‘The Inquiring Line’
R.O. Blechman’s illustrations span three generations
Five years after the destruction of Sept. 11, 2001 Blechman created this image of other buildings mourning the losses for the Municipal Art Society of New York. “Memorial Lights” (©R.O. Blechman. All rights reserved)
Blechman has frequently used “artistic appropriation,” the reuse of iconic images, to make a point. What we commonly call “Whistler’s Mother” (“Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1”) has been endlessly satirized, and here, modernized. (Whistler’s Mother, n.d. ©R.O. Blechman. All rights reserved.)
Blechman’s self-portrait. “That image of himself,” the exhibit’s curator, Joyce Schiller said, “not handsome, not debonair, just a guy and we all relate to that.” (©R.O. Blechman. All rights reserved)
Moisha and R.O. Blechman on his exhibit’s opening night.
In 2008 Miami’s Wolfsonian FIU Museum challenged 60 artists to reinterpret one of Norman Rockwell’s iconic “Four Freedoms” paintings. Blechman chose “Freedom From Fear,” a Saturday Evening Post illustration from 1943. (©R.O. Blechman. All rights reserved)
“We artists are hypersensitive, or we wouldn’t be — couldn’t be — artists.”
— R.O. Blechman
His art is instantly familiar, deceptively simple and often composed of nervous, squiggly lines depicting frail characters with enormous noses. An author, animator and illustrator with frequent contributions to the New York Times, Esquire and New Yorker magazines, at age 83, R.O. Blechman shows no signs of slowing down. With numerous awards for his artistic works and a client list ranging from AT&T and IBM to Hallmark Cards and MTV, his images are as inescapable as the Man in the Moon. Now through June 30 you can view a full gallery of his works, including an amalgam of his animated films, at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.
“In terms of someone writing a history (of illustration), he would be one of those pivots that gets us from the mid-century to the modern age. He’s really important,” museum staffer Joyce Schiller said during the exhibit’s opening night.
Schiller curated the exhibit and authored its companion catalogue “R.O. Blechman: The Inquiring Line” (NRM; 16 page.; $5).
Fate and the illustrator
Blechman’s artistic career may have never been but for a muse, a neighbor with whom he fell in love as an adolescent.
“She was a young French lady, svelte and beautiful,” he told the audience during an opening night talk.
A refugee from post World War II Europe, her apartment overlooked Central Park and she covered the walls with her paintings of the woodsy site. Incongruously, she often depicted the park as populated with donkeys, although Blechman, a Brooklynite, never recalled seeing such animals anywhere. One of the painted donkeys had a cutout on its flank to accommodate a light switch. At times she would ask him to turn on the lights.
“That was my introduction to art,” Blechman joked. “Turning on that light ... turned me on to art.”
Attending Oberlin College, he had no artistic passions. However, he was rabidly political and produced editorial cartoons for the college newspaper. Intrigued by a course taught by a colleague of the filmmaker Luis Bunuel, he enrolled and, as a class project, illustrated his first book “Why Rome Fell.”
“I may have drawn small, but, boy, I thought BIG!” he noted.
A publishing house saw no sparks in a humorous retelling of the glory that was Rome. They encouraged him, however, to consider something seasonal.
He chose the Medieval tale of a sleight-of-hand character who makes a gift of a performance for the Virgin Mary.
“The Juggler of Our Lady” was then published, receiving enthusiastic reviews, later becoming an animated short.
“It almost ended my career, because it got a lot of publicity,” the artist said. “When things come too early for you, forget it ... It took me many years to realize that, while my eye was good, my hand was absolutely rotten.”
The self-taught artist’s first job was to create story boards for the animator John Hubley, best known for “Mr. Magoo.” Blechman’s work was becoming known, regularly featured in the late, great “Humbug,” a satirical monthly, and a precursor to “MAD” magazine.
By the 1960s, his career was in rapid ascent. In the middle of the decade, a one-minute cartoon for Alka-Seltzer received national attention.
The gastrointestinal classic was reviewed in Time magazine, which noted that Blechman was “a cross between Jules Feiffer and James Thurber.”
“I did very little with that,” the artist told Joe Strike during a 2012 interview at New York’s Society of Illustrators museum. “I did the story board. I was given the script ... What’s brilliant about it is the script and the acting ... the idea is what carried it.”
In 1977, he founded The Ink Tank, an animation studio which, for 27 years, produced both commercial and artistic products.
In 1982, while in Milan, Italy, he bumped into a PBS programmer while in a hotel lobby. She asked what his next project might be and he went blank. A short time later, he passed by La Scala, where a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” was advertised.
He shot back to the hotel, found the PBS executive and suggested an animated film of what may be, for all ages, the most approachable of the Russian composer’s works.
Blechman wrote a proposal and received $20,000 to create a story board. While planning his updated, surreal version of a soldier who sells his fiddle to the devil in exchange for insider stock market tips, he began to cast about for voices. Knowing that the Swedish actor Max von Sydow was on the Broadway stage, he waited at the back door following a performance.
He told Strike that, as the actor exited the theater, he approached him enthusiastically.
“Hello Mr. Sydow,” the artist said. “I loved your performance!” A performance which Blechman hadn’t actually attended.
“I think you’d make a fantastic devil,” he gushed.
The actor’s agent was present and a deal was made.
“It was great good luck,” Blechman said. “Sometimes, you have to push the envelope.”
The film won an Emmy Award.
“The best animators are filmmakers ‘manqué.’ They have their own style,” the artist said in the same interview. “They take whatever style they’re given and they magically transform it into something extraordinary.”
Blechman rails at 3-D animation, saying that it’s emotionally cold. He prefers the handmade and somewhat imperfect aspect of cell animation.
“Even God made us slightly imperfect. If you look at today’s headlines, more than slightly,” he quipped.
During a walk through the gallery, Schiller took note of Blechman’s self-portrait, a clue as to why his art is so popular.
“Look, it’s unpresupposing,” she said. “That image of himself, not handsome, not debonair, just a guy and we all relate to that. There’s nothing greatly different about any of us. That’s the essence of how he communicates.”
Schiller notes that Blechman, as did Norman Rockwell and many others, excels at “artistic appropriation,” the reuse of a classic image for modern day emphasis.
The pose of Rockwell’s WWII “Rosie the Riveter,” for example, is based upon Michelangelo’s Isiah in Italy’s Sistine Chapel.
Updating the image of “Whistler’s Mother,” Blechman seats the matron in a chrome Mies van der Rohe chair with a Picasso hung on a nearby wall.
Still acerbically political, Blechman became incensed when, in 1995, nine Nigerian activists lost their lives protesting Shell Oil’s environmental damage to their country. His illustration, based on Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” depicts a skeletal, but smiling woman, standing atop a floating scallop shell.
In 2009, a federal court in Manhattan ruled that the company was complicit in the deaths of the protesters.
Blechman’s works, with their simple lines, can be emotionally powerful. Five years after 9/11, he depicted the searchlights beamed upward from Ground Zero, defining the space where the Twin Towers once stood. In the foreground, the Empire State, Chrysler, CitiCorp and other notable buildings, bow in mourning.
An unlikely trio
During an opening night interview, Blechman was asked what advice he gives to young illustrators.
“If you’re offered a job, even if it’s nonpaying, grab it. You’ll never know what it turns into,” he said. He recalled an overture he’d received, years ago, from the editors of the now-departed “Story” magazine. They were offering $100 for any previously published images.
Blechman instead provided original art.
“I grabbed it and I went on to do every single one of their covers for the next 10 years,” he said.
In remarking over changes to the illustration market over the past half-century, the artist lamented that “everything is technocratic now, it’s all digital.”
“I find myself, I can’t get some jobs because often I’m told (my style) is considered ‘old-fashioned.’” he continued. “Picasso, Rembrandt, you can go back to the Greek sculptors. They’re old-fashioned also, does that make them any less worthwhile?”
Having experienced failures and successes, the artist noted that the composer Franz Schubert never heard any of his symphonies performed in his lifetime.
“Without the confidence that comes from recognition,” Blechman said, “too many people end up like Franz Schubert. With no recognition you end up with unfinished music ... unfinished novels, unfinished poems and unfinished paintings.”
Blechman prefaced his remarks to opening night attendees by noting that “if anyone told me that there’d be a museum dedicated to Norman Rockwell, I tell you, back in the 1940s, I would tell you it was a joke.”
He explained that he didn’t consider the illustrator seriously until he visited Stockbridge’s Old Corner House in the 1970s, which predated the museum in exhibiting Rockwell canvases.
Blechman was transfixed.
“It was a revelation.” he said. “That guy could paint, and I mean, really paint.”
Blechman noted that the late animator Walt Disney’s biggest nightmare was that his own work would one day be in a museum, probably suggesting that he’d be forgotten and culturally entombed. On June 7, the Rockwell Museum unveiled some of the art that created Disney’s first feature-length film, 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Now that Rockwell’s, Disney’s and his own work can be seen under the same roof, Blechman quipped “That is an unlikely trio in an improbable setting.”
“R.O. Blechman: The Inquiring Line” continues at the Norman Rockwell Museum through June 30. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: Adults $16; college students with ID. $10; ages 6 to 18, $5. Directions: The museum is less than three miles from downtown Stockbridge. Signs direct motorists to Route 102 west and then Route 183 south. For more information: www.nrm.org.
Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for The Recorder since 1994.