John Carter and the Savage Apes of Mars (1970)
Conan the Destroyer (1971)
Frazetta's models were mainly the classical masters of Italian Renaissance painting: Raffaello Sanzio, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Caravaggio. Many elements of their paintings are so obviously replicated in Frazetta's work. One of these, directly from Caravaggio, is the extremely limited and simple palette: shapes are defined by light and dark rather than complex shades of colour. Light is also used to focus the attention on the main element of the painting.

Against the Gods (c. 1967)

Cat Girl (1967)

Bran Mak Morn (1967)
Frazetta would go on creating masterpieces for all the '70s, the '80s and part of the '90s. Then he started to have health issues that affected his work, and his wife, with whom he was very close, started to fight a deadly cancer. Frazetta left NYC for the mountains of Pennsylvania, to live in a mansion where he opened a small museum of his works that still exists.

His wife passed away in July 2009. After her death Frazetta hired two professionals to handle his business, but this decision created tensions among the four children. Although in November that year Conan the Conqueror was auctioned at USD 1 million, the following month the firstborn Frank Jr. Frazetta was arrested trying to steal 92 paintings from the family museum, trying to get control of his father's legacy. This opened a family dispute with legal consequences that settled only in March, 2010. But on May 10th Frank Frazetta, who now had moved to Florida, died of a stroke, last of a long series, at age 82.

Rest in peace, God among Fantasy Illustrators.

I'd like to close this post with a few final considerations. Although whole books could be written about Frazetta's influence on the Fantasy genre, there are two people which I would like to mention. The excellent Angus McBride, whose masterful compositions of finely detailed characters interacting vividly on a vague background of mountains, forests and fortresses so obviously owe to the old master Frazetta. And Bryan Ansell, head of Games Workshop during the "Golden Years", who explicitly mentioned Frazetta as his inspiration when creating the iconic Barbarians/Marauders and Chaos Warriors that everybody knows and loves.
The following painting is probably the one that first sparked in Ansell's imagination the idea of the Chaos Warrior.

The Death Dealer (1972)
Incidentally, this is one of my two favourites among Frazetta's works (a lot of people's favourite, as a matter of fact).
The other pieace I am absolutely in love with is this, taken from Michael Moorcock's 1970 novel Phoenix in Obsidian, also titled the Silver Warriors.

Silver Warrior (1972)
What's your favourite piece from Frazetta, if you have one? Let me know in the comments!

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