Click on photos to enlarge.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Stevan Dohanos

Soda Fountain Dieter, 1954, Stevan Dohanos
When someone mentions The Saturday Evening Post, there's about a fifty-fifty chance the next words out of their mouth will have something to do with Norman Rockwell. And while Rockwell and the Post have practically become synonymous, that fact might well be seen as unfortunate in that it tends to bypass dozens of other excellent cover illustrators whose work, often reminiscent of Rockwell's, filled in the gaps between Rockwell's much anticipated appearances. And though it might seem, to his millions of devoted fans, blasphemous to suggest, a few of these covers were quite as good, some might even say better, than those Rockwell produced. One of these illustrators, at least on a par with Rockwell in many ways, was Stevan Dohanos.

Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1951,
Stevan Dohanos
The temptation is to compare Rockwell and Dohanos. It's much more revealing however to contrast their work. The masthead was the same, also the style and content, (the Post made sure of that); but there similarities end. Rockwell was older than Dohanos, an Ohio native born in 1907 near Loraine (on Lake Erie). Perhaps because of his age, Rockwell (born in 1894) had a kinder, gentler point of view...much more nineteenth century. Whereas Rockwell found loving humor, Dohanos used satire and underlined stereotypes. Dohanos painted the American culture of the era, often unsympathetically. No one ever accused Dohanos of sentimentality. Rockwell would paint what were basically realistic comic strips often in the mode of Dagwood and Blondie. Dohanos' work, if we are to use the comic strip vernacular, was more in line with Walt Kelly's Pogo. There was an edge to it.

Dohanos was interested in places and things revealing the peculiarly American point of view and way of life. If there were people involved, they were often depicted as obvious stereotypes, always used to make a point, rather than for their entertainment value. Often he had a habit of depicting figures from the back, disallowing the viewer to make any sentimental connection to the character. Dohanos studiously avoided the cute, the sweet, or merely amusing presentation in favor of images which spoke volumes about who we were, how we lived, how we thought, and what it meant to be an American in the mid-twentieth century. Although the points he made were never harsh, they sometimes weren't always particularly kind either.

Patriotic Band Concert, 1951, Stevan Dohanos
Some would say that the line between fine art and illustration is a delicate one of no great significance today. Rockwell's recent, gradual acceptance as a fine artist is evidence of this. But fifty years ago, any artist who tried to cross over would likely argue it was a murky, muddy, no-man's-land--a virtual minefield between two opposing art camps. In the 1960s, as the artwork on Post covers was gradually replaced by photos, Dohanos and others were forced to move on.  Giving up illustration for "fine" art wasn't easy. Old habits, old ways of thinking died hard. Some made it. Others didn't. For Dohanos, this crossover manifested itself in still-lifes, often depicting a quieter, more solemn salute to Americana in tempera and watercolor rather than the oils and simple, literal imagery demanded by his old employer.  Dohanos never became a household name, either as an illustrator. Perhaps there's room for only one name in the collective American mind in that category. Perhaps that's just as well though, because the major body of his life's work would seem to place him much more comfortably in the category of yet another famous painter of the American lifestyle--Edward Hopper.
Home Improvement, 1953, Stevan Dohanos

No comments:

Post a Comment