Cipe Pineles, Ben Shahn and the Birth of Contemporary Editorial Illustration

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In 1958, art director Cipe Pineles gave a speech (excerpted below) honoring the legendary artist Ben Shahn, who was then receiving the prestigious Medal of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA). Pineles describes how Shahn deserves great credit for pioneering a revolutionary idea in editorial art: the use of non-commercial artists for illustration assignments.

 

Looking back at the speech now, I come to a very different conclusion. It is Cipe Pineles herself who deserved the honor of revolutionary, by making a break from the way illustration assignments were assigned before her. By hiring artists (commercial or non-commercial) as thinkers and not merely as page decorators, as had been previously done, she unleashed the visionary and communicative potential of her visual collaborators. The breakthrough was not in hiring artists, it was in requesting art. Ben Shahn, no doubt, a brilliant artist of commercial and non-commercial work, was the fortunate first person she called upon with this new approach to commissioning illustration. He, like artists after him, was asked to create content as well as form.


Cipe Pineles won the AIGA Honor posthumously in 1996.

 

 

Ben Shahn and the Artist as Illustrator

 

“Some years ago I tried an experiment. I wasn’t the first American art director to introduce the work of painters into mass publications, but I did have an opportunity to do it on an important and consistent scale. I was the art director of a new magazine called Seventeen. It was then a stimulating publication edited by Helen Valentine, who had discovered a new world of young people. People who didn’t yet know that all magazine illustrations had to be made by Jon Whitcome, Al Parker and Bradshaw Crandall, and who hadn’t enough experience to know what an acceptable illustration should be.


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These young people seemed to represent as nearly an uncorrupted and unprejudiced audience as one could find. I thought there was an opportunity to give them a new experience in seeing, that was spoiled for an old generation. It seemed to me, that if magazine fiction pages were illustrated by painters and that no fuss was made about or special attention was called to that fact, the readers would either accept or reject them without being challenged to accept them as Art. And maybe some young people would be moved by these paintings.


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At that time, all fiction to be illustrated in Seventeen was commissioned to illustrators in the following way: the fiction editor would type out the specific passage to be illustrated. This passage was arrived at through conferences, and represented the best editorial opinion on just which morsel in the story was the most likely to lure the reader into reading the piece.

 

My idea was to allow the artist to read as well as to illustrate the story and even to choose the part he wished to paint a picture of. This was an unthinkable proposal, but I was new on that job, and insisted that the artist be allowed to make his own contribution, on the wild theory that he might have a more valid instinct about pictures than a fiction editor could have. 

 

It might surprise you to know that most painters are frightened by a publishing assignment. They usually want to be told just exactly what it is that you want them to do. Then, when told, they protest that you’ve taken away their freedom. At this point, they will either run away to the safety of their studios or do a job they would be ashamed to put their signature on.

 

I wasn’t going to let them off that easy.

 

The plan was to give the artist a story, let him decide what to paint, and insist that we would publish the picture only if he liked it well enough to exhibit it in his own gallery. It would have to stand on its own as a painting—even when it was divorced from the magazine pages it would appear in.

 

Obviously, the only way a program like this could work was by example. I needed a fellow conspirator. A painter of stature, integrity and courage.

 

So I asked Ben to help.

 

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I remember the first story he did. It concerned a fourteen-year-old boy, a keen tennis player, who is ashamed of his mother because she is very pregnant, and he is determined to keep this fact from his friends. To do this he keeps them from using his family tennis court, which up to the time of the pregnancy had been the center of social activity.

 

I gave Ben a two week deadline. He could do anything he pleased, in any shape and any number of colors.

 

There was one restriction. The hero and his friends must be clearly recognizable as youngsters in their teens. 


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Three days later the finished job came in and it was plenty clear. There was no hero. There were no friends to be seen. Instead, stretching across two pages in a long. thin picture, was the most deserted, clearest, biggest tennis court in a brilliant colour, marked with the sharpest, neatest, traditional white lines. It was a breathtaking beautiful shock of a painting to go with the story. It was also a wonderful painting if you never heard of the story.”


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“With paintings like [this] for a beginning, the success of the project was assured. Ben had opened the way for many more painters to work in the magazine, made it easier for other publishers to open their pages to the work of non-commercial artists.

 

 

Further Observation

 

Cipe Pineles was married to William Golden, who, too, was a legendary art director. Golden worked for CBS and commissioned many memorable illustrations from Ben Shahn.

 

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