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September 2007

Boris vs. Frazetta

One of the great cultural divides of our time is “Who is the better artist, Boris or Frazetta?” Not a simple question and often the subject of heated debate. Some would claim that neither is real artist. Boris and Frazetta are science fiction illustrators. But both have pursued more traditional themes including the figure, mythology, history and stories from the Bible. Sure Boris and Frazetta’s primary motifs may include the Battle of Mordor, but is this really any less lofty a subject than that of many classical paintings? Isn’t science fiction just modern mythology?

The story of science fiction is primarily the story of one magazine — Astounding Stories later to be renamed Analog. J.R.R. Tolkien dominates modern fantasy and science fiction art can nowhere escape the influence of Frank Frazetta. It’s been said that Frazetta is the most influential artist of the second half of the 20th century. He does have a tremendous number of imitators. If you haven’t been moved by a Frank Frazetta painting you’ve missed out on a lot of what it means to be a human being. That Molly Hatchet album cover. Weird Science. All those airbrushed vans.

Illustration doesn’t have the stigma it had when Frazetta was in his prime. I’m sure most artists today would be thrilled to have their work on the cover of a science fiction magazine and wouldn’t feel like sellouts at all. The whole fine art/illustration divide is over. Even Michelangelo worked on commission and pretty much did as he was told. Maybe the covers of Creepy and Eerie magazines were the Sistine Chapel of their time. Or maybe not, but the Vatican never found the good sense to commission Frank Frazetta to paint any cathedral ceilings.

When Frazetta does do fine art it’s often religious themes and nudes. I guess you’d have to consider his doodles fine art too. He does a lot of doodles. Frazetta often paints just to express himself and not just to please a client. At one point his book cover illustrations were so popular that publishers would seek out manuscripts to match his paintings. It’s a moot point to deride Frazetta’s art because it’s been reproduced on album covers and dime novels. Today they’re framed and hanging in museums — so there. Frank Frazetta represents a fine tradition of Italian craftsmanship that flourished so well in America. If he hadn’t taken up drawing he’d probably have ended up baking delicious cannolies at the Jersey shore.

But what about Boris? Frazetta takes pride in the fact that he works straight from his imagination while Boris’ technique is much more traditional. If you strip away all the dragons and winged fairies he’s basically just a figure painter. Like most successful artists Boris paints the same thing over and over — perfectly toned, beautiful people in wildly dramatic poses and various stages of undress. Boris posed for many of his paintings himself — once as a strapping, young beefcake, now more likely as Merlin or some wise, old king. Many of his models are famous bodybuilders and are always rendered with exacting detail. Boris is so unpretentious that he rarely, if ever, strives for high art. Yet his most compelling work is his purest figure and animal paintings. Shockingly underpriced, at the time of this writing it’s possible to buy an original oil painting directly from Boris’ website for as little as $600.

The reason you don’t see many Boris paintings airbrushed on vans is because his technique is so masterful it’s difficult to reproduce. Frazetta might frown on Boris for relying so heavily on models, photography, tracing etc., but that’s basically the way paintings have been produced for centuries. Even Vermeer used the camera obscura.

So who’s the better artist Frank Frazetta or Boris Vellejo? I don’t know. That kind of value judgment is totally subjective. But I will say this — Frazetta has played his cards right as far as his legacy goes. The artist and his supportive family have always known Frazetta’s paintings are priceless. He always kept the originals and now, through the support of fans and collectors, there’s a Frank Frazetta museum in the Pocono's. Boris is such a down to earth, work-a-day artist that his paintings lack that certain je ne sais quoi that’s so critical in great art. But Boris is, undoubtedly, a great painter. With his failing health, including a long-unchecked thyroid condition and several strokes, Frazetta’s career is coming to a close. Unable to use his right hand he’s learned to draw with his left. Frank Frazetta’s legacy is established. He is our Leonardo, a successor of both Rockwell and Pollock. Let’s hope, that centuries from now, when future generations look back to the art of our time they will be looking through the eyes of an evolved human civilization and not those of post-apocalyptic mutants. Both of which have been painted many times by Boris and Frazetta.

Stephen Smith