Steven Heller | Essays

In Praise of the Anthropomorphic

"Disarmament Conference", illustration by Fritz Eichenberg, 1977 

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.” 

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.

Steven Heller’s new book is out: Illustration: A Visual History, co-authored with Seymour Chwast and published by Abrams.

Posted in: Illustration

Comments [14]

I love your insight Mr. Heller, but I hope you are wrong about this. I feel there will once again be room for the fantastical "hero," I just hope that it does not come back in the form of cute animal heads on human bodies.

Obama- The Enchanted Frog ?

SVA illustration students would be well served by looking into the "designer as author" program that yields some great talent. Animals as concepts? Nephew, please.

the golden 3 ("good, fast and cheap.. art directors pls pick two") has been around... as has the phrase "illustration is a profession for young people".. but i would stress to young entrants the importance of diversifying your portfolios... ceramics, kitchen design, unlicensed plumbing, tax evasion. whatever works. even dog-walking.
felix sockwell

I have been illustrating for over 20 years and have recently embarked on re-inventing my working practice.
In order to re-invent myself I devised the name THE DOGLIVED "DEVIL GOD" backwards.
I devised the name in an attempt to allow creation and allow myself to tackle subjects that I feel uncomfortable with and that would not direct the developing work in a restricted commercial direction.
I have allowed myself to invent things visually and this includes hybrids of humans, creatures and objects.
As a strating point I have researched and enjoyed visual inspiration from Greek mythologies and Egyptian art.
I welcome this pediction by Mr Heller and I hope to tackle the genre in a unique and fresh way, I don't know where this will lead.
The response by commissioners to the work so far is very positve and the subjects that I am been offered to work with are very different than anything that I have been offered before, I am thankfully not required to produce illustrations of little business men doing business with other little business men.
The greatest inspiration for my personal changes has been Brad Holland who I have recently re-discovered. I had a period of time where I chose to ignore and dismiss his work, my error was that I was seeing too many poor copies of his work by inferior illustrators in the UK and art directors being fooled by copyist. I have looked more at his work and why I think he produces what he does.
I am coming over to New York in January as part of my research into my re-invention and it would be a dream come true if I could entice Mr Heller and Mr Holland to allow me to treat them to a lunch or evening meal to discuss a great many things?
Please take a look at the anthropomorphic work that I am developing at;
There is some adult content so be warned.
Brent hardy-Smith

Clothes don't make you human.

When I was learning animation, I studied old Tom and Jerry and Chuck Jones' Looney Tunes cartoon. I then realized how human these characters are. When they are surprised or when they are in love, they expressed those emotions with body language and facial expressions to the extreme, in a way humans which they can, but couldn't, because we have to restrain ourselves. May be that is why when we were children we can relate to them, and wondered why adults had to keep up their appearances and restrain their feelings so much.

I know we are talking about an illustration, a still image instead of a moving ones. But why would a society that has grown accustomed to these animal cartoon characters, capable of being so much more "human" than we are, want to revert back to an image of an animal head being wrapped around uncomfortably by a shirt collar or a neck of a sweater... just to give them "human characteristic".
Panasit Ch

So maybe I've been onto something all along. I've done quite a few of these. You can check some out here: http://digitalpharaoh.wordpress.com/2008/11/07/in-praise-of-the-anthropomorphic/

I thought anthropomorphism was already alive and well, and perhaps even on its way out? Is it just a Canadian thing that for a few years of this decade there have been an exhausting number of art and illustration works dealing with anthropomorphic imagery?
Tom Froese

Anthropomorphism is and has always been in the illustrator's bag of tricks. Some illustrators have made their livelihoods from it (Greg Clarke is a great example of a full-time practitioner... Arisman and Holland have also employed it at times). Whether anthropomorphism will be an illustration trend or not seems pretty doubtful. Illustration, like the rest of our culture (and thanks in large part to the digital revolution), is highly pluralistic--with practitioners creating all kinds of work utilizing varying degrees of anthropomorphism.

If an aspiring illustration student asks me about the future of the medium, I usually recommend that they switch majors! Illustration, as it was practiced in the 20th century: artists creating pictures for publication and making a living doing that, has been dying a slow death. You can point to a variety of reasons for the decline: the end of big print budgets, the widespread availability of cheap stock illustration, the improvement in digital tools allowing designers to create every part of a project, but the reality is that only a very small handful of artists are making anything close to a good living as practicing illustrators.
steven lyons

This is straying from Heller's premise that the next big thing will be anthropomorphism. Steven, I like wild guesses. ::laughing:: As the machines become more pervasive and demanding in our lives -possibly more human-like - I guess we would get sentimental about animals.

But on the question: Will illustration survive as a future career, I agree with Steven Lyons. THOUGH I WISH IT WASN'T SO. It may seem to be impossible when you look at how many illustrators are eeking out a livlihood. But the bigger picture is this: as viable career it IS dying a slow death. Lyons cited the variety of reasons.

Who will create images and who will control images? In the near future mega-corporations like Getty and Corbis will own the planet's image bank biopoly and illustrators may survive on the fringe. We're as resiliant as weeds thru the concrete sidewalk. We'll always be artists making art but not big money - as in a workable career. There will be those half-talented kids on the computer splicing and dicing, but the golden age of illustration will never have giants like it once had. Pessimism sometimes is just not seeing far enough ahead, so maybe I'm wrong. I hope I'm wrong on this.

Just last month The Orphan Works Act of 2008, H.R. 5889, passed Congress ,in the middle of the Wall Street meltdown. They just tucked it right in there like the rats they are. The consequences of this just might be the last-nail-in-the-coffin of artist's keeping their copyrights of their own work. These giant databases will have the career, Steven, artists just might be their Soylent Green.
Mark Andresen

Ugh I'm sorry, but those Orangina ads are gross. Just saying.
Josh Kramer

Interesting that in this case, we can, in fact, glimpse the future. Have a look at the mascots developed for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Not precisely illustration, but surely conceived as sketches on paper.

What surprises me is that the issue of design activism hasn't been addressed here. Has our panic over the economic situation so completely overshadowed the environmental crisis that we turn to anthropomorphism as escapist fantasy rather than as symbolic of our desire to reconnect with the natural world?

2010 Olympics/resource suckfest aside, I would hope that we draw, and love to look at illustrations of, anthropomorphic beings because they remind us of the animals we are, and the world we inhabit, rather than allowing us to unplug ever further from reality.
Anne Stewart

Anne, I agree with you that the recent "monetary meltdown" has become a major drama of distraction. As the world burns, we worry if investment bankers are snug in their beds. I say, feed them to the wolverines.

But getting back to what you were saying: What is design activism really? Does the general public ever notice that stuff as they slog through a daily barrage of advertising propaganda? And what does Anthropomorphism do that is so beneficial in the real world? It sells products. What else?

Consider, for instance, the little bee:

Albert Einstein - no slacker for observation - wrote that IF AND WHEN honey bees become extinct, that human society will follow in four years. That may be a shock for many to comprehend. And it's so easy to shake our heads "no" and go back to computer screens.

But that's the crux of the issue: Is Anthropomorphism a connection to real animals or cute escapism? The symbiotic relationship of living things on the planet is interrelated and it's more than a product branding issue for environmentalism at this critical point that will determine if we can live on the planet without killing it.

As it is now, major universities and entomology centers studying bee populations say that 90% of the wild bee population has died out in the United States. It's been a mystery exactly why considering all possible factors, from disease, pesticides, EFM (electronic frequency modulation) weather changes and immune deficiency that created Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
Hurricane Katrina, for instance, in 2005 destroyed thousands of honey bee colonies, decimating the vital Gulf Coast bee industry that served Southern agriculture. But this was only one bad turn in a 60 year decline. Managed bee colonies, the industry responsible for the mass cross pollination of growing our food, is now less than 1/2 what it was 25 years ago.

Leading entomologists call it an unprecedented die off in 22 states. But this is not localized to only the USA. Overseas, there has been a 80% die off in the UK and the Netherlands.

The impact of this die off on commercially grown field crops from citrus to vegetables to nuts is becoming a major - MAJOR - problem for farmers. Consumers seem completely unaware of how their food is grown and the impact this bee colony collapse phenomenon will have on them in the coming years. They just expect supermarkets to always have everything shiny and fresh and cheap...

I know, this all sounds crazy, but as an illustrator, I don't want to keep being part of the fiction that animals are happy little friends in jackets selling us junk food.

Go bees!!!
Mark Andresen

That said, I still like Krazy Kat and Bugs Bunny...
Mark Andresen

That said, I still like Krazy Kat and Bugs Bunny.
film izle

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