Worlds that could never be alight at the Rockwell: Fantastic images from 1589 to the present

  • Many of the exhibit’s images approach the standards of classical art. Gary Gianni created this scene for a 2000 reprinting of Robert E. Howard’s collection of stories titled “Bran Mak Morn.” COURTESY ROCKWELL MUSEUM

  • Artists have depicted “St. George and the Dragon” since the at least the 7th century. Three time Hugo Award winner Donato Giancola created this version in 2010. PHOTO COURTESY ROCKWELL MUSEUM

  • The exhibit’s images range from the whimsical to the disturbing. Author and illustrator James Warhola, the nephew of Pop artist Andy Warhol painted “Magic Shop” in 1985. COURTESY ROCKWELL MUSEUM

  • The artist Scott Gustafson is well known for his reimagined images of children’s classics from “Snow White” to “The Wizard of Oz.” Detail upon detail can be found in 1993’s “A Mad Tea Party” from “Alice in Wonderland.” COURTESY ROCKWELL MUSEUM

  • This ominous image, strongly suggesting gloom and doom for someone, was created by the artist Michael Whelan for the Brandon Sanderson book “The Way of Kings,” which appeared in 2010. COURTESY ROCKWLL MUSEUM

For The Recorder
Published: 10/8/2021 1:55:03 PM

“Everyone loves their illusions…

They need them like they need the air.”

Shadows and Fog (1991 movie)

The stuff of dreams — demons, angels, heroes, heroines, dragons, knights and princesses await you, their images dominating the galleries at Stockbridge’s Norman Rockwell Museum. Through Oct. 31 you can see 140 artworks by 100 artists, some works centuries old, all of them conveying the illusions, mysteries and passionate desire every culture has for fantasy illustration.

“Fantasy is important,” Jesse Kowalski noted in a recent video, “because humankind possesses a natural desire for ascension, a need for ritual and a need to better itself.”

He’s the museum’s curator of exhibits, known for introducing unique exhibits such as the work of the cartoonists William Hanna and Joseph Barbera (“The Flintstones, etc.”) and the first major showing of works by Hampshire County illustrator and author Tony DiTerlizzi.

In creating “Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration” and in editing its eponymous 232-page companion catalog (Abbeville Press; $45) the curator cast a wide net.

He researched heroic legends ranging from “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” an epic poem written in 2100 B.C., to the 19th century storytellers The Brothers Grimm. Among other books, Kowalski pored through collected works of psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who wrote about “the grey mists of Neolithic prehistory. Mankind has never lacked powerful images to lend magical aid against all the uncanny things that live in the depth of the psyche.”

“(Fantasy) is a human need that helps explain who we are and it clarifies our place in the world,” Kowalski said.

Legends are pervasive. Scotland’s national animal is the unicorn and in Iceland a survey concluded that the majority of the population believes, or thinks possible, the existence of elves. The “huldufolk” (hidden people) can be found in Viking records from 1000 A.D. In this country we also have many myths: Bigfoot, diet plans, Hollywood and the lottery.

Kowalski also read the writings of Joseph Campbell, whose career was devoted to studying comparative mythologies and religions. The author is best known for suggesting that each culture has a pervasive “hero” myth. That figure undertakes a journey challenging his or her being, yet they overcome all obstacles to return as more powerful, often to save their community.

In organizing this, the first original full-scale exhibit of fantasy art and illustration, Kowalski wisely ruled out gunplay, technology and spaceships. Fantasy, he noted, is a world that could never be, while science fiction is based upon fact.

Popularizing dwarfs

Rich Bradway, the museum’s director of digital learning, provided a tour through the galleries. He said that Kowalski, in planning the exhibit knew that “fantasy art doesn’t start in 1970, it goes back to Greek mythology.”

In the first gallery you’ll find a dramatic depiction of “Apollo Slaying the Python,” a 1690 black ink and wash rendering by the Dutchman Willem Van Miers. The Greek poet Ovid describes the reptilian rumble noting the dying monster was “transfixed by a thousand arrows.” We count a more economical four arrows here, yet the winged beast is no more and Apollo has gained real estate at Delphi. Over centuries the myth has gained great traction among sculptors and painters and in these galleries you’ll find that winged dragons and serpents remain quite popular and creepy.

Also influenced by Ovid’s words, the Dutch master engraver Hendrick Goltzius in 1589 etched “Creation of Four Elements.” It’s an energetic work wherein a muscular deity, centered upon a crescent of fire, brings life to an earth swirling below.

Bradway explained that one original idea was to have a touch screen set in a smoky, spherical shape suggesting a witch’s cauldron. It would provide a wealth of information as to the art and artists. Since last year, however, most of us have put a lot of “touchy-feelies” on hold.

“When COVID came along we pretty much nixed that concept,” the director said. He added that the show may have been much broader, however, with all the museum and private contributions to the exhibit, transportation and insurance costs became complex.

“We had to scale it down,” Bradway said, “but it’s still a darned big exhibit.”

A few steps from Apollo’s arrows, there’s a century-old N.C. Wyeth painting “Bruce on the Beach,” in which medieval swordsmen Robert the Bruce and William Wallace shake hands before joining in battle. Other “Golden Age” illustrators are here in profusion, from Howard Pyle and Max Parrish to Jessie Wilcox Smith and Arthur Rackham. Brilliant fantasy design from newspapers also drew Kowalski’s interest and you’ll find black and white panels from a 1906 Winsor McCay wildly surreal”Little Nemo” and Hal Foster’s elegant “Prince Valiant.”

In modern times the 1977 best seller “Faeries” by Brian Froud and Alan Lee provided a comprehensive field guide to these magical dwarfs, sparking a renewed interest in the romantic and illusive characters.

Froud went on to create, among other projects, costume and conceptual art for such films as puppeteer Jim Henson’s “The Dark Crystal.” Lee, also in demand, was the conceptual artist for “The Lord of the Rings “and the Hobbit films. Examples of their work are in the show.

Modern times and earlier times

“If you were trying to create a line in the sand,” Bradway said, “as to when does fantasy art became in the forefront of popular culture, I’d say that Frank Frazetta was one of the forefathers of that.”

The late artist had a meteoric rise, catching the eye of movie producers after he’d lampooned Beatle drummer Ringo Starr for “MAD” magazine. He’d begun as an inker for comic books and rose to create movie posters, record cover designs, magazine illustrations and a plethora of sci-fi book illustrations.

There are two of his paintings here and a 1972 oil, “Escape on Venus” depicts a muscular female who has caught the eye of a hungry tiger. Frazetta often depicted woman as strong and independent and at times teetering on the clothing optional border. The artist was key in popularizing images for “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings.”

You’ll also find illustrations by Tim and Greg Hildebrandt, who produced calendar art for the latter Tolkien classic and conceptual art for the first “Star Wars.”

It’s said that Hollywood is forever chasing past images. The Brit John Martin was obsessed with Biblical catastrophes and the Underworld. In the 1820s he created several images for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” His dramatic rendering of “Satan in Council,” a lone figure atop a sphere in a cavernous arena, was the inspiration for the Galactic Senate in a 1999 Star Wars film.

You yourself may be inspired by the works and career of Julie Bell. She had worked in book illustration, later posing as a model and then became a body builder and a nationally ranked competitor. She then returned to illustration and created virtually photographic images in oil. “Pegasus Befriends the Muses” from 2018 is a masterwork of feminine form astride a winged horse surrounded by swirling color. She is the mother of artists Anthony and David Palumbo. Examples of their artwork are also in the exhibit.

The images range from the comical to the grave. The centerpiece may well be Gustave Doré’s 24-square-foot painting “The Black Eagle of Prussia.” A winged and wounded female, representing France and guarding its war dead, lies defeated with a broken sword while a huge, ravenous bird descends upon her. The image defined the artist’s fears as to France’s future during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

Ironically, in 2014 David Palumbo created an oil image “The Fallen,” displaying an armored and exhausted female, sword in hand, guarding the dead of World War I.

The artist was unaware of the earlier Doré image and upon seeing it, Bradway said that Palumbo was awe-inspired, while also surprised that his vision was not original.

On loan from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is Elihu Vedder’s 1864 “The Lair of the Sea Serpent,” an image so subtle that people often take little notice of the painting, seeing it as just a landscape. Coiled within the dunes is a nightmarish reptile. Using the same title, in 2019 Justin Gerard painted a horrifying huge and ghastly serpent in the depths, entwined among the wrecks of colonial era wooden ships. To paraphrase a John Steinbeck quote “It’s good that we have our monsters in the deep, otherwise the oceans would be like sleep without dreams.”

“Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration,” continues through Oct. 31. Museum hours: Thursday – Tuesday. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Wednesday. Admission: Adults, $20; students, $10; ages 18 and under, free. Important: There is a bridge repair underway. If traveling on Route 183, take the detour on West Hawthorne Road into Stockbridge. Signs will direct you to the museum.


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