War is a constant presence in our media. Violence and protests and shady government dealings make the headlines everyday, and the consequences of these current battles will likely be felt for generations. Where did all of this start? Why have we been saddled with violence just feeling like another inevitability?
The Ancient Book of Myth and War from Red Window and AdHouse books offers a series of illustrations about the elemental beginnings of war, or at least its roots in our Western culture. Imagery of Greek gods and warriors feature prominently in the book, with the ratio of spears and swords far outnumbering the appearance of handguns. This historical take helps to offset the seriousness of the subject. Instead of gore and grief, comically tragic warriors, mythical monsters, and stylish abstractions recall battles. This is not a glorification or simplification of war, but rather a team using the history and power of the subject for a series of bold, experimental paintings.
All four artists who contributed to the book are colleagues at Pixar, and their work is saturated with the kind of retro, fluid ease in chunky brushstrokes, soft bleeds, and cartoony figures that must just be in the drinking water there. All of the artists also seem quite taken with Picasso, making heavy use of his imagery of maniacal bulls, multi-colored fractured faces, and jaunty abstraction. Media ranged from pen and ink, to water media, and digital.
Individually, the artists explore varied themes. Scott Morse took a serious approach, drawing on myths from many cultures, and investing his paintings with heavy symbolism. Morse also contributed a few modern war pieces, including a disturbing, though visually stunning, painting of a young child soldier killing under the watchful gaze of his father. This piece further referenced the manifestations of ancient war with use of the word "insurgent." His lovely "The Hand-Off" makes expert use of the "impressionistic atmosphere" of wet-on-wet technique, and tells a fascinating story in one single moment.
Lou Romano focused mainly on Greek mythology, with several appearances of Medusa, swords and shields, and the mighty Zeus in blocky, primitive forms. His "Trojan Horse" is an amazingly simple and evocative use of big, angular shapes and gradient color. Straying outside the Mediterranean, Romano's depiction of Durga, a Hindu goddess, is a gorgeous balancing act of bold color and composition, and one of the best pieces in the book.
Don Shank contributed only a few paintings, but his lovely abstractions of spindly lines and meditative color fields fit with the Cubist-inspired motif. His "Archway Usher," of a lone figure sheparding geese on a sunny day, was particularly nice, and gave a peaceful and inviting intermission in a book of aggression and strife.
Nate Wragg illustrated the many trials of Pathetos, the sweetly inept warrior in the vein of some bumbling Odysseus. With a short little body, beady eyes, and pointy nose reminiscent of the Little Caesar's Pizza icon, Pathetos navigates an adorably gruesome world of stylish, big-eyed yetis, hydra, and even the perils of the beautiful Venus.
Each of the thirty five paintings is set with a short explanatory paragraph. More so than in their visual work, the respective writing styles really set the four artists apart. Morse and Romano opt for a more serious, poetic brevity in explanation, and include notes on their process such as thoughts about what types of watercolor they used, or the benefits of a certain technique. Shank offers quick and maybe slightly sarcastic explanations that are an entertaining complement to his gorgeous art. His titles such as, "Map of the First Galactic War (Article 1)" give backstory to abstract paintings, and work to fit them inside the war theme. Wragg invests the most in his written contribution, telling a complete story of Pathetos and his numerous botched encounters with various monsters. This narrative gives the book a strong momentum and humor, and seeing poor Pathetos meet one gruesome end after another is weirdly endearing.
The Ancient Book of Myth and War is available through Red Window and AdHouse Books.