Charles Santore, American, born 1935
Fifty Years of Art and Storytelling
a retrospective at the Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia until May 13, 2018
N.C.Wyeth (1882-1945, American) was an illustrator of the first order.
He was also the patriarch of the Wyeth clan, whose son and grandson, Andrew (1917-2009) and Jamie Wyeth (born 1946), have been and are the country’s premier figurative artists. 100 years of artistic production.
So it twists your heart to learn that, in his fulsome admiration of the work of his son and pupil, Andrew, N.C. Wyeth expressed his belief that his own talent and the quality of his own work was secondary to that of his son because he was an ‘illustrator’ and his son was an ‘artist’.
Charles Santore also declines to call himself an artist. It is not for him to describe himself in any way, he says. It is for him to work and for others to describe.
How would we describe his work, then?
“Off with her head!”, and detail, 2017, watercolour on paper. Collection of the artist from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
The distinction which led N.C. Wyeth to put his work in second place is connected, of course, to the fact that the illustrator follows a story line or illustrates a subject chosen by someone else. And our Western tradition places the highest value on the originality of an art work both for choice of subject and for the method and skill of its execution.
Truth of the matter is that – pending the establishment of our species in space – subject matter is – after 2500 years of our hominid artistic tradition – limited all round. We’ve seen it all if we are talking about subject matter.
When we look at a work of art, it is really the execution we are evaluating: how excited and moved we are at the skill and originality of the execution of the artist’s chosen subject.
The caterpillar addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice, 2017, and detail, watercolour on paper.
Collection of the artist from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
The fact that the subject is circumscribed for an illustrator may or may not result in a process as lengthy or as creative as that usually involved in the making of an art work. It depends on the approach of the illustrator.
Charles Santore has declined throughout his career to take direction on how he should execute anything. He sees his role as fulfilled if he presents the ideas and formats which – after often extensive research and trial and error – he thinks most pertinently fulfill the subjects he was given.
The first evidence for a designation of Charles Santore’s work as an artistic creation is just this: that his approach is not that of a technician but of an an artist whose energy is to creation and not merely to representation. Creation to the end of entertaining, informing or educating the viewer.
It should not come as a surprise, then, that the artist writes stories and illustrates them.
Watercolour on paper, 1997. Collection of the artist whose first book this is.
Nor that the artist was awarded the Gold medal in 2000 from the Society of Illustrators in the category of Original work for his story, which he illustrated, A Stoway from Noah’s Ark.
Details from A Stowaway from Noah’s Ark, a retelling of the Old Testament story of Noah’s ark. The stoway is Achbar, a mouse whom Noah had not chosen. In the bottom painting, Achbar can be seen in the middle of the top of the boat.
Further, it has to be recalled that we live in the artistic universe which Marcel Duchamp (1887-1961, American born France) defined: it is those of us who look at a work of art who will decide if it merits this definition. We do this, Duchamp said, only when we have educated ourselves in the tradition of that work. In declining to call himself anything, Charles Santore is agreeing with this.
The Queen pricked her finger and three drops of blood fell on the snow outside, 1997, watercolour on paper. Collection of Christina Santore from Snow White
Images from the web. The original watercolour is on view at the Woodmere exhibition
There is one transformation which this artist orchestrates which is only in the domain of artists. There is a second whose domain artists and illustrators share.
Part of the tradition in which Charles Santore steeped himself is that of theatrical performance. He worked as an actor when he was young.
Actors are artists with a particularly exacting expertise: they lend their minds and bodies to public scrutiny to the ends of a creation designed to entertain, influence, educate the viewer.
Suddenly she heard a Mighty Roar, and detail, 2007. Collection of the artist from The Silk Princess, a story the artist wrote
Actors are artists. Charles Santore recognizes the contribution of his work as an actor to the intellectual and physical construction – he calls this ‘choreography’ – of his graphic work with books.
Choreography is a stand-in word here for the artistic process this artist undertook to create multiple, linked, coherent tableaux for stories.
This kind of transformative work, conscious, unconscious, or partly conscious, is in the sole domain of artists. For which we rely on and revere them.
Charles Santore’s colours themselves are actors. The artist has assigned agency to colours. Exactly from where he draws this, we cannot know.
This activity is in the domain of artists (and illustrators) also.
Looking at the tableau immediately below, you don’t know whether to be alarmed or charmed at the blood red surrounding the sleeping lion. That colour is telling you something even if the lion is fast asleep.
The Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, and detail, not being made of flesh, were not troubled by the scent of flowers; 1991, watercolour and ink on paper. Collection of the artist from the Wizard of Oz
To say that the artist’s use of watercolours is inviting is an understatement.
Washes of colour which have the extraordinary effect of washing over your senses.
Observe the gold of this little girl’s hair in a sea of greys and dull whites.
Detail from There’s a cyclone coming, Em, 1991, watercolour and ink. Collection of the artist from The Wizard of Oz
The house whirled round and two or three times and rose slowly through the air, 1991, watercolour and ink. Collection of the artist from The Wizard of Oz
Dorothy and her friends have been shown into “a big room with a high dome roof, every surface was covered with emeralds”. 1991, watercolour and ink. Collection of the artist from The Wizard of Oz
And washing you ‘through’ to the world of the painting. This is the sense of the word ‘through’ in the title ‘Alice in Wonderland through the looking glass’.
(Try to enter a Jackson Pollock drip painting, heavily scored and built up like an unknown galaxy and you will be rebuffed and sorry. As one example).
“You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” said Alice, 2017, watercolour. Collection of the artist from Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland
It is the special ‘through’ of story telling and myth making: the particular meaning of ‘through’ which allows us to understand that the storytelling artist is addressing the metaphorical truths of stories.
These may not be literal truths; but they are nevertheless true. And we have been washed through to this magic by a particularly skilled and inviting use of paint by this storyteller.
And so the White Rabbit continues to be late for a very important date, 2017, watercolour on paper. Collection of the artist from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
You want to enter the story. Even now.
The Hare and The Tortoise, and detail, 1988, watercolour and ink. Collection of the artist from Aesop’s Fables
And, of course, there is the very great pleasure that this artist’s work recalls you to a childhood in which we believed in Santa Claus, Alice in her wonderland and the Wizard of Oz.
And to an adolescence and adulthood in which a week did not pass without Columbo and Kojak for whom, among others, the artist created covers for the iconic, now vanished TV Guide.
Columbo: Peter Falk, 1972, acrylic on canvas. Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia. The artist’s first cover for TV Guide.
Peter Falk, 1927-2011, American actor
Kojak: Telly Savalas, 1974, oil on canvas. Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia
Telly Savalas, 1922-1994, American actor
The artist’s long career has included work for many kinds of clients on many kinds of subjects.
Little Esther Philips, Devil (back cover), 1975, acrylic on canvas. Collection of the artist for the back of a record album for which he created a second illustration for the front.
Esther Philips, 1935-1984, singer.
Mali in the Ninth Century (fishing village), 1981. Collection of the artist created for the National Geographic (with light interference)
Big and Little, and detail, 1979, charcoal and gouache on paper. A poster for a play
Life of Benjamin Franklin for the Bicentennial Commission,1975, oil on canvas. Collection of the artist made for a mural painted on Arch street between 3rd and 4th, Philadelphia
Bobby, 1977, charcoal on paper. Private collection.
The artist’s brother