On a cold morning three days after Thanksgiving, I piled into a car with three of my good friends and went west. It was a trip several years in planning, many times attempted and failed. But on that chill Sunday afternoon we finally made our pilgrimage to the Frazetta Art Museum. Frank Frazetta is an artist who’s work you’ve likely encountered, even if you don’t recognize his name. His paintings have been used on everything from paperback and magazine covers, to movie posters, and Album art for mostly horrible bands. He is considered the most influential commercial illustrator of the 20th century, which to me, places him in far too small a box. Frank Frazetta, as far as I am concerned, is the last classical painter. To behold the original work first hand, and to see the brush strokes, and where he let you see them, was an experience I’ll never forget.
Frank Frazetta’s work is often written off as ‘fantasy illustration’. It’s not an inaccurate description, but it betrays a lack of consideration or attention, in the same way it would be true to call Rembrandt’s work “portraits”. This is in part due to his subject matter’s fantastical nature, which is dismissed as ‘genre’, and that may simply be an issue of taste. I’ve heard many an argument that his work is “talented dumb guy art”, in that it’s full of monsters, muscle-bound men, and curvy women. But that’s not what I see in his paintings. I see an artist who illuminates a dark world with beautiful light. I see a storyteller who can capture motion and speed and emotion better than a camera. I see an artist with an interest in the ferocity, and tenacity of the human spirit. The women in his paintings, while beautiful, are fierce and powerful. His work has a savage grace to it that eludes his many imitators, because they overlook the power of it for the more basic elements, which are incidental to the spirit of it.
The Moon’s Rapture is my personal favorite piece, in fact a print of it is hanging over my desk where I write this now. I don’t know why I love it, nor do I care to analyze it, but it moves me more than the rest. I like the depth of field, which captures the moss on the tree branch in sharp detail, and leaves the rest in soft focus. I love the silent Gorilla politely keeping to himself. I love the silent jungle woman who looks like she could kill you with one hand, who is enraptured by the soft light of the enormous full moon, as I often catch myself gazing at the moon. Now the joke is on me, because I’m the guy who takes this painting so seriously and did not get the butt joke in the title for several years, but I think this is a perfect example of his work holding more complexity than cheap exploitation. During the tour, Frank’s daughter-in-law explained to me that the painting started as a commissioned Tarzan cover, but Frank liked it too much, and repainted the woman into it. There’s plenty of easy jokes to be made, but I think it speaks more to the artist’s interest in powerful women, that he liked the piece so much he thought it deserved a woman instead of being just another Tarzan cover.
We pulled off the main road in East Stroudsburg Pennsylvania around one in the afternoon. We wound around the steep hills until we found the long gravel drive to the museum, watched over by a giant crimson fiberglass gila monster. The path toured us over the front of the property, which was a beautiful sprawling lawn with a large pond, surrounded by rolling wooded hills.The museum itself looked like a mini golf course castle, with iron gates flanked by gargoyles. For the sake of privacy, I’ve carefully composited the faces of myself and my friends with stock photos from the internet to seamlessly replace our features in the following photos with nameless models. I’m sure you won’t even notice.
Inside we were met by Frank Jr.’s wife, a lovely guide who gave us a tour where even I learned something new. A lot new, actually.
entering, The first thing I saw was Reign of Wizardry, sitting on the easel in the above picture. It was the cover of a book by the same name, which I never read, but took off my Dad’s basement bookshelf of dusty paperbacks to look at and be afraid of a hundred times.
What I really like to this day is the photo-negative lighting on the central figure, who looks like a mix of Jack Kirby’s Demon and Chernabog from Fantasia.
The next thing I noticed were the glass covered shelves on either side of the entrance displaying a few dozen paperback books bearing Frank’s work on the covers. Earilier in his career they were commissioned by publishers who’d give him a title or a transcript for him to base his work on, and ultimately, they made a deal that he could paint whatever he wanted, and they would find the book to put the cover on. I was standing in a literal monument to the artist’s work, but I couldn’t help but pour over the books that either already adorned said dusty basement bookshelf, or that I still hunt down in out of the way used book stores to this day. Shelves and shelves of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and who the hell cares who else, these are the coolest looking books in the world, regardless of how the book itself turns out. We paid our very reasonable fifteen dollar donation and began the tour, which started off with Frank’s early work, as well as some personal pieces done for his family. His earlier work was fascinating, some incredible polished pieces being completed when he was only twelve. It also had his early comic book work, from before he began painting, and a comic strip he produced at age fifteen called The Snowman.
Moving on from this was a blur of gorgeous artwork. Some rare commissioned pieces I’d never seen of Superman and Star Trek, and a whole wall dedicated to the animated feature Frank made with Ralph Bakshi, Fire and Ice. The movie concept pieces were great, including 3D maquettes he made of the principle characters for the animator’s reference, and behind the scenes photos of Frank with the costumed actors who where filmed live to be animated over later, in a process called rotoscoping.
At a certain point, Frank’s son Frank Jr. appeared and was a generous host, answering our every question and telling us great stories about watching his father work. He also managed to point out details and things that I have never noticed before, in paintings I’ve seen a hundred times.
My most pleasant surprise was two items concerning my favorite giant gorilla. The first was a King Kong poster Frank had done for the 1976 John Guillermin remake. The painting, (shown on the left, above) is naturally much more engaging and dramatic than that movie was, Frank could do a lot more with his brush than Rick Baker could in a gorilla suit. And the second was spying a DVD copy of the 2005 Peter Jackson King Kong sitting on the easel under Reign of Wizardry. You can even see it in the photos of the “studio space” above. Frank Jr. explained that his dad would watch it constantly, he was a huge fan of the 1933 original, and loved the most recent one for having even more monsters in it. And in a glass display case right next to the easel, along with his camera collection, was a blown up black and white still from King Kong 1933, that we were told used to be tacked to the side of his easel. I was glad to see the movie was a continuous source of joy and inspiration to both of us. Before I let this article ramble even longer, I’ll let the photos do some of the talking. Click on them to see them full size.
By the time we thought to check our watches, we had been there almost four hours, and they were closing soon. I bought three prints, and we left happy. But not before taking pictures with the gila monster in the driveway. If you’re ever in the mood to travel to the dark wooded hills of northern Pennsylvania, you can find more information about the museum at their website, and plan your own pilgrimage. The art of Frank Frazetta has a unique life and vitality to it, he freezes fantastic moving moments in time, bursting with energy and vibrance, and it begs to be seen in person.