Progressive Kitch:

Science Fiction Illustration as the Return of the Repressed Figure

Janet Bruesselbach
Art & Culture I
Catherine Howe

Figure 1 : Frustration

          The history of science fiction illustration shadows the canonical history of in a particularly modernist dynamic rooted in a particular anxiety of progressivism.   Illustration acted as a repository of traditional art didactics to be reborn through post-modernism.   Mainstream illustration in many ways worked as a lag, driving the directionality of modernism by co-opting the avant-garde and converting it to kitsch.   But long after the trends of illustration appropriated abstraction to the point of ridding it of image, science fiction and fantasy illustration blossomed into an image-loving aesthetic.   Science Fiction illustration explicitly pursues the inconceivable sublime through hyper-representation.   Only through extreme and intellectually rigorous study of the figure can things humans could never do or see be not only described but obsessively "accurately" depicted.

          In his introduction to Infinite Worlds , the ever-curmudgeonly Ray Bradbury explicitly compares high modernism to futurist kitsch, expressing the hatred for modern art felt by science fiction and fantasy artists and fans.   I do not wish to be confused with that deliberate misunderstanding of high modern expressed so vehemently by just-as-modern kitsch-lovers.   Bradbury's argument is that SF art "inspired" astronauts to action, deriding the contents of the Hirschorn museum as uninspiring.   His awareness that "today's critics" have labeled illustration "the forbidden art" highlights the fundamental dialectic by which popular and iconoclastic art create their own temporal political associations.   As Calinescu can't quite bring himself to admit, it is the domination of the modern era by fantastical image that causes history's winners to write it in favor of an elite minority.   Not that lovers of image are unaware of this, either: throughout the Cold War, the American people inherited Fascism's defiant embrace of kitsch.

          The history of science fiction art parallels the history of science fiction as a genre in a somewhat uncomfortable relationship.   The science- or allegory-based, cardboard-charactered narratives pre-Golden Age featured images of the same style and often by the same artists who illustrated other adventure pulps.   The intentions of editors to elevate the literary genre's intellectual reputation, to this day, accompany selection of less inventive art.    In the fifties, the artist known as Hannes Bok transformed the standards for SF illustration by using the methods of early 20th century illustrator Maxfield Parrish, who used glazes and multiple monochrome versions to anticipate the mass-producing printing process, and combining the vibrant color with surreal linear pieces.   The most celebrated SF artist of the time, Chesley Bonestall, did not consider himself an SF artist but a speculative astronomy painter.   Taking genre fiction "seriously" meant eliminating the figure simply because the figure was appealing.   In fine art, this is the moment of transition from old world to new and from investment in industrial metaphors and objective self-reference over any examination of the power of illusion.

Figure 2 : Hannes Bok: Colors!   Rounded Things!

          The best example of High Kitsch from the genre would be Stanley Meltzoff, who nevertheless was a general illustrator who established what in retrospect we can call "traditional" figurative compositions with thorough backgrounds.   The genius of the period was Richard Powers, not to be confused with the contemporary novelist, a surrealist painter whose images achieved the colorful beauty of abstract expressionism but reached a far larger audience by appearing on book covers in miniature. A quality of science fiction painting that connects it to surrealism is the tendency for figure, landscape, object and idea to lose their distinctions.   This awareness of the collapsing categories generated by technology socially trumps the losing game of fine art that finds itself in denial towards the human impacts of media and the human content of mechanization.   As society grows more contradictory and cyborg, as Donna Haraway examined in 1989, that which is most dismissed has the most relevance to the dismisser, and the greater the ideological importance of self-awareness, the more alienated art became.   Meanwhile, science fiction would often be marketed through the empathic appeal of humans at the time when subjectivity was ignored in SF content.

Figure 3: Richard Powers "All Flesh" in an anthrotropic moment

          In the mid- to late- sixties, SF's New Wave or Silver Age accompanied the beginning of Fantasy as a major competitor.   Much of the eye-catching and therefore defamed figurative art of the period, such as Frank Frazetta, appeared on Fantasy, while SF art began to follow the trends of mainstream illustration in losing the representational standards that instead moved onto comic books.   Simultaneously, Pop Art began celebrating and commenting on commercial art, and the figure, as a flattened sign and as literally involved in performance, reappeared in high art.   The beginnings of postmodernism therefore involved a compromise of the respected toward the disrespected, with a heightened insistence on difference in an atmosphere of similarity.   As Calinescu observes, "what separates them is sometimes much less striking than what unites them." (254)   Art that was about concept or mass production of an image had less claim to iconoclasty in comparison to any other visual culture, and began to embrace not only camp appeal but non-artness as a statement - yet criticism continued to believe in kitsch.

          During this time, the primary market for artists who were interested in depicting the figure was illustration - and most illustration in the sixties and seventies also stigmatized academic training over cubist or surrealist-inspired images that were often more quickly produced.   Science fiction and fantasy became a haven for a kind of humanism that could not be depicted by iconoclastic art that increasingly marginalized itself in its flight from image.   As science fiction writing became more concerned with character, psychology, and subjective experience, while often maintaining a stylistic conservatism, figuration became even more relevant to it.   Often editors still wanted to make books appear more philosophically rigorous by excluding eye-catching figuration from the covers because such "gratuitous" imagery was associated with interchangeable fantasy paperbacks.

Figure 4: To the adoration of nitpicky fans, Whelan placed the heroine's home planet behind her heart. Aw.

          In the seventies and eighties, the popularity of the genre exploded, with artists becoming celebrities in their own rights, a far greater female readership, and a diversification of sub-genres.   Michael Whelan was the art star, producing covers that finally satisfied nitpicky fans' demands for narrative accuracy, but Jim Burns, Rowena, Boris Vallejo, Julie Bell, and Don Maitz soon followed.   The appeal of the figure and the centrality of character development rose to importance, and the field began to write its own glorifying history.   The ultimate seeming devolution was toward fantasy, whose superficial connection to history tied in with old-masters-looking cover paintings and generated an equal prestige for writers and painters.   More and more, SF art became commercially equivalent to other art, although the pluralizing art world at the time still worked through an exclusion of commercial art despite its commercialist self-awareness or lack thereof.

Figure 5 : Rick Berry, "Night Dancers"; Odd Nerdrum, "Love Divided"

          When Rick Berry produced one of the first digital paintings for the cover of Neuromancer in 1984, he was the beginning of yet another wave of painters currently prominent and rising throughout the 90s.   He also discovered a medium that now defines fantastical art and continues to be somewhat of a blind spot to technologically involved work.   Yet the 90s also saw the advent of artists well-studied in art history, widely varied in experimentation, and thoroughly dedicated to their specific genre, including Phil Hale's comics-like, energetic New England school, Dave McKean and his imitators, John Picacio, and the painstakingly beautiful surreal bodies of John Jude Palencar.  

          Palencar is interesting compared to the similarly post-apocalyptic, anatomically rigorous painter Odd Nerdrum, who has declared himself proudly Kitsch and is beloved by SF art enthusiasts but, like Nicola Verlato, has never actually done an illustration on commission.   Odd Nerdrum paints Rembrandt-like, often inscrutable post-humans and proclaims an interest in re-involving art in the kind of sentimental territory that had been relegated from art's assumed humanism into popular entertainment ("'popular' has undergone an important change in meaning during the last decades, and today's 'popular culture' is often pure kitsch"(Calinescu 243).   Palencar renders skin with tiny brushes in carefully arranged, desert-like environments, with a level of individualism and craftsmanship that, in today's art market, would allow him to work in a similar New Figuration niche as Nerdrum, if he weren't selling out.   Left on his own he takes the body through surrealist horror transformations not as entirely cyborg as H.R. Giger's and more comparable to Heironymous Bosch with anatomical training.

Figure 6 : The evolution of SF covers over the 80s and 90s can be illustrated by the progression of Octavia Butler's Dawn: in 1979, a badly whitewashed protagonist and a narrative tableau. In the early 90s reprint, a beautiful and carefully considered Palencar portrait. The most recent edition uses a less explicit, "tasteful" photograph to justify the book's "literary" qualities.

          The dominant voice in current science fiction art is Donato Giancola, who, like other field dominators before him, is incredibly prolific and allowed a great deal of freedom in allowing his pieces to be collectible works of art in their own right.   Donato paints like an old baroque master - or an old romantic - but unlike them has spent a great deal of effort learning how to invent reflective surfaces, uses hubble photography, and possibly also paints much faster.   In an era in which realistic figures are no longer necessarily mediocre art, his figures are anything but the provocative selling tools SF art had to be in the 60s - but also a new academicism without the academy.

Figure 7 : Donato, "Traveler", 2006.   This composition looks exactly like a digital drawing I did in 2001, but I am forgiving.

          Science fiction art is undeniably kitsch, but the relevance of the very category of kitsch began to break down as soon as artists began to think in a postmodern way.   Calinescu's thesis is that Kitsch itself is a modern concept, acting as a perpetrator and symptom of the ideologically enslaved masses.   What would be truer to admit is that it is Modernism's Other: demographically and even ideologically vaster but oppressed, ghettoized, and self-deluding.   Just as Vincent di Fate implies that we have always been modern, we can also wonder if we have always been postmodern.   Throughout Modernism, if we want to make a broad historical generalization about what most people were interested in looking at, it was kitsch - and of that which can be categorized as kitsch, Science Fiction imagery bore within it a core of intelligence and conceptual involvement.   Practically, a pluralist visual culture existed, ironically contradicting the historical progression from avant-garde movement to movement. Irony and contradiction are modernist values as much as self-reference, but persists into the postmodern era, which is always modern as well despite its democratic aesthetics.

          Calinescu's view is that what modernism regards as kitsch was "historically a result of romanticism", just as science fiction began with Frankenstein .   Compare Goya, Delacroix and Blake to the mystical flashiness of any fantasy painting.   "What constitutes the essence of kitsch is probably its open-ended indeterminacy, its vague 'hallucinatory' power, its spurious dreaminess, its promise of an easy 'catharsis'". (228) And he clearly has SF in mind when he speaks of this dissociative historical persistence: "Kitsch lends itself to a definition in terms of a systematic attempt to fly from daily reality: in time (to ... an adventurous future by means of the clichés of science fiction...)" (245)   Calinescu may not even recognize the ironic reversal on which he must base the statement "The future has become almost as unreal and empty as the past" (247), considering that SF's standards for representing the future were a way of beating the avant-garde at its own game by hyperbolizing modernist style.

          This leads to the dialectic of impossible originality by which high art gradually cornered itself as its signs were ever more quickly adapted by the bourgeoisie.   Calinescu calls this an "illustration of the old story of the 'system' (read kitsch) co-opting its challengers (the avant-garde)." (247)   What naturally happens is that any standard of what art is automatically becomes kitsch, so that progressivism itself is hackneyed.   High art at this point begins to refer not just to the past and the future but to the present, and to the temporal hybrids of popular culture's internal avant-garde, SF.   At first it's with contempt, and dry irony, but the full meaning of irony has holding two supposedly contradictory positions at once, and the relief of audiences toward the reappearance of even a parody of beauty, tends to dampen this move into murkily sincere sentiment.  

          Meanwhile, the more popularly appealing imagery and speculative imagination appears in high art, the greater the effort SF artists begin to put into making their work truly inventive and beautiful.    Where once all an artist had to do was put some kind of figure in an image, preferably a curvy one, the standards rise when there is even the slightest possibility of an illustrator beginning to sell actual pieces rather than just printing rights.   In a way, this coincides with the end of the Cold War and the inclusion of all culture into capitalism.   Yet it seems impossible to avoid the categories of high art and illustration and their unresolving dialectic even today.   Is it because high art still wishes to have an Other language it can speak ironically, and avoid admitting its shared system?   Is it force of habit, a ghost of conceptual language with ambiguous (if any) incarnation?   Is there any limit or even progressive tendency to the perpetual trade between Modernism's two forms of art?   One next advance in the now-tangled timeline is to, like Nerdrum, but with a style more inspired by the sub-rosa expansion of painting craft in the modern era, tell high art's stories with low art's language - to thwart kitsch by mixing different kitsches, as it were - and let the people understand or buy as they may.

          So the history of science fiction and fantasy illustration returns the repression of figurative impulses in 20 th century post-war art. Kitsch is solely a modernist concept, and any postmodern art that adapts the skills and concepts of science fiction art cannot condescend to it. More than anything, the popularity of fantastical genre imagery, attachment to a technological enthusiasm, and artistic conservatism to which it was associated, demonstrate fascist impulses in America.   The counter-reactionary Modernist debasement of craft relied on SF art's persistence of classical didactic values.   But the duality has never been as strong as history tries to make it, and illustration went through many of the same ideological changes as conceptual art did, returning powerfully to the figure in the 1980s yet forever providing a dismissable, yet socially vaster, Other to art in which the connection to concept is more direct. Eject the figure from art and it pops back up, bright, bosomed and glistening, and conquers by ironic subterfuge.


Calinescu, Matei.   Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avante-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, and Post-Modernism.   Duke University Press, 1987.

Di Fate, Vincent.   Infinite Worlds: The Fantastic Visions of Science Fiction Art.   New York: Wonderland Press, 1998.

Haraway, Donna.   "A Cyborg Manifesto", in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.  NY: Routledge, 1991.

Hayles, Katherine.   How We Became Post-Human: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics .   Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1999.

Jameson, Frederick.   Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions.   NY: Verso, 2007.

Nerdrum, Odd.   On Kitsch.

Weinberg, Robert.   A Biographical Dictionary of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.