Damsels, Dames, And Drama Queens

Illustrating American reality before the dawn of media

We as a culture long ago absolved contemporary fine artists—due to lack of interest or expertise—from honoring traditional commitments related to cultural cartography. Those duties, though remaining high priority items, were reassigned and fine artists were advised to direct their discipline towards aesthetic aims concerned with the overall look rather than the underlying meaning of things.

And so it was that the cinema, initially concerned—as had been painting—with the innovative placement of figures within a 3-D composition, increasingly wed form to content, and focused the figure as the primary vehicle for the expression of cultural abstractions. This driving cultural motive, the primal need to reflect upon the human condition, had once again found its mirror.

Before we had movies and Madonna videos, American culture got its narcissistic fix from the print media and its illustrated texts—during the period of time roughly spanning the 1880s to the 1930s. The publishing industry was flourishing and innovations in print technology created a lucrative market for artists trained in the academic traditions of narrative driven compositions. This was the Golden Age of American illustration and is the focus of the Dahesh Museum of Art exhibition’s scholarship.

Many of the leading artists in the illustration field, including J.C. Leyendecker, Howard Pyle, and NC Wyeth—all represented in this exhibit—were either trained abroad or studied in American schools that adhered to academic teaching principles. The paintings and drawings on view here are best described in terms now reserved for the cinema—at best epic, sweeping, and memorable, and at worst trite and melodramatic.

I am certain that you’ll often find yourself moved by the sheer technical bravura that creates anew the tragedies and comedies that define our lives. The imagery is purposefully seductive, pure vehicles for poetry. Instinctually you’ll load up on the archetypal debris that drives content and meaning back into your daily grind.

You’ll get a small glimpse of the bigger picture and, like the original viewers, be able to simply get on with the business of living.

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