February 9, 2011

Remembering a Titan — Frank Frazetta

Some Favorites: Sun Goddess, Death Dealer, and Against the gods
By Giovanni di Napoli

For as long as I can remember, I've been drawing. One of my earliest memories was a water color painting I did of the Red Baron's triplane soaring through the sky. It was nothing special, but my parents made so much of a fuss over it that I never forgot. I was fascinated with soldiers and war and as I grew older, my pictures grew more graphic and detailed.
Self Portrait
An early influence in my life was Frank Frazetta. I'll never forget the first time I saw his work. A friend showed me the cover of his uncle's Molly Hatchet album featuring Frazetta's "Death Dealer", a fierce warrior mounted on a nightmarish black steed. It was like an epiphany. I sought out other works by the artist, which led me to the jacket covers of several science fiction and fantasy novels, sparking my interest in the stories of Robert E. Howard (Conan) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan).
Imitating Frazetta, my own renderings became more fantastic, yet more realistic because I began to focus on anatomy. I also started to include scantily clad damsels in distress to my drawings which, predictably, got me in trouble on several occasions in Catholic elementary school.
Frazetta's images depict aesthetic beauty and unapologetic virility, and as a healthy, idealistic adolescent boy they appealed to me on some primal level. Not just pretty pictures, they served to transmit archetypical ideals—valor, strength, beauty—traditionally passed on through myths and legends. It is said a picture is worth a thousand words; Frazetta's spoke volumes to me.
Triumphant Heroes: 
Pompeii's Theseus and the Minotaur and Frazetta's Conan the Barbarian
It wasn't until I started high school that I received proper art training. I was lucky enough to have a teacher who took me under her wing and helped nurture my gift. She introduced me to the works of many artists (including Salvador Dali and Auguste Rodin—still among my favorites) and new mediums (it was the first time I worked with terracotta and made pottery). Of course, as I went on to college and grew older my tastes and interests broadened, and I developed a style all my own, but 'til this day the art of Frank Frazetta inspires me. Its heroic message is eternal.
My limited edition signed print 
from the "Women of the Ages" portfolio
Frank Frazetta was born on February 9, 1928 in Brooklyn, New York. He was the oldest of four children in a tight-knit Sicilian family. A child prodigy, he was only eight years-old when he enrolled in the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Art under the tutelage of Michael Falanga.
By sixteen he was apprenticing for John Giunta at Bernard Bailey Studio and published his first comic work, Snowman. He soon moved on to Fiction House Comics, then to Standard Publishing, where he continued to hone his craft working under the direction of Ralph Mayo. Turning down an offer from Disney Studios, Frazetta worked in comics in various capacities until about 1961.
He met Eleanor Kelly in 1952 and fell madly in love. They married four years later. Ellie helped promote her husband's career by selling reproductions of his work. She would later be the driving force behind the Frazetta Museum. They had four children together: Frank Jr., Billy, Holly and Heidi. Ellie died of cancer on July 17, 2009.
With the decline of the comic industry and struggling to provide for his growing family, Frazetta found work drawing for adult themed magazines, including Playboy's titillating comic strip, Little Annie Fanny. When opportunity knocked he moved on to illustrating book and magazine covers, changing forever the fantasy/adventure and publishing industries with his dramatic portrayals of Conan the Barbarian.
In 1964 his caricature of Ringo Star for Mad Magazine caught the attention of United Artist Studios. They hired him to do the movie poster for the Peter Sellers film, What's New Pussycat? (1975), thus beginning a long lucrative relationship with Hollywood. This eventually led to his collaboration with director Ralph Bakshi on the animated sword and sorcery film Fire & Ice (1983). Although the movie didn't fare well at the box office, Frazetta's movie poster, depicting the heroes Darkwolf, Larn and Teegra fending-off "Nekron's dogs," is among his best.
Fire and Ice
During the 1970s Frazetta won all kinds of accolades from his peers, including the Award of Excellence in 1972 and 1974 from the Society of Illustrators. In 1975 Bantum books published The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta, the first of many retrospectives of his most popular paintings. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive and according to artist Arnie Fenner, "his seductive oils, were immediately compared to Rembrandt." (Icon, 1998) With over 400,000 copies printed to meet demands, the book was a huge success.
In 1998 he was elected to the Illustrators Hall of Fame by the Society of Illustrators. Two years later the third incarnation of the Frazetta Museum opened in Bushkill, Pennsylvania, making his life's work accessible to his fans. Painting with fire, a definitive documentary spanning the course of his illustrious career, was released on DVD in 2003.
After battling illness for several years he lost the use of his right hand. Instead of giving up he taught himself to draw with his left. Frazetta suffered a stroke and died on May 10, 2010. He was 82 years-old.
In another time and place, it’s not hard to imagine Frazetta's work gracing the naves and domes of Europe's monumental cathedrals and palaces, or (traveling still further back) the walls of Roman villas. Princes and popes would have courted Frazetta's talents just like modern art directors did. They would have marveled over his amazing speed and bravura the same way they did with the great Neapolitan painter Luca "fà-presto" Giordano (1634-1705). Many of Frazetta's most popular pieces were painted in just a day or two.
Ellie Frazetta
Whether you like his art or not, the fact remains that Frazetta was one of the most original and influential illustrators of the twentieth century, defining the fantasy genre and inspiring generations of artists. In addition to comics, movie posters, books and album covers, he created fine art as well. Frazetta's personal paintings are among the artist's best. The portraits of his wife and family are wonderfully executed and have been compared to the works of the great American painter John Singer Sergeant (1856-1925).
I have a decent collection of art books in my personal library and I'm not ashamed to to say that among my assortment of biographies Frazetta is well represented. Admittedly, this has more to do with availability than by design. I wish I could find more than one book dealing with Bernardo Cavallino, Francesco Messina or Vincenzo Gemito, let alone find a single book about Francesco Solimena, Corrado Giaquinto or Giuseppe Sanmartino. Southern Italian artists clearly do not get the same attention as their northern counterparts. Perhaps this shows how influential the Sicilian from Brooklyn's art really is. When talking about the history of illustration Frank Frazetta cannot be ignored.
Frank Frazetta: The Living Legend, Frank and Eleanor Frazetta, 1981.
Icon: A retrospective by the Grand Master of Fantastic Art, Frank Frazetta edited by Arnie & Cathy Fenner, Underwood Books, 1998.
Legacy: Selected Paintings & Drawings by the Grand Master of Fantastic Art, Frank Frazetta edited by Arnie & Cathy Fenner, Underwood Books, 1999.
Testament: The Life and Art of Frank Frazetta edited by Arnie & Cathy Fenner, Underwood Books, 2001.