Artists are imaginative people. Most of us are, but few of us, unless we are artists ourselves, are as imaginative as those who make their livings by exercising--and, in the case of those artists who illustrate horror fiction, perhaps exorcising--their imaginations on a regular, if not routine, basis. In previous posts, we have considered the art of Rene Magritte (a superb surrealist), H. R. Giger (whose biomechanical art was accomplished with airbrushes), and the pen-and-ink illustrations of such Weird Tales artists as Margaret Brundage and Virgil Finlay. In this post, we turn our gaze upon Frank Frazetta, a pioneer in, and master of, contemporary fantasy, science fiction, and (occasionally) horror art.
The purpose of cover art, we argue, is to sell the magazines upon which it appears. For the male adolescents who made up most of the readership of Weird Tales and other pulp magazines devoted to horror, scantily clad or nude women, often in perilous situations, accounted for a lot of the images that appeared on the covers. Occasionally--especially when technique outweighed theme--such masters as Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, and Julie Bell departed from imperiled, half-naked maidens to depict other themes. Sometimes, a sexual--or a sexualized--undercurrent remained--but the direct appeal of this type of art was the physical and martial prowess of the hero, depicted as a sinewy, usually lone, adventurer who represented a law unto himself and just happened--most of the time, at least--to fight on the side of right. In other words, he was fantasy and horror’s answer to the knight in not-so-shining armor (who later was transfigured into the Western’s laconic sheriff or gunfighter).
If the nude or semi-nude damsel in distress represented the type of woman whom the adolescent male (or those adolescent males who read Weird Tales and its ilk, at any rate) wanted to meet, if not necessarily take home to mom, the barbarian as lone-wolf avenger and righter of wrongs represented this reader’s alter ego, the man whom he would like to be or, perhaps, to become. In Frazetta’s artwork, the two archetypical characters--imperiled damsel and anti-heroic rescuer--often were depicted together. In fact, there were often several nude or half-naked damsels in distress, all at the same time, for the hero (or anti-hero) (frequently, a barbarian) to rescue.
When Frazetta’s paintings weren’t suggesting to boys that real men rescue women (who, it seems, had a penchant for imperiling themselves), they created a mood that is consistent with mystery, if not always horror. A case in point is his painting, The Moon’s Rapture, the title of which is obviously a pun upon the use of “moon” as a slang term for the buttocks. In the painting, there are two moons--one lunar, the other anatomical. It goes without saying which of the two is the source of the adolescent male’s “rapture.”
The painting is interesting for more than its subject matter, however, as it demonstrates several features common to Frazetta’s artwork in general. A full moon, not featureless--shaded patches in green, purple, orange, and gray suggest craters--appears in a blue-gray sky, its upper hemisphere veiled, as it were, by the mossy branches of a great tree. The back of the female figure’s head overlaps the bottom arc of the moon, and her right arm is raised as she clutches one of the tree’s branches to support herself as she stares, presumably enraptured, at the moon. Nude, she stands upon one of the thick, serpentine boughs of the tree, one of her ankles crossed over the other, her left arm at her side.
Except for the moss-covered, mostly brown and gray limbs in the painting’s lower foreground, the muted blue-gray sky, and the dappled colors that signify the moon’s craters, the only other color in the painting is that of the female’s figure, which, since she is naked, is more extensive than it would be were she clothed. The effect of the darkness across the top of the painting, down its right edge, at its left edge, and at its bottom is to frame the female figure, drawing the viewer’s attention to her body and, since her buttocks are projected back, toward the viewer, as it were, as a result of her stance, focusing the viewer’s concentration upon her derriere. The title’s play on words, The Moon’s Rapture, is hard to miss. As the female figure is enraptured by the moon upon which she gazes, the viewer--likely to me male, since Frazetta illustrated the covers of magazines purchased largely by adolescent males--is enraptured by her own “moon.” This painting associates women and femininity with nature in general and with the moon in particular, as do many myths, legends, and literary traditions. Archetypes serve the painter’s purpose, giving the images a depth that they might not have otherwise, showing women to be forces as enchanting to men as the beauty and mystery of the natural order is, or can be, to women.
The Barbarian is typical of Frazetta’s depiction of the lone wolf who fends for himself, seeking vengeance or, more rarely, justice for others (usually an imperiled woman). Lean and mean, the barbarian stands, muscles bulging, his left hand resting upon the hilt of his unsheathed sword, which has penetrated the hill underfoot. His garb is slight, but exhibits his machismo. Pirate fashion, he wears earrings and sports a necklace that appears to have been fashioned of animal fangs or claws. His chest and abdominal muscles are as individually distinct as if they were sculpted from flesh instead of marble, and the wide, leather wristband and matching belt are both decorated with metal studs. An ornate scabbard hangs, empty, at his waist, from which dangles the lengths of a chain. On his right forearm, he wears a simple bracelet. He also wears boots with large cuffs. At first, because of the fiery yellow background against which he, an imposing, dark-haired, sun-darkened figure, stands, and the darkness of the mound upon which he is, as it were, rooted by his sword, it is not apparent that the hill is built not of soil alone but also of the body parts--an arm and a skull are visible--and a battleaxe--of enemies he has vanquished.
The fiery yellow sky behind him has an almost subliminal quality as well. After discerning the body parts in the hill, skulls, a castle upon a mountainside, vague suggestions of tree branches, and a bird--an eagle or maybe even a phoenix--emerge, as it were, from the wavering flames, representing, perhaps, the memories of the barbarian and the souls of the dead or both.
At the barbarian’s feet, her flesh of a hue similar to that of the fiery yellow sky, and looking as if she herself is emerging from the hill, a woman, nude but for the armbands that adorn her left biceps, rests her head against the barbarian’s left calf. Has she been rescued from the hands of the dead who lie beneath the victor’s feet? It seems that she is the only spoil of battle that he has seen fit to spare and, therefore, the only one that he regards as having any value. What is important in the barbarian’s world, Frazetta’s portrait of this pagan warrior suggests, is his physical and martial prowess, his memories of vanquished foes (or, it may be, his possession of their spirits), and women (albeit as little more than sex objects that may be acquired as possessions, or as part of the victors’ spoils of battle).
Part of the appeal of Frazetta’s work is that it is often based upon these archetypal, if sexist, images of the masculine and the feminine, suggesting that men are loners who wage war with one another, with beasts, and with the occasional monster, exhibiting their strength, stamina, and fighting skills, and, to the notion that, to the victor, go the spoils, including ubiquitous half-naked damsels in distress. In other words, his depictions of men and women fit the idealized, if adolescent, ideas of the sexes that are typical of the readers of the types of magazines upon the covers of which Frazetta’s work was apt to appear. The rest of the appeal of the artist’s illustrations and paintings lies in the superb talent and the accomplished technique with which Frazetta draws and paints. Even when he depicts horror, the result is, in its own peculiar way, a thing of beauty.