It is very easy to get caught up in the notion being an artist in such a way that you fail to make any art at all. The idea of being a famous avant garde artist is far more romantic than actually making avant garde art, and as such is far more alluring than simply making art whatever way you can, whatever way makes the most sense to you. That idea is the basis behind Magic Worlds of Fantasy: it showcases four relatively unknown artists that the author had come across who ignored the idea of an artist, and simply made art.
Before I get into talking about the book, I should mention that none of these artists were using drawing as their medium, so really the artwork gains more of its relevance in the act of creation and the philosophy behind the book more than discovering drawing technique or style that I like. That said, there is a lot of value to be found in this sort of book. I find that it is very easy to get wrapped up in the “proper” way of doing things, so a book that says to find something I enjoy and then make art out of that is really quite delightful.
The author, David Douglas Duncan, was a good friend of Pablo Picasso. As such, when he traveled around the world on his own artistic journeys, other people would approach him to ask about Picasso, and (occasionally) to bring gifts or art to be passed along. It was through this process that he came across several artists who were not well known by anyone, and really pursued art purely for their own sake. They might never have ended up in a gallery or museum, though their art was certainly good enough, because it wasn’t their purpose.
The book opens with a brief essay about the author’s relationship with Picasso, including a collection of “posters” Picasso did for some of his friends, each one with the same elements but each unique and individualized. The idea of Picasso’s house is really quite appealing: when he opened his doors, he opened them wide, to any who could claim his friendship. Diplomats, priests, paupers, circus performers, it didn’t matter. If anyone took offense to this panoply, no one mentioned it: a friend of Pablo was a friend of theirs. There is so much to be said for this idea, the idea of a space where individuals of varying fields could all be comfortable and interact regardless of social status. It’s an idea that I personally would love to foster, but have no idea how to go about doing this.
The first artist in the book is a housewife in England, who used scratchboard to create fantastic, dreamlike creatures and locations. Her work was clearly her own, though I could see some references to early Chinese art in some of her linework. Born in war-torn Berlin, she invented robust dream worlds in her mind in order to block out the bombed out buildings around her, and continued to tell stories and draw from this imaginary world once they fled to Switzerland. She discovered scratchboard when she was 8 or 9, and fell in love with the medium, working in it ever since. Most of her work was made to accompany the stories that she would tell her own children.
The second artist highlighted was a retired psychologist who would go out into the woods and find interesting patterns in the bark of various trees, and photograph them. Some of them are extremely abstract, to the point where it is not entirely clear whether it is a photograph or a painting. Wild swirling mishmashes of color combined with variegated texture to create unique images. As a psychologist, he had always been fascinated by finding order in chaos, so when he retired from psychology, he picked up a camera and became fascinated with the patterns and order and shapes found in the bark of trees.
The third artist is the most fascinating to me. Hsueh Shao-Tang was a tailor in pre-Communist China, and fled to escape Mao’s army. He was then conscripted by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army, and forced to serve in Taiwan for several years. After finally being discharged, he trained as a chef, and became a chef for diplomatic envoys to foreign countries. The author discovered his work while visiting the house of an ambassador in Switzerland, where he had been master chef for several years. The particular style of art that he does is what is particularly fascinating to me… he collects canceled stamps, and cuts them up into small pieces, which he uses to create elaborate and detailed mosaics. Some of the work is truly impressive, and is clearly enhanced by the texture and variation that is provided through the medium, such as a mosaic dragon he created, where the texture of the scales is created through the shape and color gradation of the stamps he used. It’s absolutely brilliant work.
The fourth and final artist showcased in this book is a widowed Baroness who likes to wander through old growth forests barefoot accompanied by a great dane and her camera. She has some really phenomenal nature photography, which is my own personal hobby. None of it is necessarily innovative — to a certain extent, a photograph of a cobweb is a photograph of a cobweb — but there is an underlying voice that permeates all of her work, which reinforces the basis of art: there are only so many variations of a still life: what makes it unique, expressive, and “art” is the addition of the individual’s viewpoint and creative voice, the focus that they choose to apply to it.
On the larger subject of art, I thought this was an interesting book, worth the time to read it. On the specific subject of drawing, it’s certainly less relevant, but I still feel my time was well spent by reading it. No art (if you could call my chicken scratchings art) exists in a vacuum, and viewing alternative mediums definitely helps energize my mind as to what things I could do.
Duncan, David Douglas. Magic Worlds of Fantasy. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.