Coarse Art

By Paul Halas

The democratisation of the image

Art is everywhere, whether it’s highbrow gallery art, pulp, throwaway art, or the vast array of moving images available to us. Perhaps because my parents excelled in the production of animated films – possessing talents I sadly didn’t inherit – I was always fascinated by the incredible amount of visual images – art – that were part of family life. As well as creating animated films in a wide variety of styles, my mother and father surrounded themselves with drawings, paintings, an incredible number of artsy, newsy magazines, and books of drawings, cartoons and comic strips. In our home there was an extravaganza for the eyes, and I gorged myself on it. And somewhere in among all that visual overstimulation I developed a taste for the coarse, the weird, the knockabout, and the sort of stuff not intended for little children. Maybe most kids would do the same, but alongside the Beano and Dandy I had the chance to thumb through Lilliput Magazines, Aubrey Beardsley prints, innumerable gallery catalogues, L’il Abner comics and art books… Which leads me to a personal look at people’s art – from an aficionado who’s very far from scholarly.

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One of the first artists to captivate my sister and me was Peter Breughel the Elder. At the time I suppose we were drawn to the colour, the bustle, the unfamiliar landscapes and buildings of the 17th Century Lowlands… and above all the affection shown for the ordinary people depicted in many of the works. Which after my wayward preamble brings me to the point of this article.

Breughel the Elder was probably the first painter (whose work survives) to make common men and women the subjects of this paintings. Others – such as Caravaggio, Albrecht Durer and Da Vinci – had used ordinary people as models, but Breughel made them the subject matter of many of his later paintings. Hitherto painting had been either religious in subject matter, or vanity projects to flatter the rich and powerful. It was exclusive and expensive, not for the hoi polloy. But by the 1550s and 1560s, when Breughel was at his peak, the Reformation was in full swing and also Humanist ideas were gaining ground. It was against that background that Breughel’s genre painting emerged. It was art of the people – but not yet for the people. His illustrations for books gained a lot of popularity, but they would certainly have been expensive, and his paintings were still only possible through the patronage of wealthy collectors. But the fact that collectors wanted to possess pictures of peasants and tradespeople and the lower orders living very real lives reflects the germination of societal change.

Breughel the Elder – celebrating ordinary people’s lives.

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Art about the people for the people still had to wait a while. Until the 18th Century was underway art was generally about nobs for nobs – with perhaps the honourable exception of some of our Dutch genre friends. Lorraine, Gainsborough, Fragonard, Constable, El Greco, Titian and company were true masters (even if Fragonard elongated ladies’ thighs a tad), but the swains and milkmaids that appeared in their paintings were little more than background decoration. What began to set art before the masses was the evolution to the printing process. As the 18th Century progressed there was a proliferation of affordable news-sheets, pamphlets and posters, and an illustration industry was born. William Hogarth (and others such as Goya) had already started using ordinary people as subject matter (ie, The Shrimp Girl), but it was the reproduction of his illustrations, most notably the Rake’s and Harlot’s Progress, Gin Lane and Beer Street, that gained him great and lasting fame.

Memorably Hogarth.

Many wonderful cartoonists and lampooners made full use of the craze for prints and magazine illustrations, with artists such as Thomas Rowlandson, George Cruikshank and James Gillray (and many, many others no longer remembered) producing a vast number of the most scurrilous and frequently obscene images.

This contains an image of: "King George IV as the Prince of Wales" by George Cruikshank, 1792-1878
Lampooning George IV, by George Cruikshank.

Many were political, but others simply humorous slices of life of the great, the good and the common with no deference to rank or station in life whatsoever. My favourite of these scandalous illustrators is Thomas Rowlanson, whose enormous volume of obscene works is wonderfully funny.

Thomas Rowlandson bawdiness.

(As an aside, it’s noticeable how many people of colour appear in these cartoons, and how seldom they do in the literature and histories of the time. Odd, that.)

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Throughout the 19th Century books and magazines frequently contained illustrations. Even Charles Dickens’ work, which was frequently concerned with social problems and people on the edges of society, carried accompanying pictures. It seems odd to mention Gustav Dore here, whose work was mainly far from coarse, but his London prints of the early 1870s show the plight of the English poor as few other artists had (even if retrospectively some silly arses have accused the works of being poverty porn).

Dore’s London. Poverty porn?

At the common end of the market were the cheap, sensationalist publications, Penny Dreadfuls, macabre tales, titillating horror, horrendous true crime… nearly all with wonderfully lurid illustrations by often very talented artists – who were doubtless paid a pittance and have been long forgotten.

Penny Dreadfuls – wonderful pulp.

Having spent most of my life penning a different form of pulp, but pulp nonetheless, I have a great affection for these god-awful publications. They are the precursor of the absolute avalanche of 20th Century throwaway publications, much of it trashy art, but still containing multiple gems.

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Many fine illustrators emerged in the late 19th Century and early 20th. One, whose work centred on working class people and the social conditions of the day, was Heinrich Zille. In late 19th Century Germany there was a mass migration of people into the cities, particularly Berlin. People lived in cramped conditions, the hoped for jobs frequently failed to materialise, and poverty was rife. Zille drew it all, the tragedies and the joys, the passions and the agonies, warts and all. He was sometimes accused of being a pornographer (I’d say he simply had an eye for real life), but during the heady days of the Berlin Secession his work became celebrated.

Heinrich Zille. Intimate social commentary.

He found a sympathetic home with the Simplicissimus Magazine, a left-field publication specialising in satire, politics and the arts, which continued to support him right through to the 1920s, by which time he had become a national institution. Heinrich Zille was the consummate artist of the people.

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If any medium can be considered coarse art it’s the Ninth Art – comics. At their best, comics are of course art of the very highest calibre, but for the most part they’re ephemeral, disposable, lightweight entertainment. And from an early age I’ve loved them (and spent forty years of my life writing them).

Like the telephone, many nations lay claim to inventing comics. And like the telephone, comics became widespread in the USA before anywhere else. But just to be contrary, I’m including the British “Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday”, simply because to the modern eye it looks so very weird. About an idler who’ll do anything to avoid work or making an effort, Ally expends an enormous amount of effort in his “sloping”. First appearing in the 1880s, Ally Sloper is reckoned to be the first recurring character in comics. Whether or not that claim is true, Ally gained an enormous working class following – and also gained cult status among the artsy-fartsy, bohemian middle classes.

The very strange Ally Sloper.

But across the Atlantic is where comics really took off, especially newspaper strips. Newspapers helped comics gain a wide audience, and boy did comics bump up newspaper circulation figures. Comics fans have great reverence for the finest of the old strips, such as Crazy Kat and Little Nemo in Slumberland – brilliant, surreal art of the highest order. But most of the popular comics reflected the lives of the working class people who read them, populist art, strips such Mutt and Jeff, Gasoline Alley, Moon Mullins, Blondie, Li’l Abner…

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The 20th Century was also a golden age for the newspaper political cartoon. Few represented the concerns of the common man (and woman) in the middle of the century than the American Bill Mauldin. He gained fame for presenting the real lives of American soldiers – the dogfaces – in the Second World War, drawing from the front lines where the bullets were flying in both Europe and the Pacific. He also followed the fortunes and misfortunes of de-mobbed GIs in the post war period and never pulled any punches. His stance on social issues, racism and the hypocrisy of politicians landed him in trouble with the McCarthyist witch-hunt and many newspapers were forced to drop him, his work retained a mass following.

Willie and Joe – America’s favourite dogfaces.

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While endless forests were felled to satisfy the demand for pulp reading, an even bigger revolution was taking place with celluloid. Moving pictures. According to one movie mogul no one ever lost money by underestimating public taste, and while the medium produced art of the finest quality in both live actiand animated films there was also a conveyor belt of instantly forgettable mediocrity that the public couldn’t get enough of.

Artist inspired by Betty Boop & Fleischer Studios - on the Betty Boop blog
From low to high art. A matter of generations.

The old animations from the first half of the 20th Century are very much in vogue, but at the time most were looked down upon by the arty intelligencia and therefore qualify as coarse art. Wonderful coarse art.

There were mediocre movies, B movies, downright bad movies and absolutely terrible movies – and the latter category has gained quite a following. Of course they number thousands, and we Spotty Herberts all have our favourites, but I’ll just mention the obvious: Edward D Wood’s immortal “Plan 9 from Outer Space”. As a dreadful movie it ticks all the boxes and is truly memorable.

When trash gains immortality.

Before leaving moving images there’s TV. The medium that bewitched the masses. No need to mention more, just switch the bloody thing on. And quickly off again.

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Before winding up I’ve got to plug underground comix, a largely American medium (and very much a reaction to America) with notable contributions from Europe, that sprang up in the mid 1960s. They were independent, scurrilous, violent, obscene, fantastic, political, surreal, very funny and above all brutally honest. From the first time I clapped eyes on a Zap Comix in around 1969 I was hooked for life. They changed the way I looked at life far more than any drug, politician or textbook. They epitomise coarse art, and if more people had read them I’m sure the world would be a much better place.

The master. Crumb goes political.

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Finally I suppose I have to catch up with the age of the computer, the mobile phone and social media. And memes. They’re bloody everywhere – and they’re certainly coarse art and art of the people. And a few of them are really quite good.

A meme that sums up the great political hatchet job.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.