Posted by Susan Doll on March 4, 2013
The more I learn, the more I realize that what you know is connected in ways that are surprising and stimulating to think about. This thought occurred to me recently when I learned something new about pirates. That’s right, pirates!
I am teaching the History of Illustration at Ringling College, which is a course I have never taught—or even taken—before. As a matter of fact, it is a course that you will likely not find outside of an art school. Most weeks I am knee deep in research on the eras and artists that were important in the evolution of illustration. I treat it as a popular art, meaning part of the material covers the impact of each era and artist on our culture and society, much like I teach film history. Prior to film and broadcast media, print and publishing held the public’s fascination, and illustrators were the stars of the publishing industry. Fans followed the work of prominent magazine, newspaper, and book illustrators, who were treated like celebrities.
Recently, I taught the work of Howard Pyle, who is often dubbed the Father of American Illustration, because he was the first important teacher of the art and craft of commercial draftsmanship. He opened his own unique school in the Brandywine Valley of Delaware, where students paid no tuition and stayed as long as they felt they needed to. In turn, many of the students became teachers, and Pyle’s style of illustration was passed on to a third generation of artists.
Successful, popular, and influential, Pyle was known for illustrating contemporary and classic adventure stories for novels and magazines. In the course of illustrations for Treasure Island, The Flying Dutchman, and other sea-faring adventures, he designed the archetypal costume for the pirate. Now a part of the collective cultural consciousness, Pyle’s pirate’s costume, which consists of headscarf, long hair, gold earrings, balloon pants, sash, and billowing sleeves, is familiar to us from storybooks, movies, animated cartoons, and Halloween costumes. Pyle meticulously researched the details of his illustrations though not always for the sake of accuracy. He liked to mix the decorative details of different eras of history and then toss in a dash of imagination. To create the costume of his pirates, he combined the attire of the 16th-century sailor with clothing favored by gypsies. Of course, from a practical standpoint, anyone manning a ship would not wear long sashes, flouncy sleeves, or balloon pants, because they would get in the way. However, these articles of clothing helped to romanticize the pirate, transforming him from a rampaging thief into a rebellious non-conformist who flaunts rules, laws, and social mores.
Pyle’s version of the pirate was adopted and adapted by his students, such as N.C. Wyeth and Frank Schoonover, who in turn passed it on to their students. Hollywood costume designers cemented the iconic look, passing it from silent era films such as The Black Pirate to Golden Age classics like The Black Swan up through contemporary hits such as Pirates of the Caribbean. Gore Verbinski and costume designer Penny Rose openly acknowledged the influence of Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates on the Pirates of the Caribbean. The look is so thoroughly accepted as authentic that programs about pirates on the History Channel use it as a matter of course. Yet, no one knows how pirates actually dressed, and, considering that they came from different parts of the world, it is unlikely they would dress alike.
With his creative team, director Gore Verbinski researched and referenced a variety of sources from classic film, literature, and art that came to bear on the narrative and visual design of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The films are rich in references, giving them a currency that the fourth in the series, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which was directed by Rob Marshall, did not have. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and POTC: At World’s End incorporated aspects of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in the fabric of the narrative, including the visceral impact of slimy sea creatures as a form of punishment, a dice game to win the souls of men, navigating through a land of “frost and cold,” a ship stuck in the doldrums, and the entrapment of the main character in an existential hell.
At World’s End seemed to borrow heavily from illustrator Gustave Dore’s 1870 interpretation of the somber poem, especially in the mood and denseness of some of the imagery. Dore, one of the most popular and prolific illustrators of the Victorian era, specialized in interpretations of classic literature and the bible. His style relied on skillful draftsmanship and incorporated the use of deep shadows, detailed compositions, and eerie imagery. Dore represented the dark side of the Victorian era that romanticized death and embraced the macabre. Going a step farther, Verbinski and his team may have been inspired by an interpretation of Dore’s interpretation of Coleridge. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Lawrence Jordan used Dore’s engravings as the foundation for a version of the poem embellished with color and cut-out animation. Some of the caprice in Verbinski’s Pirates trilogy reminded me of the whimsical touch that Jordan’s 1977 film added to Dore’s illustrations.
Making the connections between Howard Pyle, Gustave Dore, and the movies reminded me that the archetypes, storylines, and imagery found in popular film often derive from rich visual and narrative traditions. When the references and sources are recognized, the viewer can fold the meaning of those sources into the film. In the case of Pirates of the Caribbean, the references to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner turns a movie series based on a theme-park ride into a meditation on regret and consequences over deeds long past (Davy Jones), and the adaptation of Pyle’s pirate archetype becomes a celebration of what that archetype represents—rebellion against the confines of the everyday world (Jack Sparrow).
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