Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Argument Against Frazetta

Once I decided to start my web site again I began to get emails from many people who found all these negative essays and combative pronouncements about Franks art. Everyone is an expert on the internet (or at least they have convinced themselves that they are) and all these self-appointed art experts dismiss Frazetta as a serious artist. The arguments Ive heard a thousand times. The opinions are, to be frank, rather puerile and sophomoric. Periodically, this type of weak mindedness needs to be addressed. In addition to all these emails complaining about the anti-Frazetta contingents, I also receive lovely, thoughtful comments that capture the spirit and essence of Frazetta. I received this email from Tony Avacato, a New York based artist, who is a very big admirer of both Frank Frazetta and Robert E. Howard. This is what he said:

“Dave, there is something of the Cinema to his art and something of Memory, too. At the risk of waxing weird, I've always felt that Fritz was re-creating as much as creating his art. There are those certain themes that run rampant through his best work, regardless of those concessions that commerce demanded. Evocative in their unsettling power, the best of what he did -- and by their immortal influence, still do -- suggest an older soul at work. Fritz, though always young-at-heart, was an old soul, and sought through a wealth of dangerous visions, a way to re-connect to those past lives, both real and imagined. That's why his Conan paintings stand supreme among those works of fantasy. They tower above the rest because, like Robert E. Howard, Frazetta knew the intrinsic truth of things. He understood intuitively what all the great philosophers have tried to figure out throughout history. He saw the pageantry of pain and pride and passion that is Life better than most because he had lived it, over and over and over again. A remarkable artist and a remarkable man. I do not think we will see his like again. Be Well, Tony A.”

This is very heartfelt and insightful analysis. It motivated me to think about Frazetta and the type of criticism he receives. If my memory is correct, Robert Crumb copied two of Frazetta's drawings in his sketchbooks. He is quoted as saying that he just didn't get it. He didn't see the point to the subjects. This never surprised me. After all, Crumb and Frazetta occupy opposite places in the universe of art.

Let's play the devil's advocate for a moment. The arguments commonly made against Frazetta fall into the following categories:

Frazetta art is quite trite, trivial and banal.

Frazetta relies exclusively on cliches and overused stereotypes.

Frazetta provides no insight into human behavior.

Frazetta gives no real thought to the human condition and its problems.

I strongly disagree with all these assertions. Let us consider the first two points. In essence the argument is that Frazetta uses age old images of warriors, battle scenes, scenarios of contrived fantasy, and brainless women that are simply sexual stereotypes.

He uses formulaic male power fantasies and softcore titillation to fill his canvases.

The fact is that most human communication of any sort utilizes various types of stereotypes. They are a permanent part of the human condition. This goes back to the dawn of humanity where warriors and hunters are found in cave paintings and petroglyphs. It continues into the writings of Homer, the Bible, Shakespeare, etc. The subject matter includes all the great traditions on this planet, i.e. Judeo-Christian, Asian, Polynesian, African, and more. The visual history of the world contains numerous offshoots of Golems, Grendels, and Beowulfs. Do we all participate in some ancient collective unconscious that feeds us our symbols and metaphors as C. J. Jung would have us believe? Are we saturated with Platonic forms that are pre-born within us? Are we the subject of some type of divine illumination as St. Augustine taught? The great moorish mediaeval thinker Averroes thought the human mind received forms emanating from the cosmos. There are many theories. The mystery of creativity will ALWAYS be a mystery. The known fact is that Frazetta is deeply connected to these ancient ideas and ancient traditions. It is in his blood. Not only that but he has the deepest respect for the ideas of heroism. He grew up visually saturated by these iconic images courtesy of Foster, St. John, Pyle, and many others.

Heroism lives strongly and naturally in his soul. They are ancient memories that he gives new life too. They emerge naturally, not forced, from the cultural formation that makes Frank who he is. He is re-presenting truths to a new age.

Frazetta's art inspires, informs, and transforms us. He shows us the deepest splendors of the human condition: man at his heroic best. Frazetta is not to be faulted for this; he is to be praised. He is that rare being...a truth sayer and a beauty maker. He is a modern day shaman who connects us with the importance of the past. He highlights the continuity of excellence that runs through the human condition.

What about the question of human behavior? Look at the death scene drawing of Kubla Khan. We spoke about it previously. What does it tell us? I think it is profound. The horror of war, the death of a friend; it's all showcased here in a very powerful way. Not many artists could reach this intense level of emotional expression. It is a gift. On the other side of the coin we see Frazetta drawing light hearted cartoons, some funny, some explicitly ribald. Another facet of the human condition is presented. And, importantly, these are always accompanied by a lively sense of beauty. The creation of new beauty is the ultimate justification for any artist. Frazetta has lit up the world with new beauties of every sort. We live in a world that has been visually sculpted by the mind of Frazetta. What more could we possibly ask for in an artist.

We could go on and on, but I think the point has been made. Frazetta is not a childish artist who people grow out of. He is a magisterial creator who people enter and appreciate more and more deeply over time. I have been looking and thinking about Frazetta's art since 1955, a long time. I still am thrilled by it. It is always fun to look at. It is always fresh. There are always new discoveries to be made.

© 2011 Dr. Dave Winiewicz


  1. Dave, what is there to add? You said it all, and nailed the truth. Thanks!

  2. Thanks Mike. Defending Frazetta is the easiest thing in the world to do, but it needs to be done periodically.


  3. Good post!

    There is a kind of mind... the self-declared intellectual... that has had his instincts so deracinated by a wholly literary existence that unless a thing is spelled out in words, it is not understood. Word people are a kind of cult that fetishizes the naming of things, rather than actual lived life. They think the naming of the thing is the understanding of the thing. And these shallow minds constantly tell themselves how very smart they are for knowing the names of everything. I don't think Frazetta fell for any of those pseudo-intellectual treehouse club games at all. He knew the score. No doubt Frazetta's disinterest in pandering to the word mandarins will continue to keep him out of conversations they control.

    Crumb is just such a fetishistic mind, fixated on the surface of things... and thinking that because he cannot percieve things at the depths of Frazetta's soul, that there must be nothing there. But a man can see in anything only to the depths he himself can reach. And, as the great man said, "There's some people that, if they don't know, you can't tell them."

    Best wishes,
    kev f

  4. The way I see it, if you look at a Frazetta painting and feel a stirring in your soul, then some part of you is still alive. If you look and feel nothing then you are dead and just waiting for the grave.

  5. Well said, Kev. You are correct. There is a deep subterranean spring of world energies that Frank is tapped into. It is primal and powerful and allows Frank to unleash the life in his originals. A rare gift, indeed! Frank had NO patience for the obscurantists that populate the art world.


  6. Yes, M.D. quite right. That sums it up perfectly.


  7. Frazetta is a more complex and contrary creature than a few words or even tomes full of reports, anecdotes and inside trivia will be able to describe thoroughly or to any satisfying way that closes the book. I see people try to pigeon hole authors from Hemingway to Howard in the same way. They can't stand the idea that they cannot sum a person up based on ever narrowing criteria examined to point of making any relevance moot. When I talked to Frank he used to inspire and infuriate me, sometimes in the same sentence. His was an active mind, as so many creative minds are busy, roiling with contradiction and trying to define a purpose or a method to living this life. If people were as cut and dried as the experts wanted them to be there would be no thought, only action. Frank hit a lot of nerves and, yes, sometimes he was boorish in his outright dismissal of things (from art to politics Frank had an opinion) but I always felt like he was just tired of considering things all the time. I think he and Ellie both held fast to some remarkably quaint and ambivalent notions but that was their age talking, their weariness at endeavoring to reinvent their perspective. This happens to older people who grow tired of being told their notions on life are suspect or just plain wrong. At some point most people shore up their emotional fortresses and carry on, blithely dismissing most new ideas. My parents and grandparents did it. Frank's art on the other hand had a nice earthy, exotic and vital essence that defied both his age and the years as they passed. They are also solidly arresting to the eye, emotionally charged and nuanced in their way, regardless of what the wordy and ultimately callow assert. Their "worldly" attempts at intellectual assassination are a waste of their time. They often look at a small group of paintings and render a decision with out studying the larger body or the range of the work. How intellectual is it when after a lengthy screed, the closing points are always vapid dismissal propped up by even more shallow cliche's? I like Robert Crumb's art and I would never accuse him of just being a low-browed, sexual deviant. Yes, some of his art seems to reflect that assertion but it's not the man and it is not the length and breadth of his career or his life.

  8. Thank you for the thoughtful observations, Rick. I must agree with your conclusions. The complexity of Frank is something that will receive a lot of future consideration. Great men embrace great contradictions.

    As for Crumb...I grew up with his art in the 60's. It has a special place in my history, but Frazetta reaches more deeply, more profoundly. Crumb and Frazetta do share an intense preoccupation with sex. That's something I want to consider in a future post.

    Again, thank you!


  9. Dave, you don't need to analyze Frazetta's art. No one has come close to his skills in painting and drawing in all mediums. Everything he did was magical. Great art moves you and makes you feel alive. Frazetta's art does this and more. He was simply a genius. Thank you Dave for your insights and sharing your friendship with all of us. Hellen & Tony

  10. I certainly agree!

    Thank you.


  11. Thanks for posting this and all the content. Great resource for Frazetta fans! I think Frank's strongest skill as an artist is the ability to capture and freeze a complex set of motions or actions. The viewer, should that person choose, is drawn to "fill in the blanks" of the preceding and following moments - sort of like visualizing one's follow-through swinging at a baseball.

    Also, his mastery of placing light sources is unmatched. Very much like what can be achieved on stage in live theater.

    Should the viewer choose not to engage, well, that's when the overthinking, smugness, and criticism appear. The people who seem to be most critical of his work complain about content more than anything about technique, which cannot be faulted. Maybe the content just makes uptight people uncomfortable.

    Thanks again,