Yet what is more beautiful than a splendid human body in coordinated motion? The lithe finely poised figure of a dancer, the pantherish body of a boxer with the wedge-shaped torso, the long swelling muscles rippling under the smooth velvety skin, the easy glide of onset and retreat, the perfect balance and carriage, the suppleness of limb–where is a finer model for an artist or sculptor?
–Robert E. Howard, letter to H.P. Lovecraft, ca. December 1932
It’s sometimes asserted that illustration, especially fantasy or science fiction illustration, is not on the same level as “true art”: the reasoning being that art as commercial, mercenary work, as opposed to art for art’s sake, excludes it from the pantheon of real artistic endeavour. Such a view is not only painfully divorced from the history of art, where many of the greatest paintings were commissions for pampered nobles or local churches, and it’s an entirely arbitrary and worthless distinction to make. How can the motivation behind a work of art’s creation exclude it from consideration? How can a beautiful painting fail to be considered as art, whereas something like, say, a dislocated urinal is? The notion of “high art” is thus fraught with fluctuating social trends, reinterpretations, and above all, subjectivity–much like “high literature,” or most odiously of all, those who insist on a fallacious distinction between “books” and “literature.” Much as C.S. Lewis disregarded the desire to appear mature as a sign of immaturity in itself, I long ago cast away such childish ideas of what was “allowed” to be art and what wasn’t, and started to make up my own mind.
Illustration, in my opinion, can be counted as being something more than what it was commissioned to be–it can speak beyond mere depiction of characters and events that happen in another medium, and convey the deeper themes and thoughts that may not be apparent at first glance. There can be a great synergy between author and illustrator that creates a symbiotic magic unique to the medium, where the two complement each other perfectly, making something that is greater than the sum of two parts–Roald Dahl & Quentin Blake, Arthur Rackham & Lewis Carroll, Lord Dunsany & Sidney Sime, George Cruikshank & Charles Dickens, J. Allen St. John & Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sidney Paget & Arthur Conan Doyle. Nobody provided a better example of this phenomenon than the combination of the king of fantastic art of the 20th Century, Frank Frazetta, and the master of Sword-and-Sorcery, Robert E. Howard.
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