Illustration, Illuminated: Turning a Critical Eye Toward the History of Illustration

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Is the illustration field finally primed to get the critical eye—and appreciation—it deserves? Learn about the history of illustration in the academic world.The history of illustration is finally becoming a topic of academic discourse.

Illustration by James Yang

Back in 2010 in this column, I commented on the state of research and writing about the field of illustration, which I called its “missing critical history.” A survey of contemporary illustration had just been published, the latest in a long line of similar books, and it seemed to represent another missed opportunity to engage with the practice at a deeper level. I wasn’t referring to how-to books aimed at the student or freelance illustrator—illustration has some good ones—but historical and critical studies of illustration that treat the subject as a potentially serious art form, which I have always believed it to be.

In the years since then, I haven’t been paying so much attention to illustration, though I remain a keen reader of Varoom! magazine, published by the Association of Illustrators in London, which I cited as a positive sign in my Print column. Then, last fall, I was invited to Rhode Island School of Design to deliver a keynote at the sixth annual symposium convened by a group of academics and scholars who form the Illustration Research Network, based in the U.K. The symposium’s spectacularly ambitious and provocative title was “The Illustrator as Public Intellectual.”

I was so intrigued I agreed to take part immediately. It was an eye-opening event, attracting more than 30 participants from Canada, the U.K., Germany, Australia, India and Lebanon, as well as the U.S. In the manner of academic conferences, speakers presented papers organized by panels with sub-themes such as “Challenging Professional Identities and Roles,” “Visual Satirist as Public Intellectual” and “Illustrators Usurping Writers.” While a handful of well-known practitioners—Seymour Chwast, Nora Krug, Anita Kunz—took part in an informal roundtable discussion addressing cartooning and illustration as modes of authorship, most of the contributions were by educators who publish their research. These presentations were of a consistently high standard, and the conference was one of the most stimulating and inspiring I have attended in a while.

What it brought home to me forcefully is that in the past few years illustration has become a field in which there is now a concerted international effort to establish benchmarks for the academic study of the subject, and to challenge perceptions elsewhere in academia that illustration is anything less than a fully fledged discipline with its own history and theories of practice.

RISD went out on a limb to bring the symposium, usually held in the U.K., to the U.S., and it deserved a bigger audience—the number of attendees probably didn’t exceed the number of speakers.

Any nonacademic practitioner who stopped by would have been excited by the intellectual energy now pulsing through the field—but bridging the divide between academic symposia and professional conferences, and exposing illustrators to this kind of investigation and inquiry, is a challenge. American illustrators already have the big biennial ICON conference first staged in 1999.

This offers a plethora of workshops, as well as talks by stars of illustration, and it focuses on the practical and professional needs of working illustrators. It’s not the kind of event, on the face of it, where a presenter would have the temerity to unveil a paper titled “Metapictures: Signposts to an Illustrated Public Space,” as Stuart Medley from Edith Cowan University in Perth did at RISD. Yet the likes of ICON would be greatly enriched if it were possible.

In my “missing history” column, I complained about the lack of a textbook attempting an integrated international history of illustration, pointing to how the study of graphic design had benefited from the arrival, in 1983, of Philip Meggs’ A History of Graphic Design, and from other general histories that eventually followed it. At the RISD conference, I learned that this shortage is now being addressed with vigor. Since 2014, a mammoth research effort has been underway by a team of more than 40 writers, coordinated by main editor Susan Doyle, head of illustration at RISD, with the assistance of Jaleen Grove and Whitney Sherman. Fully international in scope, The History of Illustration is now written and in production, and is scheduled to be published by Fairchild Books in early 2017.

If the daunting task of interweaving so many contributions lives up to the editors’ fighting talk on the project’s website—“illustration has always been the most pervasive and popular of art forms in the world … and is arguably the most influential”—then the book stands an excellent chance of decisively expanding our understanding of the field. My only hope is that the text and layouts aren’t orientated in content and style so far toward the needs of teaching (a tagline describes the initiative as “an educational resource for students, teachers and practitioners”) that the book neglects to propel its message outward to broader audiences in design, communication and the visual arts.

If illustration really is as pervasive, popular and influential as they say, then everyone should know a lot more about it. But the signs of outreach are certainly encouraging.

The editors took the trouble to introduce the project at ICON 8 in 2014, and in July they will speak about the book again, as it nears completion, at ICON 9 in Austin, TX.

Another welcome initiative was the 2014 launch of the Journal of Illustration, a twice-yearly, peer-reviewed publication edited by Desdemona McCannon, a British illustrator and academic. Three issues have appeared, and as I write, two more are scheduled to arrive at the same time. In the first issue, Doyle describes the “general lack of understanding [of illustration] by the academic community outside of illustration,” and sets out the case for reform. “I have been asked repeatedly by colleagues as to what distinguishes illustration as a discipline,” she notes, “or even more negatively, ‘Is it a discipline?’”

Illustrators in every branch of the profession would benefit from the elevation of the activity to the status of a fully accepted academic discipline, regarded as a branch of knowledge in its own right. But this growth can only occur through the processes and platforms of academic inquiry and discourse: research, writing, conferences, journals, textbooks, and plenty of them.

Catching up with these still-new developments in the study of illustration—we are only talking about the last three or four years, after decades of existence as a professional practice—I could see what a milestone, and perhaps even a tipping point, the discipline has reached.

For longtime watchers of graphic design, it’s striking to observe the pressure drop that has occurred within what we might broadly term graphic design studies (history, criticism, discourse). Graphic design wanted the same historical credibility for itself that illustration now seeks. This drive started earlier, if we take Meggs’ book as an indicator, and by the 1990s the discipline seemed to be getting what its more forward-looking members were convinced it needed. In 1994, for instance, the journal Visible Language published three—yes, three—simultaneous issues devoted to “critical histories of graphic design.”

That indicated a field of studies on a roll, full of vitality and hope for change. But two decades later the intellectual and publishing momentum hasn’t been sustained, despite the numbers studying graphic design, and few believe today that graphic design history will someday achieve acceptance as a standalone academic discipline. How could it when graphic design, as it was historically construed, has become so unsure of what it is now, this uncertainty extending even to its often-contested name?

Illustration, on the other hand, has everything to play for. It’s as ubiquitous as these researchers insist, and it can clearly be discussed in properly academic terms.

In the span of ideas encompassed by The Illustrator as Public Intellectual, and in the enthusiasm of its speakers, the symposium reminded me of graphic design events I attended 20 years ago.

There is the same sense of deep commitment to the subject, a pleasure in belonging to a network of colleagues engaged in a shared mission, and an energy to carry out the work that remains to be done. It will be crucial, though, to get the message out and entice practicing illustrators, and also designers who use and value illustration, into the public discussion.


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