There is a subtle, and possibly snobbish distinction between mere illustrators and painters. The former often have more of a career than the latter, but they all started out the same way.
Some illustrators, like Robert McGinnis – still with us at 94 – are extraordinarily gifted artists, displaying not just the essential technical chops, but also a vivid imagination and scene setting. McGinnis’ brooding and often sexy men and women are instantly recognisable, oozing style and iconicism. He could paint landscapes too. His status is also assured, the combination of Americana and ineffable cool gives him a cachet that some of his peers lack. By way of contrast, the demographic that everyone looks down on is probably the scifi/geek set, exhibit ‘A’ being the Simpsons’ Comic Book Store Guy. They’re all losers, right?
Yet lurking within the genre are some extraordinary works of art – posters, book covers, LP covers, illustrated exegeses and more. The British artist Bruce Pennington (a mere 76 years old) is one of the masters. I had a few of his book covers in the 70’s, and they always had a dark, authentic imagination working away, clearly above the herd. His otherworldiness actually reminds me of Goya (at times), Bruegel and Vereshchagin. An unusually diverse peer group.
By coincidence, the daily Office of Readings in the Catholic Lectio Divina, is, in this Eastertide period, excerpting heavily from the Apocalypse of St John, or the Book of Revelation. It’s quite a read. An essential read I’d suggest. Interpreting it is another matter.
The scripture teems with arresting and still terrifying imagery. A lot of it is hard to form as a coherent mental picture. The New Jerusalem is one example. How many jewels in the walls? What are the pearls as gates? There are endless examples.
But the two key protagonists, apart from God, are the “woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars”, and the “great, fiery red dragon”, although you also have numerous angels, the Four Horsemen, the other Beast and many many more. Oddly, given the scriptural roots of much of the canon of Western art, there are very few major depictions of all this going back into the centuries. It is definitely a subject for the modern amateur and numerous contemporary evangelical Christian artists, but rarely of any aesthetic merit. Which brings us to Bruce Pennington, who may be contemporary but is in neither of those two categories**.
It may not be to everyone’s taste, but to me the detail, the lighting and the sweeping imagination melding the Mediterranean and the Piazza San Pietro is quite brilliant. The emerging dragon fulfils the requisite threat and enormity superbly. It is indeed a landscape, but of a very strange kind, which fits with the subject matter. The restless sweep, colour and energy remind me of Dali’s late masterpiece, Tuna Fishing. That is quite a compliment.
** In the interests of accuracy, I should add that my reference to Revelation is correct, for the most part, but strictly speaking Bruce was interpreting Nostradamus (in his book Eschatus), although much of the Frenchman’s work seems pretty obviously derived from that book of scripture.