I have written about how much I admire the illustration-work of the 1920’s artist, Eduardo Garcia Benito, who signed his work simply “Benito.” As a kid, when I first started collecting old magazines from the ’20s, I was fascinated by his interpretations of High Life during that period. For me the 1950s had no real appeal and lacked a sense of style that I saw reflected in those publications! I immersed myself in old Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines yearning for the rarified life I saw portrayed and the illustrations that reinforced it.
Benito also more directly adapted the Japanese woodblock ukiyo-e style to the period.
The Post-Impressionist artists like Van Gogh had been the ones to have initially been inspired and influenced by the Japanese paring down of details and composition.
Like many of them, Vincent collected the work. They had initially been dismissively used to wrap the oil paints that were delivered to the artists. But after Impressionism had broken the barriers imposed by Academic painting, artists felt more free to be able to try a new means of visual expression!
And the Japanese had been simplifying their visuals for well over a century! Nevertheless, it was a shock to the mass public uninformed about international art history! And as I say, Benito adapted the style closely.
I don’t know if there was something in the zeitgeist of the ’20s that rhymed with that of the Japanese world of the late 18th and 19th centuries, but the style worked for Benito’s career; and Condé Nast publications, along with others, employed him for decades!
So I was very excited to learn that The New York Cultural Center was having a show of his commercial work and I hurried to see it!
His signature cartouche had inspired me to design one of my own. It had worked for Gustave Klimt and Egon Schiele. And seeing Benito’s pushed me over the edge! My wise mother had suggested that I should sign my work with a consistently recognizable signature for professional reasons, and from the beginning I followed her words.
A little Klimt, a bit of Schiele and a reinforcement of Benito and voilà:
This is a detail from a later publicity mailer.
The Japanese may have been the originators of this too.
DPC told me that the brilliant artist/designer, the late Michael Vollbracht, told him that I’d inspired Michael’s own signature cartouche!
Though we had mutual friends, I never got to know or even meet Michael but I was flattered beyond imagining!
I was thrilled to be able to study at close hand original work by Benito. And I really examined them closely!
DPC had opened his store in Pound Ridge and named it WHIPSNADE’S, which wasn’t named for the small English village in the UK county of Bedfordshire but for the W.C. Fields character Larsen E. Whipsnade in the 1939 movie You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man!
I can’t remember the logic of the name and how it related to the designer clothing being offered, but somehow the more high-toned British reference was probably assumed and nobody questioned the name.
I had done an illustration for the store and later took a coffee break at Drake’s Drum, an old style saloon on Second Avenue very near my apartment.
The name referred to a snare drum that Sir Francis Drake carried with him when he circumnavigated the globe. It is said that on his deathbed he requested the drum be returned to his home and if England were ever in danger and someone were to beat the drum he would return from the dead to defend the country.
It is said that at certain perilous times ever since, even during WWII a mysterious sound of a snare drum has been heard! True, fiction or imaginative delusion, who can say!
The next day I went to the Museum of Modern Art with Ray Smith. There were some recent acquisitions among which was a stunning cut paper piece by Matisse!
I had to go home to work but I felt inspired by being at MOMA. I didn’t want to get on a crowded bus so using it as an excuse I persuaded Ray to come to Yellowfingers for coffee and dessert.
As we sat talking we realized that it was no longer late afternoon rush hour but closer to the dinner hour. My conversations with Ray were always wide ranging and long lasting as I don’t know anyone who has more interests than Ray Smith! He isn’t a skimmer-over-the-surface of things either but delves deeply into anything that he feels worthy of involvement.
Working as a writer on The Today Show at NBC he worked all night until broadcast time so just like me, his days were free.
He was so interested listening to my stories about living in Paris that he learned to speak french fluently and spent holidays in Paris becoming a friend of my friends. Another time he invited me to come to dinner at his apartment and while we chatted over wine in his kitchen he miraculously, effortlessly and unobtrusively cooked a very special Julia Child chicken dish. When I expressed my amazement, he quietly explained that he’d been taking gourmet cooking classes and had enjoyed it so much he was currently taking a class in specialty baking!
He has gone on to learn to tap dance, taken singing lessons, joined a dance company as a performer, studied flamenco eventually managing a very prominent flamenco dance company (on temporary leave from NBC) and taking them on an international tour! He was involved with a theater group and helped to produce a Clifford Odetts play at The Jewish Rep and invited me to come work in a design capacity! I’ve only scratched the surface, but if there’s anyone I’ve ever known who has lived by the maxim expressed by Auntie Mame (“Life is a banquet and most poor bastards are starving to death!”) — it’s Ray Smith!
How can someone have a quick coffee date with someone like that?