Why I like the Ugliest Painting Ever

I hate every animated movie made in the past twenty years.  Computer graphics have done nothing to improve storytelling. And despite how I feel about Steve Jobs, I don’t like any Pixar movie that I’ve ever seen. So when my youngest asked me this morning, “Daddy, why do you like that ugly painting? It’s the ugliest painting ever.” it brought back some memories.

First off, the painting below is a self-portrait of Ralph Bakshi. I visited Bakshi in 1998 at the art studio where he did his paintings. He told me he got tired of doing movies and now he was sticking to just painting. I don’t know if his story is true or not but he told me when he was an art student in the 50s he used to go around every day to all the galleries. “One gallery had the most amazing paintings. The gallery owner couldn’t sell any. ‘Name your price’, the owner would say to me. I bet I could’ve bought any of the paintings for $100 or less. But I was a struggling art student. I couldn’t afford anything. So I would just go there every day and stare at the paintings. They were so alive! The artist was Jackson Pollock.”

(Ralph Bakshi self-portrait)

He looked at me just to make sure the name registered. “Imagine that! I could’ve owned a Jackson Pollock painting back then if I could’ve just scraped a few dollars together. But you knew, just by looking at his paintings, you knew.”

I was standing in front of my hero. He had made some of the most beautiful movies in animation history. Cartoons that were definitely very adult oriented. With stories that twisted and turned into every area of American life. I had been watching Bakshi ever since I was a kid. One of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons was a spoof of a superhero group called “The Mighty Heroes”, including my favorite, “Diaper Man” . Bakshi created it but eventually left the show.  After “The Might Heroes” he was also involved in my favorite TV cartoon, Spiderman. 40 years later they still don’t make any cartoon TV shows of this quality.

I don’t think Bakshi found his true voice until he created the animated movie “Heavy Traffic” which took him back to his Brooklyn roots. But then there is his masterpiece, the very-adult, animated classic, “American Pop” which details four generations of a family of Russian-Jewish immigrants who all become musicians. It’s a movie about art, America, the history music in the 20th century, and survival. One of the most beautiful movies ever. I tried to play it for my kids but it was too sad in the beginning and they quickly lost interest.

Here’s the first ten minutes:

I challenge anyone to tell me a Pixar movie that is more beautiful.

I lost interest after that. I didn’t enjoy the HBO series, Spicy City, that he did (although I made the website for that show) nor did I enjoy his animated version of The Lord of The Rings, or his movie, Cool World. But for me, American Pop is one of the top three or four movies of all time.

I can’t remember how I found out about this painting. But I visited Bakshi in his studio, we had a long chat about his movies and painting, and then I bought this self-portrait. I can’t remember the price. It was dirt cheap and I haven’t bought any paintings in the thirteen years since I bought this one. Maybe it was a few hundred dollars.  In fact, its so big and “ugly” (according to my kids) that I don’t  even have it hung up anywhere. I have no wall big enough to fit it.

But I love it.

Bakshi calls it a “self-portrait”, but if you look at it and just think of what words come to mind, you wouldn’t think “the greatest animator of the 20th century”. I think the words, “pirate”, “fat”, “stupid”,  “a clown”, perhaps “drunk” or “slob”. Certainly “mischievous”. Some panache (the pose – the hand on the hips, uncaring of the belly hanging out).  Barely held together by his mish-mash of tattered clothes and missing hand. The thickness of the dark blue color (the paint coagulates so thickly that the painting itself is almost three-dimensional) almost makes you feel underwater while you look into Bakshi’s mind to see the self-deprecating manner in which he thinks of himself.

This is an artist’s artist:

  • Dedicated. Dedicated to his art for 60 straight years without a break. Still going strong, painting in his 70s.
  • Student. Recognized the raw talent of the geniuses around him in the 50s and immersed himself in their art, not as a collector but as a humble student.
  • Vision. Had a vision for what animated storytelling could be: adult, real, beautiful. Not just silly stories for kids.
  • Execution. The wherewithal and execution ability to make his vision a reality.
  • Storyteller. Was not just an artist but a storyteller: If “American Pop” had been a novel instead of a movie it would’ve been The Great American Novel of the 20th Century.
  • Pivots. When he got sick of the politics of movie-making and Hollywood he retreated to his first love, painting, creating some of the most amazing, but largely unknown paintings I’ve ever seen. I’m not an expert on art or painting but I love when I can see a story in a single painting, so vibrantly drawn that it comes to life in my imagination still 13 years later as I look at it.
  • Self-deprecating. For Bakshi, according to the painting, he’s just a mischievous pirate with one hand, a glassy look on his face, barely put together while the world moves around him, doing what it will do. There’s no ego in the eyes. He’s not angry at the world around him – the world that left him submerged in a deep blue, with one hand, ugly, lost. Perhaps the most notable characteristic of the pirate in the portrait is that he’s smiling. He is who he is and he’s happy with it.

At 43 sometimes I feel lost. I have responsibilities. I have dreams that were never fulfilled. Every day I have to deal with whatever issues the world around me spits up and often at me.

Sometimes I daydream and wish I could right now be a student in the 1950s, hopping from art gallery to art gallery, looking for passion and occasionally, finding it to such a degree that it engulfs me in its beauty. But then I think, nothing is ever too late until that day when it’s finally time to say goodbye.

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