“How does it feel?
How does it feel?
To be on your own?!
With no direction home?!
How does it feel?”
Okay, onto this installment’s topic…
Do you know the name?
A month ago, I couldn’t say I did.
I had come across his work and his name in passing, without ever really internalizing them. A month or so ago I picked up a lavish Edgar Allen Poe tome, and the most memorable and impressive thing about it was this one Virgil Finlay drawing.
It set me off it did.
The compulsive in me.
The collector in me.
The one for whom… nothing is forgotten. Nothing is ever forgotten.
Least of all the fleeting, tortured gasps of genius… we call art.
Virgil Finlay was an artist of the early days of the 20th century. Perpetually underpaid, he crafted time-consuming masterpieces of pen and ink (done one laborious drop at a time, no photoshop for him, no short-cuts, what you see in his drawings is a level of detail that could only be called… staggering) for the popular, but cheap mass medium, of penny a word pulps.
Hailed as a master in his own lifetime, he was the sought after artist for many up and coming writers, making their name in the pulps… among them Harlan Ellison and Robert Bloch.
His work decades later, even to I… who am somewhat informed of the work of great artists past and present, is revelatory.
It is the work of someone… compelled.
“We do these things not because they are permitted.
We do them because we are compelled.”
—Rorschach in Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN
There are various Virgil Finlay art books but only five that I consider… must have additions to any art lover’s library. The five books being in chronological order THE BOOK OF VIRGIL FINAY (1975)
, VIRGIL FINLAY’S STRANGE SCIENCE (1992)
, VIRGIL FINLAY’S WOMEN OF THE AGES (1992)
, VIRGIL FINLAY’S PHANTASMS (1993)
, VIRGIL FINLAY’S FAR BEYOND (1994)
It is testament to Finlay’s prodigious talent and output that these five books, over a 130pages, each chock full of full page Finlay art, that there is surprisingly little overlap of material. Each book offers something essential not found in the others, and as such it’s an impressive and, I feel, highly worthwhile quintet of books, and overview of an artist, and his art. And they all leave you with an indelible interest to read the short stories (typically) that Finlay’s illustrations complemented.
If you have to choose one book to start with, the well named THE BOOK OF VIRGIL FINLAY is a good one. Compiled by Art Collector Gerry De La Ree, he had more to do with keeping Finlay’s name alive, and championing him in the early 70s and bringing his largely forgotten work (mostly left to rot in the browning pulp pages of the 30s and 40s that they adorned),to a new generation. Much as Francis M. Nevins unflagging writings and praise helped lionize, justly, the work of Cornell Woolrich to modern readers far removed from his pulp heyday.
Indeed Edgar Allen Poe himself, dismissed in his own life time and years later, owes his current elevated literary status to a biography done on him in the early 20th century. Again by a collector and a fan. So the importance of the fan, the collector, the patron, the lover of art… can not be overstated.
Because without this person to glorify the work, it runs the high risk, in an always mercenary market, of rotting away.
Gerry De La Ree, is not Virgil Finlay’s only champion, but his 1975 book marks him as one of those pivotal voices, whose work has helped preserve Finlay from that most common curse of men… that we and our works are forgotten.
In 1975 Gerry De La Ree’s book was both eulogy and clarion call to his friend and idol, it was testament… proof against his friend being forgotten. And it worked, because 36 years after the publication of THE BOOK OF VIRGIL FINLAY, I’m talking about the book, and the man, and his art. And it spurred me to pick up the other 4 essential Finlay books.
And I think, it will you.
THE BOOK OF VIRGIL FINLAY is not the best book of the five, (this being the Avon Books Softcover I’m referring to, I’ve never seen a copy of Gerry De La Ree’s Self Published Hardcover) construction-wise it suffers from poor paper stock and even poorer binding. If you can find a copy today that does not suffer from browning, mildewed pages, or crumbing binding and evaporated glue (I have one copy, that basically turned into a pile of looseleaf pages as soon as I tried to look through it) then get it and hold onto it.
Because poor construction aside what TBOVF does offer, that none of the other books does, is a chronological overview of Finlay’s artwork that covers the years from 1933 to 1968.
It’s amazing to see that over this 30+ year period, how consistently excellent and varied and innovative and experimental is Finlay’s output. Beyond the constants of masterful detail, his imagination makes each drawing fresh, and eschewing stereotypes.
So THE BOOK OF VIRGIL FINLAY is a must own book, if you can get it in any thing approaching collectible condition. Strongly Recommended. We’ll cover the other four books in an upcoming post.
“I make no claim that these are the best of Finlay, though certainly many of them rank with his best and, hopefully will demonstrate the meticulous craftsmanship of this man who took such pride in his art despite the inferior publications for which he often was working.”
–From Gerry De La Ree’s Introduction to THE BEST OF VIRGIL FINLAY