Frank Frazetta was an artist who created countless paintings, comics, and book and album covers with a focus on the superhero, fantasy, and science fiction genres. He lived between 1928 and 2010. This brief summation will not itemize or describe the biographical profile of his career, but attempt to elucidate themes in what his art is about.
A child prodigy, born in Philadelphia, Frazetta started to draw and paint almost as he became sentient. He was certainly engaged in original artistic creation from the age of 2 to 4, and thereafter. This is itself both interesting and provocative, in that it reveals yet again (if it were needed) that real talent for anything creative is generic, biological, somatic, genetic, as well as inheritable across the blood-lines within an extended family. There are also occasional flibbertigibbets or leaps across generations — Man, in these matters, is 80 per cent Nature and 20% nurture, with even the social or environmental factors being a sub-set of ecology.
One of the things which is most notable about Frank Frazetta’s art is that it’s intrinsically male — both conceptually, in terms of execution, and the way in which the visual consciousness responds to his configuration. Men are visualizers who, for the most part and irrespective of language skills, think in images before they communicate or turn them into words. Like Arno Breker — the German neo-classicist from the earlier part of the twentieth century with whom I’m comparing him — Frazetta deals with strength, heroic cruelty, ardor, the warrior aesthetic, and even Odinic themes. The art is explicitly pagan in an unconscious sense of that term — that is, without any theory or necessary cultural overlay whatsoever.
The view of women in his work is, likewise, explicitly male and completely sexual. Unless they are sword-and-sorcery hags, witches, drones, or Erdas (earth mothers) for reasons of plot, all women in Frazetta are beautiful. But they are erotically magnificent as well. The feminist critique of Frazetta and similar populist artists (whether one speaks of Dworkin, Jong, or Millett) would be to accuse him of stereotypes, ‘objectification’, sexualization, or soft pornography. But one has a response: these are the symbolist and icon fantasies that all heterosexual men have about women all of the time. The female (in the male gaze) is always made iconic, transfigured per se, and seen as an object and part-worshiped. Few men openly admit to this, but it doesn’t stop it from being a reality. Frazetta happens to be relatively unusual in his completely unapologetic attitude about it.
In various forms of modernist art, of course, there is often a guilt-laden male Angst about the presentation of the female form. Nonetheless, the post-feminist thinker Camille Paglia can’t be acceded to either, in her view that pornography is a species of art. Artistic activity (no matter how generalized in impact or effect) has to be mediated. It passes through a mind or sensibility — and is individualized thereby.
(Note: modern art is immensely complex in its heterogeneity – for example, the semi-heroic visualization of the male in Elisabeth Frink’s sculptures; or the erotic worship of women in Felix Labisse’s paintings — occupy a very different area).
Now let’s turn, as a companion piece to the above, to Frazetta’s worship of violence and force in Men — the true kernel of his representative work. His vision of masculinity is intrinsically heroic, God-like, transfigured, heightened, and somewhat inevitably tends towards the Olympian. Despite its formulaic obviousness, it does appear that superheroes and all forms of heroic fantasy replicate, pretty much exactly, how archaic, pre-modern and polytheist societies viewed their Gods. To adapt a cliche: Superheroes are the new Gods. Nonetheless, the fascination with male strength, preparedness and untouchability — as an object of implacable fury — animates Frazetta’s aesthetic.
In some ways, it is a working-class idiolect: by which I mean that it has not been softened by bourgeois psychologism. It remains other, doleful, brooding, chthonian, very violent . . . even anti-metaphysical.
Frazetta used to boast that he never read any of the heroic pulps — such as those by Robert E. Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs — that he had occasion to illustrate. Yet, although probably true, this fact doesn’t have any intrinsic import. What matters is that, visually speaking, he completely intuited what these prose-works were about. He quite literally approached them from a different part of the brain. Indeed, his presentation of Conan the Barbarian (Howard’s hero) as a primitive god, virtually the personification of his own deity Crom, is a case in point.
For Frazetta’s work remains quintessentially fascistic at the level of mass culture — everyone understands this, not least its liberal opponents. Even though they might not follow every inter-connecting strand in its argument — all feminists, cultural Marxists, left-liberals, egalitarians, and progressives know what is being celebrated here. This is why, despite some of his canvases fetching over a million dollars at his death, Frazetta’s work is traduced by elite taste. It happens to be liberal elite taste, mind you.
Given this, all culture which glories in the warrior male has been forced down into Hades, into the depths; into a realm of chap-books, blogs, ‘zines, rock music album covers, science fiction book covers, B-movies, and mass television, etc. . . . Liberal-left critics don’t look at it except to condemn it, except commercially. The two tactics which are used to subvert it, moreover, are to critique it intellectually (using post-structuralism), and to make it multi-ethnic. This helps to dilute the ideological and political after-taste, but only just.
In high art à la Breker, though, the same tendencies are at work. For the neo-classicism of extreme left and right in the twentieth century, as well as nearly all socially authoritarian tendencies world-wide, take a similar form. The West’s contemporary way of dealing with this material is to reduce it to mere entertainment. The other way is to describe Breker as a great copyist — a slightly rigid and neo-conservative Rodin, for example.
This tendency tends to overlook the fact that Breker knew virtually everyone in the Arts — including Braque, Picasso, and all the others. There is a famous picture of Picasso’s and Breker’s dealers sitting together after the War, albeit with a print of Picasso’s Guernica behind them. This is all part of a revisionist interpretation (less of history) than Art in the twentieth century. No genuine artist or critic has ever disprivileged the Classical tradition or inheritance — Breker himself closely aligned with Dalí and Fuchs (of the neo-Realist Viennese school derived from Surrealism).
The truth of the matter is that artistic sensibility has always, sometimes in a secretive way, been involved with the far right throughout the last century — at least metaphorically. What has happened is that creative people have had to survive or ride the tiger during a welter of destruction, that’s all. This is why Wyndham Lewis could encompass Hitler (virtually banned everywhere now) and The Hitler Cult within a decade.
But enough of this . . . I wish to close by describing one particular painting by Frazetta. It is called The Brain, was produced in the ’sixties and was used by the rock band Nazareth as a cover, and appears to be a water-color. To my mind, I think that Frazetta builds up the image slowly, foregrounds it, and then centers after several washes. I don’t think that he paints in oils, but I’ve never been able to inspect an original. Anyway, this image shows a mastodonic, nay devilish warrior, in a horned Nordic helmet, and smiting a curved sword or scimitar, as it pounds down on another desperado who defends his body with a tensed shield.
Behind both of them, and proximate to a blood-red or purple ground, there pulsates an enormous brain: it’s livid, seething, multi-textured in its non-lobotomy, and pitted like the surface of the moon. It conjures up the image from a Marvel comic called Tomb of Dracula, drawn by Gene Colan, which features a villain known as DOCTOR SUN. He happens to be just a brain in a Plexi-Glass box.
But what does it all mean, I hear you cry? Why, the answer is quite clear: just ask a member of US Navy Seals, the British SAS, the French Foreign Legion, the Russian elite Special Forces, or, more controversially, the Waffen SS, what it alludes to. It’s an idealized statement of their inner life, that’s all!