American artist Frank Frazetta (1928-2010) has almost single-handedly defined the fantasy genre from the late ’60s on. Even if you haven’t heard his name before, you’ve seen many of his paintings (check them out here). I say almost single-handedly out of respect for J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Ray Harryhausen. John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian (1982), which capitalized on the Tolkien surge and the popularity of D&D, directly emulated the Frazetta style, as did almost all ’80s D&D art (Elmore, Parkinson, Easley) and a staggering amount of comic book art. Look at anything fantasy-related today and you’ll see Frazetta’s influence.
He’s probably best known for his spectacular Conan and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan of the Apes, John Carter of Mars, At the Earth’s Core) paintings, which were commissioned by various publishers. The New York Times reported in 1977 that “Paperback publishers have been known to buy one of his paintings for use as a cover, then commission a writer to turn out a novel to go with it.” (The only illustrator I can think of who might have done as much for book sales was the 19th century artist/engraver Gustav Doré.) His work is intricately articulate, deeply colorful, weird, erotic, violent, almost Romantic. His heroes are grim and bloody, his heroines scantily clad but often anything but helpless.
Here’s the Conan vs. giant snake scene by a different artist around the same time:
And here’s one of the original Conan covers:
There’s just no comparison.
I was a little surprised to find out that Frazetta was in no way the artsy type. He grew up a Brooklyn tough, nearly became a pro baseball player, barely eked out a living as an artist, and in later life suffered multiple strokes before one finally killed him. (For more, see the 2003 documentary, Frazetta: Painting with Fire.)
The art establishment never paid him any respect and never will. But he transcended his genres. When I look at Frazetta’s work, I see shades of J.M.W. Turner, Henry Fuseli, Caspar David Friedrich, John Martin. When I look at contemporary art I see lines and shapes that have no heart and signify nothing.