Happy Birthday, Gustaf Tenggren!

Posted by Eric Brightwell, November 3, 2010 12:01am | Post a Comment
Today is the birthday of Gustaf Adolf Tenggren, a Swedish-American illustrator who worked on some of Walt Disney's most famous films. Had he not died in 1970, he would be 114 years old today.


Tenggren was born November 3rd, 1896 in  Magra Parish, in Västra Götaland CountySweden. His parents Aron and Augusta had seven children -- Gustaf was the second youngest. Gustaf 's father, Aron, was a painter and decorator, just like his father, Johan Teng, had been. After relocating the family to Göteborg in search of steadier support, he left the family and moved to the US.


Gustaf began working as a runner boy and as an apprentice by a lithographer's shop at eleven, to help support the family. After his artistic talent was observed, he obtained a scholarship in 1910 to, at only thirteen, attend the local art school, Slöjdföreningens skola.

In 1914 he received a scholarship at Valand, an art school in  Göteborg. His earliest subjects were Swedish through and through, illustrating Swedish folk and fairy tales for the annual Bland Tomtar och Troll, although their style was heavily indebted to Englishman Arthur Rackham's style. In 1918, he married his first wife, Anna Peterson. He first exhibited his work publicly in 1920. After that, he and his wife promptly moved to Cleveland, Ohio to join his sister. 


Two years later he moved to New York City. There, like fellow-future Disney employee Kay Nielsen, he began illustrating children's books, especially fairy tales, including Tanglewood Tales, A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys and The Christ Story for Boys and Girls. At the same time, he began working for Milton Bradley, where he remained until 1939. In 1930, he also re-married another Swedish-American, Malin (or Mollie) Froberg.

In 1936 Tenggren was hired as chief illustrator and art director on Walk Disney's first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Although Tenggren was a natural choice for the Brothers Grimm adaptation, most of the fine detail characteristic of his illustrations was evident in the background paintings. In fact, most of his work for Disney would be as a background artist.

He worked as an uncredited inspirational artist on 1937's The Old Mill and on the conceptual designs on 1940's Pinocchio. However, my favorite work he did at Disney was the Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria segment of 1940's Fantasia. For it, he, Vladimir Peter "Bill" Tytla, Kay Neilsen and others based their visuals on the story of Modest Mussorgsky's 1867 piece, Ночь на лысой горе ("Night on Bald Mountain"). Mussorgsky first began work on the piece in 1858. It was originally set on St. John's Eve (June 23), a Midsummer holiday on which, since pre-Christian times, various Northern and Eastern Europeans burn massive bonfires. The witches came in in 1860. In the cartoon, Chernabog, a Slavic demon, summons demons, ghosts, skeletons, witches, harpies, and other monsters for a sabbat before it segues into Franz Schubert's Ellens dritter Gesang for, in my opinion, a much less memorable segment (that I don't remember).

Tenggren quit Disney in 1940. A year later, he was followed by Alfred Abranz, Basil Davidovich, Bernie Wolf, Bill Meléndez, Bill Tytla, Bob Wickersham, Claude Smith, Cornett Wood, David Hilberman, Ed Love, Emery Hawkins, Frank Tashlin, Grant Simmons, Howard Swift, Jack Bradbury, John Hubley, Kenneth Muse, Maurice Noble, Preston Blair, Ray Patterson, T. Hee, Ted Bonnicksen, Tyrus Wong, Virgil Partch, Volus Jones, Walt Kelly, Walter Clinton, William Hurtz, Zack Schwartz and others. His last work at Disney was as an atmosphere sketch artist on 1942's Bambi.


After leaving Disney behind, he left his established style behind too. From 1942 till 1962, he worked for  Little Golden Books, illustrating with his new look books like Tawny Scrawny Lion, Little Black Sambo and The Poky Little Puppy. The latter became the best-selling English Language hard cover children's book of all time. In the well-known story, the titular puppy is repeatedly punished for indulging in his curiosity and individuality. He did still tackle fantasy subjects, including Canterbury TalesKing Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, The Giant with the Three Golden Hairs and Snow White and Rose Red.

Gustaf Tenggren died in 1970 at Dogfish Head in Southport, Maine. After his death, some Tenggren's art was donated to the University of Minnesota to be included in the Kerlan Collection of Children's Literature. In his memory, a nine-meter-tall bronze sculpture of Pinocchio, designed by artist Jim Dine, has been erected in Borås, a town near Tenggren's birthplace.

Happy Hundredth Birthday, Tyrus Wong!

Posted by Eric Brightwell, October 26, 2010 12:30pm | Post a Comment

Tyrus Wong is a Chinese-American artist who's most best-known work was as the background artist largely responsible for the look of Walt Disney's 1942 film Bambi. He's also worked as a landscape painter, muralist, ceramicist, lithographer, designer and kite maker. Some of his well known paintings include Self Portrait, Fire, Reclining Nude, East and West. At 100 years old today and one of the earliest successful Chinese-American artists, he is a living legend.

Tyrus was born 黃齊耀 on October 25th, 1910 in (Taishan), China. When he was nine, he and his father moved to Sacramento, leaving behind his mother and sister, never to see them again. Father and son subsequently moved to Southern California where Wong attended Pasadena's Benjamin Franklin Junior High. It was there that his teachers noted his artistic ability and, after receiving a summer scholarship at Otis Art Institute, he left junior high.

He graduated from Otis in 1930. Wong’s first job was painting a brassiere ad that would appear on a large building on Hollywood Boulevard… although Wong reportedly didn't know what a bra was and mistakenly thought the that it was some sort of breast warmer.


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Happy Birthday, Winsor McCay!

Posted by Eric Brightwell, September 26, 2010 05:11pm | Post a Comment

Today is the birthday of artist, animator and vaudevillian Winsor McCay, who, were he still alive, would be 139 -- or 144 years old… more on that later. Like many animation pioneers,  McCay's work has been largely overshadowed by his better known successors, Walt Disney and the Fleischer Brothers. But if it weren't for McCay, who knows what they'd have done with their lives. 



Zenas Winsor McKay was born September 26th -- either in 1871 in Spring Lake, Michigan (according to McCay), or in 1869 in Canada (according to his tombstone), or 1867 in Canada (according to the census). What is not disputed is that he was the son of Robert McKay (later changed to McCay) and Janet Murray McKay. Robert worked variously as a teamster, grocer and real estate agent. They sent him to Cleary's Business College in Ypsilanti, Michigan. At Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University), John Goodison (a former glass stainer) taught him the fundamentals of art. McCay moved to Chicago in 1889 with the intention of attending the Art Institute of Chicago. However, unable to afford tuition, he found a job at the National Printing and Engraving Company where he made circus and theatrical posters. In 1901, he moved to Cincinnati, where he worked as an artist for Kohl and Middleton's Vine Street Dime Museum and married Maude Leonore Dufour. 

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Charles Dana Gibson - Happy B-Day, CDG!

Posted by Eric Brightwell, September 14, 2010 10:30am | Post a Comment

Today is the birthday of American artist Charles Dana Gibson, best known for his creation of The Gibson Girl. By some accounts, he's also responsible for the invention of the Gibson martini. Were he still alive, he’d be 143 years old today.

Gibson was born September 14th, 1867 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, today the heart of Boston’s population -- back then, probably not. His parents were DeWolf Gibson and Josephine Elizabeth Lovett. The patriarch was a somewhat gifted artist and encouraged his son to draw. Gibson honed his skill at Manhattan’s Art Students League. In 1886, he sold his first sketch to Life magazine (of a dog chained to a post), for which he became a contributor for the next three decades.

As Gibson’s reputation grew, his works appeared in The Century, Colliers, Harper’s Weekly and Scribners. By 1889, he’d acquired enough money to travel to Europe. In England he met illustrator George du Maurier, known for (among other things), his skill at drawing beautiful women. His subsequent illustrations reflect du Maurier's influence, although they are quite distinct.

                 Irene Langhorne                                         Camille Clifford                                  Evelyn Nesbit

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Xu DaRocha - Painter, Photographer, Chinese TV & Cinema Veteran... and Dumpling Lover

Posted by Eric Brightwell, July 31, 2010 11:55am | Post a Comment

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage, an occasion I marked by seeking interviews with several Asian-American artists (like Roommate's Ken Lambert) and blogging about Asian neighborhoods and such… One interview I attempted to land was Chinese-American artist Xu Darocha, now giving a whole new meaning to the concept of “Asian time” by getting her responses to me in time for National Cat Fish Month… To be fair, she’s been occupied with more pressing business, working on her amazing artwork.

Eric Brightwell: Hello Xu, thanks for letting me profile you. Happy Asian American Heritage Month. Have you done anything in recognition or celebration?

Xu Darocha: Not yet. I will make myself some dumplings soon. Will that count?

EB: Not really, unless you weren’t going to otherwise make them… plus it’s a little late! When I mention your name, almost everyone asks, “Is that her real name?” Do you get that a lot?

XD: Most of the people I meet are usually more confused about how to read “Xu.” I was born and raised in China. Xu is pronounced "zoo." "DaRocha" is the last name I took from my ex-husband when I was married. So yes – it’s my real name.

EB: When did you get into art?

XD: The year after I graduated from high school. The serious academic studying in [my] Chinese high school was overwhelming and suffocating me. The future it was leading to was even more depressing and suffocating. So I promised myself I would try this “painting” thing as soon as I could. And I got into art school a year later, for fashion design.

EB: How many arts are you involved in? I know of pottery, photography and painting. Anything else, or is that all?

XD: I want to think of myself as an artist that just makes things as I go. Painting, photography and pottery are just different forms of creation. I hope I will have time to try more things. I am also a part time stylist and an occasional translator. I think putting my own words or thoughts into anything I work on is a form of creation.

EB: Your Folds series depicts the light, shadows and textures of fabric in an almost fetishistic way that reminds me of the art of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Are you a fan of them? Can you talk a bit about your inspirations?

XD: Thanks. I like the word” fetishistic,” sounds really sexy. I like Ingres. In addition [to] the fact [that] I love his style and craft, what really got me was a story about him. When I read his biography years ago there was a story about when he was in his 80s, already famous and established, he would go check on his paintings at night after a long day of working and start to cry because it wouldn’t be as good as he wanted. There was something childish and sincere about that and it comforted me. One of the reasons I started the Folds series was because I missed painting a lot. I was doing photography for a few years prior to that, and some pottery stuff, but hadn't worked on any serious paintings for at least three or four years. Plus, I needed a good subject matter that would hold my attention for a long period of time.

At the same time I started to notice the fabrics. They’re often just background subjects and always seem to have this really random and casual look to them – but if you look closer, every wrinkle and crease is caused by something and in return causes something else to happen. The casualness is superficial to me. There is also a tension between all the elements: surface, causality and so on. It reminds me of the complexity of other things that seem to exist without reasons or any cause, much like our emotions. Because of this we are often drawn to the surface level of the story, and that is what I am trying to create here. I was also looking for a certain image quality – something somewhat intense, layers over layers of the painting, lots of color and detail, so I can just have a good solid reason to just paint, to OD on painting for a bit, because I hadn’t really painted for a while, and I missed it very much. So, for now, I will have my good dose of heavy oil painting. The next series will be very different.

EB: I look forward to seeing the next series! So, you worked on a show back in China. What show was it -- in case Amoeba has it or can get it on VCD or CVD?

XU: Yes, I was working as an art director’s assistant for a TV show called The Love Letters. After that I worked as a freelancer making props and murals for movies and TV shows in China.


(I I looked up The Love Letter and ?? but only found the Peter Chan comedy, a K-Drama, ???? , and the Shunji Iwai film,????? –all available on DVD at Amoeba, and yet none involving Xu’s contributions.)

EB: So what does your current work entail?

XD: Usually I go around looking for fabric without knowing what I am looking for. Most of the time I don’t know what will catch my eye. Then I usually spend a long time playing with them, folding them, wrinkling them, taking pictures of them, leaving them alone for a while, printing the plans out and trying to forget about them, before starting the process all over again. Sometimes it takes days or weeks to finalize a plan, and lots of those plans never become finalized into an actual painting. Or I will tell myself, “I am going to make a light, happy painting this time or a painting that reminds me of a certain person or event.” Then I go around looking for a fabric that somehow echoes that voice inside of me and I go from there. I did Fin this way. I knew I wanted something dark, fragile and lively. 

EB: Do you listen to music when you paint?

XD: Absolutely.

EB: Did you ever get a record player?

XD: Yes, I did.

EB: Good. Finally, why, when you were told to “Bring Your Own Sauce” to fellow Asian-American artist Cindi Kusuda’s pasta party, did you think “sauce” meant “booze”?

XD: I think that was you.

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