by Carlo Rotella, 89.7 WGBH
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Frank Frazetta died recently. I’d argue that he was a pretty important American artist, and certainly an influential one. He was the undisputed master of the genre of popular art that features mighty-thewed barbarians, pneumatic odalisques, and slavering beasts. If you’re old enough to remember head-shop aesthetics of the 1970s, especially those custom vans that had bubble windows and perhaps a bumper sticker that said “If the van is rockin’, don’t bother knockin,’” then you probably remember the Frazetta-inspired swordsmen painted on the sides of many of those vans.
You might have seen Frazetta’s own work: his paintings on the covers of Conan and Tarzan paperbacks, or on the covers of Nazareth or Molly Hatchett albums, or in the Frazetta calendars that sold so well back then. You could roadmark the coming and going of the days—social studies paper due on Monday the 9th, doctor’s appointment on the 11th, tickets for the Yes concert go on sale on the 12th—all under the stern gaze of a Frazetta icon like the axe-wielding Grim Reaper, or Conan posed with broadsword planted point-down atop a rampart of slain enemy.
The news of Frazetta’s passing dredged up a memory from back when I was thirteen or fourteen. A used bookstore near my school had a book of reproductions of his paintings. I’d go in there every few days to look at it. There was one in particular that drew me, depicting an Atlantean ruin in the desolate calm after the flood. The waters in the foreground are still, reflecting a temple in the background, its pillars toppled and broken, and the statue in the foreground: an idealized Hellenic warrior in crested helmet, loincloth, greaves, and little else, seaweed hanging drippingly from the shaft of the long spear balanced on his shoulder.
The book cost too much, and after a few weeks I did a bad thing: I quietly broke the spine, removed the Atlantean scene and a few others I liked, slipped them into my notebook, and left.
I think the reason I had to have it was also the secret of Frazetta’s appeal for me: for all the menace and gory action, he was strangely soothing. Life is complicated, adolescence seems extra complicated to those undergoing it, and the 70s, when the wake-n-bake hangover of the 60s met a stagflationary new order, felt like a particularly trying moment to be a kid. In the world of Frazetta’s paintings, things seemed consistent, simple, reassuringly timeless, and, therefore, oddly peaceful. The dire, pulpy melodrama of his pictures soothed me back then—maybe just because it was always gloriously the same, a touch of steadiness in an unsteady time.