I’ve been asked by many students lately, “what is the future of illustration”? I usually refuse to answer on the grounds that I may incriminate myself by revealing an inability to be as wise or prescient as I am made out. After all it is hard enough predicting what’s going to happen tomorrow, no less months or years down the road. But today I’m going to go out on a limb. I’ve decided that the next big thing is one of the oldest illustration conceits ever: Anthropomorphism, “the attribution of uniquely human characteristics to non-human creatures and beings, natural and supernatural phenomena, material states and objects or abstract concepts.”
"Disarmament Conference", illustration by Fritz Eichenberg, 1977
On what do I base this pronouncement? Well, in hard times — and we can all agree the economy is not making life easy — people take refuge in fantasy and derive hope (or at least relief) from satire. These ingredients have historically resulted in anthropomorphic depiction in art and illustration.
Illustration by Will Rannells, for Life Magazine, 1927
But where does this tendency come from? Observe the platypus, whose prehistoric ancestor emerged from the ooze millions of years ago near what is now northern Australia and is arguably an inspiration for anthropomorphic illustration. This aquatic mammal, with beaver body and duckbill face may have been Mother Nature’s attempt at satire, an early graphic commentary about the state of the primordial world. If this seems absurd, then consider the possibility that nature was playing with disparate forms, not unlike an illustrator sketching out an idea, never intending to end up with this design until becoming curiously smitten by the creature’s strange physiognomy, then seeing in it a metaphor or symbol on which to build a global narrative. Is this too far-fetched?
Granted the theory has no scientific basis in fact (or even a toe-hold in that dubious pseudo-science), yet it is worth considering that animals have characteristics that are easily used to illustrate human foibles, and some visionary at some time in history understood and exploited that. It can be proved, after all, that prehistoric man used animals as much for art as sustenance. Evidence of early interest in depicting animals pictorially can clearly be found on the walls of the earliest cave dwellings. Depictions in primitive cultures suggest that possibly the first attempt at interpretative, if not caricature art, integrated animals in transformative ways.
Although these primitives had no conceptual impetus to substitute man and animal, as the brain developed its powers of contemplation and imagination, animals clearly came to embody and mirror certain human traits. It was, therefore, only a short leap from the artist accurately representing nature and animals found in the wild, to transferring their familiar traits onto man. Art has long been, both a reflection and overt means of revealing the human condition. So as man becomes more conscious of the inner self, animals are used to express a range of characteristics, from the spiritual to the emotional.
The art of anthropomorphism is almost as old as image making. The practice certainly dates back to early Egyptian slaves who poked visual jabs at their respective masters on scraps of papyrus or pieces of stone, veiling and protecting themselves by substituting kindred animal characteristics for human ones. The master never knew he was the butt of the joke, but the slaves understood. From then on, animals bore the symbolic weight of human folly. Whether employed for satire, comedy or fantasy, animals (i.e. manimals) have long been effective metaphoric representations as criticism and commentary, because rather than target a single figure for ridicule, a particular animal carries the weight of all character types.
Illustration by Lou Beach for The New York Times, 2006
Somewhere along the sweep of history anthropomorphism was practiced for the sheer joy of giving animals human characteristics — and vice versa. Few things trigger such visceral response as animals dressed in human garb. The incongruity of a beast acting civilized rarely fails to get a laugh. I recall Lou Beach’s sensual bunny (published in The New York Times science section) in a turn-of-the-century bathing suit, holding a lit cigarette, taking a rest from prodigiously promulgating her offspring. This image may or may not provide any viable human analogy, but it is a delight to ponder what the scene is all about. More comprehensible, but no less absurdly enjoyable, veteran cartoonist Ronald Searle’s lion king is the perfect evocation of how the king of beasts might be if given the regal human trappings.
"The Situation is Hopeless", illustration by Ronald Searle, 1980
How did the lion become so regal? Who bestowed on it the king’s mantel? Myths, fables and all manner of imaginative stimuli have over centuries ascribed particular traits to beasts, that in turn have somehow achieved legitimacy, like the high stature of the lion, or the wisdom of the owl (which symbolizes learning), or the majesty of the eagle (which exudes power). Often the illustrator does not follow the familiar stereotypes. Sometimes its enough just to make the animals fit into a personal metaphor — the elegant dog, the monarchial duck, the sly fox. Sometimes culture has invested animals with meaning, yet most of the time the artist does this.
"Mr. Vulture", illustration by J.J. Granville, 1858
When the nineteenth century cartoonist J.J. Grandville depicted members of nineteenth century French society — merchants, politicians, and clergy — as various and sundry kinds of fowl, the reason was more often than not because the actual individual(s) he lampooned looked unmistakably like the animal in question. But when Ed Sorel filled a New York City subway car with a menagerie of types it was because it is possible to look at everyone on the morning ride and mentally turn them into animals. No doubt on any given train, like Noah’s storied arc, there are two (or more) of every animal type.