When does a picture from a pulp magazine deserve a spot in a museum alongside exquisite fine art?
Maybe when it takes the viewer into another world with its rich composition, beautiful technique and evocative detail. Such are many works in “Fantastic Illustration from the Korshak Collection,” an exhibition on view at the Chazen Museum of Art through Feb. 4.
The original paintings and drawings in the show are from the Florida-based collector Stephen Korshak, son of the pioneering science fiction publisher Erle Korshak.
Though they span the 1890s to the late 1970s, these are the precursors to an entire world of contemporary fantasy art — in film, computer and video games and other genres, said Andrew Stevens, distinguished curator of prints, drawings and photographs at the Chazen.
With the touring Korshak collection show, “We thought it would be a wonderful change of pace to bring these in and show something that’s art history, but a side of art history we don’t think of very much, because it’s such a part of our lives,” Stevens said. “We might not even recognize it for the things it says about our culture and our times.”
European works, which often illustrate classic, well-known stories, are among the 50-some pieces on view. American-made works in the show tend to be for “things that are being illustrated for the first time,” Stevens said.
Included in the show are “several illustrations by a guy who really makes Edgar Rice Burroughs famous, James Allen St. John,” he said. “Even Burroughs was obliged to say that he thought his stories sold better for having St. John illustrate them.
“It’s a very exciting style of illustration: guys in loincloths, whether it’s ‘John Carter of Mars’ or Tarzan, slaying a variety of demons, and saving the girl,” he said. “It really sets the stage for an entire century of that kind of illustration.”
The show includes “sword and sorcery” as well as sci-fi works. Along with art from books and book covers, many come from mid-century American pulp magazines — with names like “Amazing Stories,” “Weird Tales,” “Fantastic Adventures” and “Wonder Stories.”
“It’s pretty interesting to watch the progression. The artists get more and more sophisticated, and more and more subtle in the way that they illustrate these things,” Stevens said.
The artists used media ranging from pen and ink to gouache, tempera, oil and acrylic paints.
“I love this stuff, I do,” Stevens said.
“I have to admit I was excited to see a lot of it, because they’re the covers I grew up with, and illustrated books that I enjoyed a lot over the years.
“… I can’t imagine that an image that sticks with us from childhood all the way through adulthood, as many of these illustrations have, is not an important thing to think about,” he said. “Art is about culture, and these are an important part of culture for a lot of people.”