James Bama: American Realist (Anglais) Relié – 1 janvier 2007
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At the time, it was hard to learn much about James Bama, much less the significant role he played in making these repackaged 30's pulp stories bestsellers for a contemporary audience. Indeed, any artist who worked for the paperback market in those days had to confront the reality that the publishing world considered them hired guns at best, and getting a credit line of tiny-font text on the back of the title page was about all the acknowledgement they could expect to receive.
James Bama: American Realist is therefore a timely, and handsomely produced, overview of Bama's art. Over the course of 7 sections, it covers his work in commercial art in the 60s and early 70s, and his subsequent career in studio art since that time. I'm sure many Baby Boomers will be nostalgic at seeing the illustrations Bama did for pop culture artifacts from their childhood reproduced here. Such as the boxes for the Aurora plastic model kits for the Universal monsters (Frankenstein, the Mummy, etc.), and the covers for bestsellers, such as "The Harrad Experiment" and the first of the "Star Trek" paperbacks by James Blish, as well as a seemingly unending series of potboilers churned out by William Goldman and Howard Fast. All 62 of the covers Bama did for the Doc Savage books are presented here as well, six to a page, with some getting full-page treatment.
The reproductions are of good quality and the layout pleasing to the eye, with the text placed to minimize encroaching on the illustrations. The introductory chapters offer an interesting account of the commercial art scene back in the era when magazines were starting to lose ground to the burgeoning paperback book as the principal format for print media. Once paperbacks became the dominant media and on-shelf competition tightened, having the right cover became increasingly important in boosting sales. Indeed, during his busiest period, Bama was producing a paperback cover painting a week, but he and his fellow freelance artists were stuck in a 'work for hire' system that rarely provided any royalties or other compensation for illustrating top-selling books. This fact of life as a commercial artist, and burn-out, may have been what led Bama to go into semi-retirement in Wyoming in the early 70's. Since then he has focused on Western art, and his paintings of cowboys and Indians are featured in the book's last section.
If the book has a weakness, it is the lack of any exposition on Bama's technique. Whether the author felt it would be out place in this particular book format, or if the artist himself was reluctant to reveal too many of his 'secrets', is unclear. Unfortunately, this means that those hoping to learn how to paint Bama-style, will have to look elsewhere.
Interspersed with Kane's biographical text are quotes by some pretty powerful artists, such as Evertt Raymond Kinstler (who has known Bama since they were both 15), Boris Vallejo and Mark Schultz, not to mention dozens of quotes and observations by Bama himself, but it's the color illustrations that this book is really all about.
If you're a Doc Savage fan you not only get all of Bama's amazing Doc covers, but a number of the Steve Holland photo shoots that inspired them. What I particularly like is that in many cases you can compare the photo to the painting and see what Bama adds to each; his innate sense of color and design, the way the figures in his paintings glow with some inner strength that is not present in the photos. Some people say that Bama just paints reality, this book should remove that notion from their heads.
Bama abandoned the commercial art world at the height of his career in the 1970s and this book covers both of his careers. It's dominated by his commercial work but there is plenty of his fine art work as well. Like I said, this book is complete.
You open the book and you are bowled over by a portrait of Robert Kennedy and I wonder, "How can Bama paint hope?" Maybe it's in the eyes or the gesture of the hand, whatever, it makes a immediate and powerful impact. And it's just the first of the many treasures to be found within.
This is an expensive book, particularly if you are going to just flip through once and put it aside. However, if you keep art books handy, and periodically take them down to re-experience them, this one is worth the price of admission. It has been produced with the same care and attention that Mr. Bama puts into his art. And, if you do know Mr. B. only from the paperback covers, there will be some surprises in this volume.
OK, so you're the flip-through type, but you've got the bucks? Buy a copy of this for your local or favorite library!
To quote Bama in an unpublished statement he penned in 1979: "I should like to think that what I am doing is somewhat unique and not very derivative and dread being categorized or grouped other than in very broad terms such as 'twentieth century realist.'" Bama's uniqueness is easily enough demonstrated by the immediacy with which his covers pop out on bookstore shelves. Even when one factors in all the copycats, his stuff still jumped out and grabbed you. I remember, because glimpsing one of his Doc Savage covers back in the '80s is how I started collecting Dent's Man of Bronze adventures. His stuff simply stands out from the rest, unique. Another Bama cover (it was either THE SKY-LINERS or THE BROKEN GUN) also led me to Louis L'Amour, who would quickly become my preferred author of western novels.
Bama's professional illustrating career started out in advertising, in which area he thrived because of his stunning realistic style and his ability to always meet deadlines. Later in life, he switched up and entered the field of fine arts, again unsurprisingly running into success and acclaim. The breadth of Bama's range is staggering. As a commercial illustrator, he painted soldiers at war, professional athletes, famous persons and classic movie monsters. He painted rebellious teens and sultry vixens, beggars and old women, and rendered them all so lifelike that you gaze for minutes and minutes at the attention to detail and the texture and that omnipresent yet undefinable inner glow. Some of his paintings leave me dumbfounded and wondering just how in hoolies he does what he does. Even writing luminaries such as Ray Bradbury and Pearl S. Buck have praised James Bama for his covers to their stories. Bama need never fear that his art will be thought of as "derivative."
Frazetta is a god, and he produced masterpieces etched in exagerrated, pulse-pounding swagger and bold colors. But with James Bama, the margin between reality and art blurs like a mother. Bama injects testosterone in his works by making his paintings so photorealistic that they're rendered very real and possible, no matter how outrageous the content, how implausible the stage. The convincing beads of sweat, that light playing just so on a glistening ripping muscle, the deep wrinkles and folds on his subjects' wardrobe, the natural (okay, okay, maybe just a wee bit contrived) poses... All this smacks of "real." If you want to get bedazzled, simply take a peep at the exceptional "Chester Medicine Crow" (page 149), which at first glance you'd mistake for a black and white photo, until you notice the caption indicating that Bama produced this bit of awesome via technical pen and ink! And when Bama draws the likeness of a celebrity, he doesn't leave you wondering "Hey, that kinda looks like Paul Newman." You know instinctively, like the sun in the sky, that the figure in the painting IS Paul Newman, even if drawn in profile (this was a promo for COOL HAND LUKE). Not even the god Frazetta, as much as I bow down to him, can achieve such uncanny likeness.
As this book states, James Bama's work was a barometer of the times, an artistic visual interpretation of pop culture in the '60s and '70s. Some of his seminal stuff in this era include his box cover artwork for a series of film monster model kits, which contributed to the "Monster Craze" in the '60s. His Frankenstein painting started it off. His painting for the cover of Hal Ellson's TOMBOY drew imitators out of the woodwork, as paintbrushing apers soon began regurgitating covers of rebel teens caught in like insouciant poses (but mostly of hip kids leaning against buildings). Bama's cover for William Goldman's THE TEMPLE OF GOLD was groundbreaking in the sense that he lent credibility to covers with empty white backgrounds, this originally thought not to be a selling aesthetic.
But, for fanboys (fanfogies?) like me, the bread and the butter were in those monochromatic Doc Savage covers, which I think more than anything embody Bama's marrying of exquisite technical craftsmanship and larger than life flavoring. And, terrific book that this is, all 62 Doc Savage covers are herein reproduced. To top it off, my favorite Doc Savage painting (THE PHANTOM CITY) makes it as the cover to JAMES BAMA: AMERICAN REALIST. Yes, I actually own all the Doc Savage novels with the James Bama covers. Which is why the Steve Holland segments come as such a welcome treat. Actor and model Steve Holland posed for many of Bama's works, and specifically for the Doc Savage stuff. The book does provide samples of Bama's photoshoots of his models, sometimes juxtapositioned with the resultant paintings, for the purpose of comparing and contrasting. Several of these photos showcase his lovely wife and former model, Lynne, whom he met on the job. One of the final pages features a wonderful reflective painting of Lynne by her hubbie.
It's a bit weird that one book can encapsulate a lifetime's work. But JAMES BAMA: AMERICAN REALIST, coming with an intro by writer Harlan Ellison, does much to fill us in on James Bama's life, personal and professional. It unveils the tapestry of his works down the years, from his time as a commercial illustrator to his foray into fine arts. As another reviewer has mentioned, what's starkly missing is Bama's thoughts and tips on and breakdowns of technical details regarding his artwork. Maybe it's better this way. If the master did unveil his techniques, odds are we his students would've taken them up and ended up failing miserably. My ego, precarious as a suicide jumper's, won't survive that.
In the ranks of remarkable twentieth century realists, James Bama joins the likes of Andrew Wyeth and Norman Rockwell. All three deserve their place at the head of the table. But there's a special beat in my heart for James Bama. When I was a kid, his fabulous art sparked my imagination and helped to widen my world, introduced me to more branches of literary fiction. I'm so glad this book is out. Be a damn shame and a deep loss should we ever let James Bama and his art slip away from us.