Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Frazetta Barbarians

Frank Frazetta is indelibly linked to barbarians. Especially Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian. It's safe to say that when people think of Conan, they conjure a Frazetta-like image to their minds. Frazetta's impression of Conan is no small thing. His covers, painted starting in the sixties, were the covers of the Conan paperbacks into the 1980's. If you ever get the chance to see an artist's interpretation of Conan prior to Frazetta's, you'll be amazed at the blandness of the mighty thewed Cimmerian. Often the pre-Frazetta Conan has an "Arabian Nights" aura. Artists didn't translate Howard's mixed milieu well. But Frazetta established a visual vocabulary of mixed cultural cues and barbaric splendor that matched Howard perfectly in tone and texture. All visual Conan art -- comics, books, movies, TV, etc -- after Frazetta is really a commentary on Frazetta's images.
Frazetta created his own barbarian reiver, The Death Dealer, and portrayed him in a series of paintings. Frazetta's use of color, the heaviness of his composition, and his use of light and dark, were all compared to Renaissance masters. He received several years of art training, but his style was largely self-taught and influenced by necessity. His depiction of the human body shows equal influences of the Old Masters classics and the dynamism of comic book pop art.

Somewhat surprisingly, while Frazetta is famous for his burly, super-heroic slayers perpetrating great violence in full scale battle -- there is very little blood and gore in his work. A flash of red, a body wracked in pain and thrown at an odd angle; these are the visual cues Frazetta uses to imply the swath of destruction being cut by his heroes as they engage their foemen. This is the painting equivalent of heroic poetry.


Taranaich said...

I agree wholeheartedly regarding your views on Frazetta being the first to "get" Howard.

While I think Emswhiller and Wood were a marked improvement on Brundage, they still looked more like "somewhat uncouthed civilized men," not savage barbarians. The '60s was probably the first time someone could depict a man with long hair, earrings and a general "savagery" beyond the ken of a civilized man as a protagonist, which is (IMO) why Frazetta was the first.

Well, in addition to him being freaking awesome.

jrf said...

Ahhhh... I bow before a man who has more esoteric knowledge than I do.

I've seen several different renderings of Conan as he appeared on the cover of the pulp magazines, so I'm probably familiar with the art you reference, but I never bothered to learn the names of the artists.

Yes, there is still to much of the stink of civilization about these Conan versions.

You raise an interesting point about the fashions of the Sixties having an influence.