Thursday, July 19, 2018

Jacob Elshin: From Czarist Army to Seattle Murals

As regular Art Contrarian readers probably sense, I am perhaps more interested than I should be with paintings made in the 1920s and 1930s.

This post is yet another in that vein. But I can justify it! How? It happened that Jacob Alexander Elshin (1892-1976) lived only about two miles away when I was growing up, and down the street from where one of my high school buddies lived. So how can I not write this post?

His Wikipedia entry is little more than a placeholder. There are a few other snippets about him on the Internet such as here, where it mentions that "Jacob Elshin was born in Russia in 1892 and received his education and art training there. He fled the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Following the Revolution, he went to Shanghai where he worked as a newspaper cartoonist for three years before moving to Seattle in 1923. From then on, Elshin maintained a long and active painting career in the Pacific Northwest and became one of the region's most noted painters and teachers. He had four solo exhibitions at the Seattle Art Museum in 1934, 1943, 1956 and 1965."

Wikipedia mentions that he was an officer in the Imperial army. So was his father, as is reported here that General Alexander Jacob Elshin (1865-1951) during the First World War commanded the XX Army Corps of the Russian Imperial Army. The link suggests Elshin was a 4-star general, but in Western armies, a corps commander would normally be a Lieutenant General (three stars in the US Army). Jacob was probably at most a captain, given his age. I also speculate that the Elshins' escape from Russia was later than 1917, given that the Bolshevik Revolution didn't happen until towards the end of that year. They probably went to eastern Siberia which was controlled by White Russian forces and then moved on to China around 1920, as many anti-Red Russians did when White resistance collapsed.

Your Humble Blogger could probably clear up such matters by reading a 1965 transcript of an Elshin interview held by the Smithsonian. But that would involve obtaining a microfilm copy, and I'm not willing to go to that much trouble researching him. The transcript is said to deal with the following: "Elshin speaks of his background in Russia and China; moving to Seattle in 1923; his work as a free-lance commercial artist and working as a greeting card artist; painting for the Public Works of Art Project; working on murals for the WPA Federal Art Project; political problems with the WPA; the destruction of some of the work that was produced by the project; some of the injustices he suffered during his years with the WPA. He recalls Robert Bruce Inverarity, Edward Rowan and Mark Tobey."

Below are examples of Elshin's paintings.


General Alexander Elshin and Jacob Elshin

Marusia - 1933
Russian scene ... from memory? ... invented?

Grand Coulee Dam Construction Triptych
The huge dam being built in eastern Washington State in the late 1930s.

Mural study for the University District Post Office, Seattle - 1939
Located less than a block from the University of Washington campus, hence the subject matter.

Alamo Mural study for Dallas Post Office competition - 1937
Pretty static for what one would expect to be an action scene, which might have been why Elshin didn't win the competition.

Sawmill on Puget Sound

Smith Cove, Seattle
During World War 2 and many years later this was a U.S. navy terminal. Now Smith Cove is a cruise ship port.

Mt. Baker Beach, Seattle
On Seattle's Lake Washington. Now the site for annual hydroplane races.

Gates to Nowhere - 1948
Postwar, Elshin must have decided to move from a conservative version of Social Realism to a more fashionable form of Modernism.

Flight into Egypt - 1959
More of the same a few years later.

Based on the images above plus some that I didn't post, my conclusion is that Elshin never came close to creating a masterpiece. At best he was a journeyman painter who managed to make a living at his trade in difficult economic times.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Edmund Dulac Book Illustrations

Edmund Dulac (1882-1953) was yet another artist who abandoned a professional career track (law, in his case) for art. He also left his native country (France) for another (England) where he became a noted book illustrator. His Wikipedia entry is here, but a much more useful source for art fans is this post by Jim Vadeboncoeur that offers insights regarding how changes in printing technology worked to Dulac's advantage.

It seems that Dulac's book illustration heyday was between 1905 and the start of the Great War -- a relatively short span. His career continued with moderate success until his death.

Those heyday illustrations were mostly for classical fantasies, often Orientalist subjects. They are charmingly done, though today's Politically Correct crowd would probably find their usual reasons to hate them.

Take a look at some of them below, if you dare.


Circe the Enchantress

The Emperor's New Clothes

From the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

"Open, Sesame!"

The Fisherman and the Genie

Princess Scheherazade

Thursday, July 12, 2018

One-Eyed Stockton Mulford's One Really Fine Illustration

Stockton Mulford (1886-1960) lost his right eye in an accident when he was seven years old, yet became an illustrator. The best source of information regarding Mulford is David Saunders' Pulp Artists blog. It mentions that it took a while for him to work into becoming a full-time illustrator: he was active from around 1920 to 1946 when he was able to retire. During the Depression he seems to have mostly produced cover art for pulp magazines of various kinds.

Examples of Mulford's art are below. They vary in quality, the pulp art being the lowest. Perhaps because the pay was poor he put less time into those pieces. Judging from the examples below, he seems to have done his best work during the mid-1920s.

There is one outstanding illustration that he never came close to equaling, so far as I can tell at present. Sort of like the novelist who has only one great book. You'll find it at the bottom of the scroll.


Delineator cover - July, 1924

Argosy cover - 2 February 1924

Interior story illustration, American Magazine - February 1928

The plain area at the top suggests this is cover art for a magazine or perhaps a book (it provides room for a title, etc.).

Liberty Magazine cover - 3 June 1933

Black Mask cover - April 1937
An example of Mulford's pulp magazine cover art.

Adventure Magazine cover - May 1942
Probably painted a couple months after the Pearl Harbor attack. At that time, the only major encounter between the American and Japanese armies was in the Philippines, on Bataan Peninsula.

The Long Call - Everybody's Magazine cover art - April 1924
This is a fine illustration. In my opinion, only the Delineator cover art and the American story illustration come close -- but not very close. I wonder why Mulford wasn't able to consistently do this well.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Alden McWilliams' Tom Corbett, Space Cadet Comic Books

Alden McWilliams (1916-1993) was one of those comparatively rare comics artists of his generation who could draw people convincingly. I wrote about his work on the Twin Earths comic strip here. Some biographical information can be found here and here.

One of McWilliams' projects was creating content for Tom Corbett, Space Cadet comic books. For detailed information about those comic books, click here.

McWilliams did cover art for eleven of those comic books, but interior art for only the first three. Those were issued February, May and August of 1952, which suggests that he did his work from the late summer of 1951 into the winter of 1952 (considering production lead-times). His Twin Earths daily comic strip debuted 16 June 1952, so he probably began working on it no later than early April of that year. Therefore, if there was any overlap for those projects aside from creating covers, it was minimal, so McWilliams could maintain the high quality of his work.  A strong possibility is that he chose to drop doing Space Cadet interior content when he got the Twin Earths gig: otherwise, he might have contunued Space Cadet.

Tom Corbett, Space Cadet started as a television show that began airing in 1950 and later bounced around several TV networks. This meant that the comic books had to portray the characters as personified by the show's actors. That is, McWilliams was doing portrait art as part of comic book art.

Below are some scans I made of the second and third issues of the comic book. They include the cover, one interior colored page and one page without color (the latter was always on the inside cover). Click on the images to enlarge.


Inside cover of the August 1952 issue. It shows the leading cast members of the TV show who McWilliams had to depict convincingly in the comic books to satisfy fans.

Cover of the May 1952 issue.

Color page from May 1952.

Black & white page from May 1952.

Cover of August 1952 issue.

August 1952 color page.

Black & white page, August 1952.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Up Close: Moreau's "Salome Dancing before Herod"

Gustave Moreau (1826-1878) was something of a Symbolist whose later painting style is a taste I can't seem to acquire. Your reactions to him might well differ.

Background on him and his career is here.

The Hammer Museum in the Westwood district of Los Angeles and affiliated with nearby UCLA holds one of his most important works,"Salome Dancing to Herod." This subject, and the closely related one of John the Baptist's head, have been grist for many artists over the centuries. It can be interesting to compare their interpretations, but for the purposes of this post, the focus is Moreau's version of the dance.

The museum had an exhibit in 2012 related to the painting, and here is the Los Angeles Times' art critic's reaction to it.

I visited the Hammer in 2010 and took a few photos of the painting.


This is the museum's image of the painting, I think.

Here is my establishment shot showing how my camera captured it given the lighting conditions at the time.

Detail view showing the main characters. Salome's dance seems pretty static, according to Moreau. Click on the image to enlarge.

Close-up of Salome. Her headdress is oddly shaped and makes her face seem somewhat flat. I'm no expert on ancient costumes, so I don't know whether or not this was Moreau's invention. Note that the woman to the other side of the king also has a high headdress.

My photo was slightly out of focus, as often happens when in museums using automatic mode. I tried to sharpen things, but it's not worth enlarging this because it's still a bit blurred.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Otto Soglow: From The New Masses to The Little King

Otto Soglow (1900-1975) was a successful comic strip cartoonist. His Little King character first appeared in The New Yorker magazine in 1930 and became a Hearst Sunday strip in 1934. Thereafter, it ran for more than 40 years until Soglow died.

His Wikipedia entry is here, but it's brief. A much more comprehensive survey of his career can be found here.

Soglow received some of his art training from John Sloan who, among other things, was involved in leftist politics, and helped Soglow get some cartoons published in The Liberator. Soglow also contributed work to The New Masses.

Around the same time he was contributing to The New Masses, Soglow began having cartoons published in The New Yorker, a brand-new magazine intended for sophisticates in that city and elsewhere. Also at this time his style was evolving from the Sloan-Masses-Ashcan style to highly simplified Moderne. His Little King retained that style over its 45-year overall existence.

It was an interesting transformation Soglow made -- from socialist content to taking William Randolph Hearst's shilling and drawing a royal cartoon character.


A New Masses cartoon from 1926. The caption is "Iss diss a system?"

Poster for a 1932 New Masses ball. Its style is now Moderne, like his Little King cartoons.

A color panel. The Little King was always dressed in red. His personality was such that he didn't take kinship seriously and always did playful things.

His new royal portrait.

More playfulness.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Henry Lamb: Painter, Physician

Henry Taylor Lamb (1883-1960) had almost completed his medical training when he chucked it and took up art. As mentioned here, some of his art instruction was at William Orpen and Augustus John's Chelsea School of Art. Lamb became friends with John, but his first wife's liberated ways that paralleled John's made for complicated times before the Lambs separated.

When the Great War started, Lamb hurriedly completed his medical training and became an army medical officer serving in most of the major fronts. Then he returned to art, eventually divorced, and then married the much younger Lady Pansy Pakenham (daughter of an earl) by whom they had three children. World War 2 found him as a war artist, though most of his paintings were portraits and scenes from training areas.

Aside from military subjects, the bulk of Lamb's paintings seem to be portraits, some of persons involved in London's literary scene. However, this source said that his attitudes about the Bloomsbury Set were not positive.

Lamb's painting style seldom reached very far into Modernism, though he did simplify on occasion and once in a while resorted to distortion. I might characterize it as 1930-vintage not-quite-traditional.


Lytton Strachy - 1914
An example of Lamb's use of distortion.

Irish Troops in the Judaean Hills Surprised by a Turkish Bombardment - 1919
Commissioned by the Imperial War Museum.

Withy Beds, Herefordshire
An example of Lamb's landscape painting.

Darsie Japp and Family - 1927

Evelyn Waugh - 1930
The author. I am not sure about the color, as some Internet images differ considerably.

The Artist's Wife - Lady Pansy Pakenham - 1933

Anthony Powell - 1934
The author.

Neville Chamberlain - c. 1939
When Chamberlain was Prime Minister.

The Dispatch Rider - 1941
Painted while a war artist.

The Overhaul - 1941
That's a Westland Lysander observation aircraft.