Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Sexuality and masculine aggression in fantasy art

Fantasy art of the 50's - 70's was largely responding to the new availability/increased acceptance of porn magazines like Playboy and the more in-your-face sexuality they promoted - and of course even some of the much sleazier magazines that trailed in it's wake. 

Frazetta's world was adolescent male fantasy - violence and sexuality presented in unrealistic terms like the way they are seen by a teenager surging with hormones. Bulging muscles and rigid  sinews, steely swords, monstrous opponents bulging with a savage gleam in the eye, incredibly voluptuous women as prizes to be won and dominated or as frightening sorceresses to be fled from or sometimes as warriors themselves, but never the physical equal of the male warriors. It's a very conservative view on sex and aggression - a man's world, where women are to be protected and cherished and treated as sexual playthings and they like it that way. This actually is what the world is like for a hypermasculine man like Frazetta- it's the world they really live in. And lots of women do as well and like it that way, consider liberal men weak and ineffectual. 

Corben followed much the same tradition, but his world was a caricature of Frazetta's - his ultimate symbol being Den, a skinny pre-sexual 13 year old boy suddenly transformed into a bulging veiny erection of a warrior surrounded by bouncy bimbos and strange masculine viragos seemingly obsessed with castration fever. But then Corben really can't be called an artist in the same sense as the rest - he's an underground comic book artist leaning toward caricature and spoofing the muscle head genre, but with an uncanny ability for it almost rivaling some of the masters. But his work doesn't seem to express his inner world in the same way as the others - it's mostly just neat stuff demonstrating his virtuoso skills and fascinations. I suppose exposing his fascinations does count as expressing his inner world, and yet that inner world seems pretty shallow in comparison to the painters on this list. Corben paints too, but his paintings are illustrations and never serve as fine art in their own right - they work well on slick paperback covers or graphic novels but not on canvas framed on a gallery wall. Williams would be the strongest fine artist of the group, following in the footsteps of the second strongest Jones, but surpassing him in many respects. Frazetta did paint like a renaissance master but there's something so puerile and embarrassing about his near-pornographic superhero-style work that makes it look foolish in a gallery. 

Jeffrey Jones however was a completely different story. He didn't objectify women - he internalized femininity. It could be hard to tell the women from the men in his paintings - both were somewhat androgynous. Well, the men were anyway. Tall, slender and graceful, lanky and raw-boned - just like he was. Like Frazetta, most of his male characters seemed like self-portraits, but opposed to Frazetta's ultra-conservative hypermasculinity his world was rife with liberal values - equality, non-objectification, non-violence. His males were like Pre-Raphaelite male heroines, and as it turned out so was he - later in life he became a cross-dresser and then a transsexual and changed his name to Catherine Jeffrey Jones. This explains so much about his art - the most central symbol of which was that iconic cover for his book featuring an anima figure of a beautiful woman enveloping and enwrapping his self-figure in her arms and thick sensual hair.  

And then there's Kent Williams. One of the superstars of the next generation - but who escaped becoming part of the copycat crowd or the caricature dark-malicious gigantic warriors with ridiculously huge axes scene. He grew up apparently next door to Jeffrey Jones, and was an artistic prodigy in childhood as far as I can tell, who would frequently hang out in Jeff's studio and get art lessons from him. Jones had himself begun by absorbing and copying Frazetta's style but quickly broke free and found his own artistic voice. Williams began by doing very Jones-like paintings I believe, but quickly broke free and began to express his own very individualistic style. 

What's his stance on sexuality and aggression? A lot harder to define than the rest. The 60' /70's fantasy art scene was the first to openly treat porn as a valid subject - Williams was part of the second generation, and personally he seems not to present women as sex objects to be leered at and won in combat, but in a much more nuanced and realistic way. Just like real life, it does include elements of objectified sexuality - that's a fact of life for all of us after all and can't be escaped - we will always have urges and sometimes they overwhelm us. That's how hormones operate - in a sweeping tide that rises suddenly and swamps us; turns us into howling mad beasts of passion and stupidity. Then in the aftermath they recede and leave us dazed and weak, confused about what just happened. This is the part males are forced to play in the endless comedy of reproduction we call life. 

Williams is a studly Asian man, and fills his studio with equally attractive friends both male and female that he draws and paints as part of his normal daily life. His paintings of women never feel like porn, rather they're like real people - a confusing mix of attractiveness and sexuality with other often conflicting qualities - sometimes even ugliness or disaffectation. He doesn't make puerile adolescent fantasy porn, but he also refuses to cleanse his work of the very real and conflicting urges and often ambiguous emotions that accompany them and that follow them. Sexual desire is very real and one of the most primal forces in human existence, and it brings a host of confusing and conflicting emotions and thoughts. These all seem to be fair game in his artistic world, but are not the totality of it - I'm just concentrating on the role of sexuality and it's depiction in this article.

Williams in some ways makes it hard to use simple language in these articles - I keep referring to 70's fantasy art and then mentioning him as a next-gen proponent of it - be really he's never been a fantasy painter in the sense the others were. As far as I know Williams has never painted a paperback cover, a barbarian, or anyone wielding a sword, at least in a fantasy setting. Personally his stance on violence is complex, as is his stance on sexuality. I do recall seeing a painting he did featuring himself in Samurai armor - but he was far from an avenging hero or great powerful warrior - instead the armor seemed to obliterate his humanity, to hide it and weigh heavily on it. Many of his paintings deal with his heritage as a Asian man and how he feels about traditional roles, which I assume are pretty strictly enforced by earlier generations (possibly including his parents? Don't know). So, it seems he's expanding on what I said Jones was doing - commenting on the themes revealed in Frazetta's iconic artwork. Following after Jones he seems to have been much more sophisticated about it from the beginning - probably facilitated by his studies of Jones' work, or possibly they even discussed it outright, I have no idea. 

How does Fritz Lieber depict sexuality in his writing, and how Robert E Howard? Howard of course the creator of Conan - Frazetta's doppleganger and most central and perfect subject. Howard's world was very much like Frank's - he must have been a man's man or at least envisioned itself that way, and Conan reflected that. A man must be strong - defeat all opponents, not take any crap and must know how to deal with women. Everything depends on his reputation as a macho man, and if that suffers then he's defeated and shamed. Lieber was different in large measure, though he sometimes did let his fantasy slip into very adolescent porn mode. In his world though it wasn't necessary for men to be iron-hard masculine dictators smashing all opponents and dominating women fiercely. 

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