Visions of other worlds

The Outer Reach, by Vincent Di Fate. Courtesy of The Society of Illustrators
The extraordinary power of the human imagination is on display in “Masters of the Fantastic,” an exhibit organized by The Society of Illustrators
By Virge Randall

Just in time for the final season of “Game of Thrones,” The Society of Illustrators, that vest-pocket charmer on East 63rd Street, a mere Prada purse’s throw from Bloomingdale’s, is hosting “Masters of the Fantastic,” a comprehensive show about sci-fi and fantasy.

Open until June 8, this exhibit of some 100 pieces of art and ephemera is an eye-opening spin through the human (and inhuman) imagination.

And that’s exactly the point of the show, according to its curator, Vincent Di Fate, a collector and artist of 50 years’ tenure. (His detailed imaginings of technology earned a commission from the government to conceptualize body armor for the military, and he also illustrated the first fantasy story by George R.R. Martin in Analog magazine.)

Things That Don’t Exist

The uniting principle of the show is on display at the exhibit entrance. On one side is a huge poster of Interstellar by John C. Berkey, artist of the Star Wars Trilogy posters. Facing it is an oil painting by narrative artist Donato Giancola, of his most treasured work, “The Hobbit Expulsion” of Lord of the Rings.

From space technology to magic, plus aliens, monsters, and robots, what unites them all, Di Fate said, is “things that don’t exist except in the mind or eye of the illustrator.” A lot of people don’t get the difference between sci-fi and fantasy, he added, “TV Guide still lists Dracula as sci-fi!”

The show is organized into five categories: Strange Places and Fabulous Lands; Fantastic Creatures; Perilous Journeys; Humanoids; and Powers of Mind. The art was created for book and magazine covers, stories and movie posters. Some pieces are concept works for magazines and movies.

The Evolution of a Genre

The treatments are as varied as the subjects themselves. In Powers of Mind, you’ll see two different witches: an impressionistic painting of a gloating Wicked Witch of the West, and Peter de Seve’s playful New Yorker cover of a black kitten in a pet store window catching the eye of a witch astride a broom. Nearby is a Victorian vision of possession in “Mephisto,” a detailed turn-of-the-century pen and ink work by Joseph Clement Coll, and “The People: No Different Flesh” a 1969 oil painting by Hector Guarrido of a spaceship contacting a child.

“We were looking for a good historical balance,” said Di Fate, “to show how the genre developed and where it is now.” He points to the show’s biggest “gets:” a delicate watercolor by 19th century artist George Cruikshank and a pen and ink work by Winsor McCay of the early 20th century.

The power of the human imagination, the artists’ extraordinarily detailed visions, is clearest in Strange Places and Lands, and Perilous Journeys, which are both dominated by space technology. Di Fate’s “Starfire” is a fully realized rocket ship in the process of landing. Berkey’s “Major Operation” depicts an orbiting space station surrounded by smaller vehicles. It takes a moment to notice the Red Cross on it’s top — it’s a space hospital, and the vehicles around it are ambulances.

A Spectrum of Emotions

People of a less technical bent will enjoy Fantastic Creatures, which features dragons and aliens spiced with a helping of cheesecake. “Onslaught of the Druid Girls” is a classic pulp magazine cover — a busty, topless blonde astride a flying griffin, waving like Marilyn Monroe arriving at a USO show. In “Morning Envoy,” by Boris Vallejo, another busty blonde with ridiculously skimpy armor rides another beast, while nearby, a brunette in distress is the contribution of Julie Bell, Vallejo’s wife. (This show makes clear that women work in this genre as well).

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Giancola’s work in Humanoids features the unexpectedly moving “Despair,” in which a woman consoles a dejected robot with her embrace. Its slumped posture, cold, shiny finish and gleaming brass joints contrast with the warm glow of the woman’s skin and hair. It is remarkably poignant, almost a high-tech Pieta.

Although two years in the making, the final version of the show was put together in about two months due to a last minute opening in the Society’s exhibition calendar. Di Fate calls the timing with the “Game of Thrones” final season “a lucky coincidence,’ since the series is the latest and largest expansion of interest in the fantasy genre. Illustrators are busier than ever, he pointed out. “The opportunities for artists are changing, and this show reveals that as well,” Di Fate said, “Look magazine and the Saturday Evening Post aren’t around, but there are movies, and video games. CGI wouldn’t be possible without illustrators to imagine the settings and the characters.”