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The Art of Michael Whelan, Michael Whelan, Bantam Spectra, 1993, 201 pp.
Whelan is a fascinating artist, and the science fiction or fantasy author who gets a Whelan cover on their new book lucks out. Whelan is also very articulate, both visually and verbally, and gets away with saying things that would be pretentious from anyone else. He knows how to have fun too, perhaps because he knows what imagination is, and revels in its power (both his own, and reflected). The Art of Michael Whelan is a gorgeous volume, an absolutely lovely edition, and a feast for mind and eye.
Whelan divides the art in the book into two main sections, Gallery One: Scenes and Gallery Two: Visions. The book opens with a short preface from Whelan himself, and then a short profile of Whelan by one of his friends, Jackson Koffman. An interview of Whelan by Anne McCaffrey follows that, entitled "Author's View," in which McCaffrey asks him about his background, career, and personal life. This is an informative section, and it's nice to see a friendship (and a working collaboration) between an author and an illustrator -- McCaffrey and Whelan chat back and forth naturally, and their personalities shine through. After Gallery One, there is an interview, entitled "Sightseers and Shamans," by Terry Booth, who is involved in selling SF art. Here, Booth and Whelan also chat amiably, and here we find out about Whelan's ambitions in his personal work, his use of symbolism, what he wants to communicate, how paintings should be displayed, and so on. Closing out the book after Gallery Two, there is a final interview, entitled "Materials and Methods," by David Cherry, a fantasy artist himself. This is an interesting section even for those, like myself, who haven't painted anything (creatively, that is), and Cherry and Whelan, ostensible competitors, talk shop with ease and congeniality. They also discuss the future of painting, an appropriate topic, and neither seem worried. To quote Whelan, when asked about photography and obsolete artists: "Well, the illustrators who worked for the newspapers were largely supplanted by the camera. But so what? That was only drudgery -- the camera freed artists for more creative enterprises" (186). These three interviews are all worth reading, and make for a nice counterbalance to the intensely visual contents of Galleries One and Two.
Gallery One will likely be easier to discuss, considering how many famous book covers Whelan has done. Each painting is on the right hand page of the two page spread, and on the left, Whelan puts some commentary and a few preliminary sketches (which are fascinating, and a nice thing to include). Whelan includes quite a gallery of dragons, including a few that he has done for McCaffrey's Pern novels. All the Weyrs of Pern and Dragonsdawn contrast nicely with two Rawn covers, The Star Scroll and Sunrunner's Fire, and two other dragon paintings, one for an anthology and one for the cover of Amazing. Whelan demonstrates here his ability to show diversity and individuality in fantastic creations and creatures. He shows off his skill of capturing the essential feel of a book with the paintings for Vinge's The Snow Queen and The Summer Queen. Winter and summer seem like giveaways, but Whelan does them with subtlety and style. There is a section of various horror art, starting on page 66, that I don't particularly enjoy, mostly because Whelan can do "creepy" to perfection. He portrays two of the main characters in Volsky's Illusion almost exactly as I had imagined them, especially the old man in the left corner of the painting (putting him on the back cover if you take a look at Volsky's book). His two Elric paintings (pp. 85, 87) seem by-the-numbers to me, but the next painting makes up for that. Aliens is an anthology cover, with a bunch of strange life-forms posing for a photograph. It is accompanied by some commentary typical of what Whelan has to say. He went on vacation and was worried about starting up his work again when he got back, so painting Aliens was a fond experience for him -- this little anecdote adds quite a bit to my experience of the painting. In the remaining pages of Gallery One, we get two of Whelan's gorgeous covers for Cherryh's Chanur series, the sumptuous twilight of Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, and two Gunslinger illustrations for King's The Dark Tower, among many others. I'll close my review of Gallery One by mentioning Whelan's cover for Gentle's Golden Witchbreed. In the accompanying commentary, Whelan tells of his problems in getting started with this painting, and then the unifying idea that finally let him begin. It's very subtle, this idea, but it cuts to the heart of the novel (an excellent read -- Gentle is influenced by Le Guin's anthropological approach), and once you've noticed it, right there at the centre of the painting (at least at the centre of what is the front cover of the book), you can't escape its beauty.
In Gallery Two, Whelan gives us his own paintings, inspired only by his own imagination. Quite a number of these have sold as covers for anthologies, which Whelan says is very fulfilling, personally and for his pocketbook. Gallery Two opens with the painting that provides the cover for The Art of Michael Whelan itself, entitled "Passage: The Avatar." It's the deep blue of serenity and contemplation, and it's a really interesting composition. There are a number of other paintings in Whelan's Passage series, and these are quite different from the ones he has sold for anthologies. "Passage: The Red Step" is vast, mystical, depressing, and cheesy all at once. "Climber" is interesting for its post-industrial wasteland of the soul feeling, but again seems somewhat cheesy. Two paintings in Gallery Two spread out across the two-page spread (there's only one in Gallery One, Whelan's cover for Williams' The Stone of Farewell), the first, "Open," being a misty landscape with some kind of brightly lit bunker in a grassy hill. A bubble with a flame inside floats out of the open door, the flame-bubble being a theme that repeats through many of his personal paintings. The last painting in the book, and the second in this section to be printed in a wider format, is called "Wing" and shows his young daughter standing on Ayers Rock. It's a fitting way to end this fine, thoughtful collection.
But Whelan is right when he says: "On the negative side, my background as an illustrator will probably hinder my gaining acceptance in the 'fine art' world, where the bias against applied art is such that the mere mention of illustration can be the kiss of death to an artist looking for acceptance" (122). Art is perhaps the most indefinable of all words, and the whole "fine art" or "serious art" category gets very strange and politicized. But the fact remains that when I go into an art gallery, I generally gravitate towards the most postmodern art, the more postmodern the better. I go into a different sensibility when I look at science fiction illustration, and that's not a put down. It's too bad that the two are exclusive, or that critical theories of excellence aren't more inclusive. And as much jargon as artspeak uses, it has never seemed to have found ways to talk outside its box. It comes down to this. Whelan has his own vision, and I quote at length: "As long as there are states of mind and soul that require expression, there will be metaphor, symbolism, and allegory in art. Modern obsession with art as 'product' has made allegory especially unfashionable, but it's a momentary diversion. The human soul demands more, and fashions change" (125). This tendency in his art, this motivation, is what strikes me as "cheesy" about some of his personal paintings. But I can only admire the tenacity of his vision -- "I care about the personal works communicating to others, but I couldn't care less if they are 'accepted' or not. I mean, from my point of view, I'm going to paint them anyway" (122) -- and in the end, that is perhaps the only thing that makes a true artist.
I look back on all the science fiction books I have read, and it's quite astonishing how many have Michael Whelan covers. He has painted quite prolifically, but I also have a tendency to pick books to read when they have the initials "MW" on the cover somewhere. That's a testament to his power of imagination, and his enduring appeal.
Last modified: April 13, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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