Visual art tells you what era it comes from. During different historical periods, certain styles, motifs, and color palettes, dominate—so even if experts don’t know the artist and origin of a piece, they can often pin it to a particular moment in time. In today’s issue, we focus on two very different schools of art that flourished in the early 20th century. An Atlantic video producer shows us how she created a 1930s-inspired animation, and Karen Yuan reports on how Picasso influenced the artistic landscape when his work first arrived in the United States. Finally, we’ll leave you with a question: There are certain characteristics that allow us to date the art of the past, but will we continue to be able to date the art of the future?
How to Animate Like It’s 1932
Atlantic animator Caitlin Cadieux explains her process for creating ‘30s-inspired art.
As part of our Atlantic Archives project, I animated an essay by Helen Keller: “Put Your Husband in the Kitchen,” published in The Atlantic in August, 1932. Keller’s story was a stern rebuke of the (predominantly male) “captains of industry” of her day, blaming them for wasteful business practices. Keller posits a businessman named Mr. Jones, fatigued from overwork and overproduction, who agrees to swap places with his homemaker wife. She argues that men would learn far better business sense by taking on the household management tasks that traditionally fell to women.
I wanted to adapt the piece in the style of cartoons from that time period, which presented some unique challenges. Animations in the 1930s were painstakingly created by hand using traditional materials, rather than the digital tools we use today. They also included some problematic representations of gender. You can watch the video to see where I ended up. Here’s what I learned in getting there.
- Do your (history) homework
The tone and voice of Keller’s essay struck me as very similar to a public service announcement–style video from the same period. For reference, I watched several PSAs, such as this ad by the federal government promoting the New Deal, and this safety warning about the dangers of gasoline in clothes laundering. The fact that these PSAs were invariably narrated by men allowed us to set up a contrast with Keller’s feminist viewpoint. (The Atlantic’s own Alex Wagner provided the voiceover for us. Married to former White House chef, Sam Kass, Alex was a particularly fitting reader for “Put Your Husband in the Kitchen”!)
Because Atlantic Archives is an animated historical series, it made sense to draw on the visual sensibilities of this essay’s era, the 1930s. In 1928, with the introduction of sound cartoons and Walt Disney’s rise to prominence, animation entered a Golden Age. Cartoons at the time often featured slapstick comedy and surreal adventures with little or no dialogue. Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies animated series, which began in 1929 and ran through 1939, is a perfect exemplar of the genre. Silly Symphonies featured grayscale, hand-drawn animation over hand-painted, watercolor backgrounds, similar to what I chose for the piece. I was also inspired by the innocent humor of Disney’s early Mickey Mouse shorts.
Try to avoid ‘30s-era sexism
I designed Mr. and Mrs. Jones in a style that roughly emulated Fleischer Studios’ flapper girl, Betty Boop. Key details of that style include round shapes and “rubber hose” limbs, loose, bendable arms and legs that made the characters easier to draw. Cartoons produced in the 1930s were thoroughly steeped in the sexist mores of the time. The only prominent female animated character of the period, Boop was considered adult entertainment, often depicted pulling down her short, red dress, and frequently subjected to male ogling. By animating Mrs. Jones—the strong, confident female character driving Keller’s story—in the same style, I could take the sexist narrative that has long surrounded Boop, and turn it on its head.
Create a storyboard
“Storyboarding” means illustrating every piece of a script sequentially, creating a visual reference that guides an animator through a video from beginning to end. This technique, invented by Disney animators in the ‘20s and early ‘30s, is a key step in making almost all of today’s animated work. Below, you can see how I illustrate each line of the script to show what will be animated. After completing a storyboard, I break it up into segments called ‘shots’ or ‘scenes.’ In total, my Helen Keller video has 32 distinct scenes. You can view the full storyboard here.
Animate with traditional cel animation
With the storyboard in place, I could start to animate. Most studio animation done nowadays is animated in 3D, which doesn’t use drawings at all. But in keeping with the style of the time, I wanted to use traditional cel animation, which is extremely time- and labor-intensive: It requires making around 12 unique drawings per second of animation.
Traditionally, artists began with pencil and paper. Each drawing was then traced with ink onto a transparent sheet called a cel, and color was painted on manually. Adhering to this exact process would have meant blowing our deadline, so I cheated a little and used a digital paint program. This also allowed for instant playback; in the ‘30s, animators could only review their work after it had been photographed, one picture at a time. You can see my animation process, step by step, here.
Below is an example of a walk cycle. Characters are among the most difficult aspects of a scene to animate, due to the complexity of human movement. Because I added this sequence late in the process, I had to animate the walk backwards from Mr. Jones’ final standing position. The second image shows how I inked and colored the drawings for the walk cycle digitally.
I also needed to make the artwork for the backgrounds of each shot. I painted each background with black gouache, an opaque watercolor, to highlight the details and echo the watercolor backgrounds of 1930s cartoons. While today’s animation, produced digitally in 3D or 2D, is still beautiful, there is a unique richness to watercolor paintings done by hand.
As an animator, I learned a great deal about my craft from this project. Studying the precursors of our current digital techniques has given me a greater understanding of the process as a whole. Turnarounds are tight and animation is still labor-intensive, but today we are lucky to be able to produce professional-quality animation relatively fast. By practicing the techniques of the 1930s, I think I’ve actually sped up my workflow!
Can an Artist Still Shape an Era?
Karen Yuan discusses why it may be difficult for another artist to have an impact as great as Picasso's.
When Pablo Picasso died in 1973, the painter Willem de Kooning said, “Certain artists are always with me, and surely Picasso is one of them.” Since his first exhibition in America more than a century ago, Picasso has shaped the imagination of American artists.
That first exhibit, at the photographer Alfred Stieglitz’ New York gallery in 1911, shocked Americans with Picasso’s intensely abstract Cubist works, which used geometric shapes to represent various perspectives at once. It was a new vision in art for a new time—avant-garde art was rising to prominence alongside skyscrapers and jazz. The most innovative artists in America at the time began painting Cubist works, including Marsden Hartley, one of the pioneers of modernist American art.
After his second major exhibition in America, a 40-year retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art, which took place in 1939, Picasso’s impact on the art world broadened among artists. Well-known by then, Picasso startled them again with new works, including Guernica, which responded to the Spanish Civil War. At the same time, World War II was just beginning. “The sheer violence and energy of his work … Artists felt that it really connected to what was happening in the world at that moment,” said Michael FitzGerald, a Picasso scholar who curated the Whitney Museum’s 2006 exhibition on the artist’s influence on American art.
The exhibition was vast compared to previous ones. The sculptor and painter Louise Bourgeois wrote in her diary:
There was an exhibition of 400 paintings by Picasso here (forty years’ work). It was so beautiful, and it revealed such genius and such a collection of treasures that I did not pick up a paintbrush for a month. Complete shutdown. I cleaned brushes, palettes, etc. and tidied everything … Once the source of joy disappeared, life became depressing.
Jackson Pollock covered up Picasso-inspired shapes with his drip paintings. A review of the Whitney exhibition in New York magazine said that, for artists, “[Picasso’s art] embodied freedom, change, and possibility.” The modernist painter Stuart Davis, reaching back to Cubism, added a twist of jazz to it.
Picasso’s influence echoed in American art throughout the second half of the 20th century. The typography in some of his Cubist work, and Guernica, with its newspapery, cartoon-like look, influenced Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. In the 1980s, the chaos in the artist Jean Michel Basquiat’s paintings reflected the later work of Picasso—Basquiat even dedicated a few paintings to him. Today, said FitzGerald, “the artist who’s had the greatest response to Picasso's work is George Condo,” who created the surreal posters for Kanye West’s album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
FitzGerald contends that few other artists have had the same pervasive impact on American art as Picasso. As for artists in the future—“it’s hard to imagine,” he admitted, given the fragmentation of the contemporary art world. In the 20th century, art had a geographic center, such as Paris or New York. Today, art has become globalized, with more artists and more ideas in more places. “It’s much harder to have a comprehensive sense of what artists are interested in,” FitzGerald said. A style like Cubism may not have the same monolithic effect that it had in the past.
That fragmentation has been occurring since the 1970s—the same decade Picasso died. After that, said FitzGerald, “the sense of cohesiveness of argument really shattered, and it’s never been put back together again, and I don’t think it ever will be.” The absence of a new champion in the art world may compound Picasso’s enduring effect on it.
In 1923, Picasso wrote a statement to his friend Marius de Zayas, who helped organize that first exhibition at Stieglitz’ gallery, on art’s relationship with time. While he felt there existed periods of art more “complete” than others, he didn’t believe in a past or future for art. “If a work of art cannot live always in the present, it must not be considered at all,” he said. “All I have ever made was made for the present and with the hope that it will always remain in the present.”
Will Today’s Art Eventually Look “So 2018?”
We asked CityLab staff writer Kriston Capps to reflect on how today’s art will be seen by art enthusiasts of the future.
There’s a lens effect in art: The more recently it was created, the harder it is to place. Art from the past falls into neat categories like Baroque or De Stijl, while contemporary art makes for difficult sorting. Even the occasionally stable tentpoles for art of the 21st century, whether it’s post-black or social practice or zombie formalism, are built on the shifting sands of constant art-world bickering.
But the fact of the matter is that art from the past is subject to greater revisionist pressure than the local museum may show. Especially now, as women artists and artists of color—or artists working outside the West—are finding purchase in collections, exhibits, and scholarship, the canon is shifting. Meanwhile, art of the moment is usually quite easy to situate once the moment has passed. Think of art in the terms that apply to music and it might make more sense: Eventually, the bleeding-edge sound of alternative metal joined the ranks of classic rock, then disappeared from the radio altogether in favor of pop music, which is today mostly the hip-hop sub-genre known as trap. Tomorrow it will sound like something else.
Contemporary art’s no different: While it might seem like anything goes at art festivals today, give it enough time and art, too, will look distinctly ‘90s (Julian Schnabel), ‘00s (Julie Mehretu), and ‘10s (?).
Today’s Wrap Up
Question of the Day: Will the art of today be as easy to date as the art of the past?
What’s Coming: This week marks the 15th anniversary of the Iraq War. On Friday, we’ll reflect on lessons learned since the start of the conflict.
Your Feedback: How are we doing? Take our survey below.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.