April 24, 2003
By Franklin Harris
Some people collect Picassos. Others collect Van Goghs.
Then there is Saddam Hussein.
When U.S. troops raided one of Saddam's Baghdad safe houses, which they dubbed the "love shack" because of its Austin Powers décor, they found the walls covered in fantasy paintings.
You know the type — heroic and usually erotic renderings of barely clad, well-muscled warriors and maidens, usually either in chains or in battle with some mythological beast.
Rowena Morrill recognized two of the paintings as hers, and she wasn't happy. She painted them 15 years ago for the covers of a couple of paperback sword-and-sorcery novels, then two years ago she sold them. A Japanese collector paid $20,000 for one depicting a woman threatened by a dragon. But Morrill doesn't know how they became part of Saddam's collection.
"I would give anything to get them back. I am so upset that they are there," Morrill told a reporter with the New York Daily News. "I don't like the idea of them being in that country. I'm the one who slaved over them. I worked very hard for them, and I am very attached to them."
Of course, she wasn't so attached that she couldn't sell them, but never mind.
The paintings became a running joke on the cable news channels. Everyone had a good laugh at Saddam's supposedly tacky taste in art.
"These are art for the barely literate, or the barely sentient, dredged from some red-lit back alley of the brain," wrote Jonathan Jones in London's left-wing rag of record, The Guardian. "They are from the universal cultural gutter — pure dreck."
Obviously, it is left to me to defend Saddam, or rather to defend his artistic sensibilities.
While Morrill may be defensive, fretting over how her works possibly could appeal to someone as evil as Saddam, I think it's natural. Tyrants never view themselves as tyrants. Instead, they see themselves as heroic, often absurdly so. So, of course, heroic art appeals to them. That doesn't make the art evil. (In the case of Soviet Realism, however, it does make it bad.)
Critics like Jones hate fantasy art because it is unabashedly commercial (as if Michelangelo ever worked without pay). It exists not primarily for its own sake, but to sell books, movies and calendars.
Still, fantasy art has a devoted following. Books collect the works of artists like Morrill, Boris Vallejo, Julie Bell and Frank Frazetta. Their art appears at shows and in galleries. And, of course, collectors pay thousands of dollars for original paintings.
Every genre has its hacks, but Frazetta isn't one of them. His illustrations have become the standard for fantastic art, as have his visions of fictional worlds spanning John Carter's Mars, Tarzan's jungle and Conan the Barbarian's Hyborean Age.
Clint Eastwood was enough of a Frazetta fan that he asked the artist to paint the movie poster for the 1977 police thriller, "The Gauntlet."
The result is reminiscent of a "Conan" book cover, which is exactly what Eastwood wanted.
Modern fantasy art isn't from some "universal cultural gutter." Rather it comes from a distinctly American literary tradition, which originated in early 20th century pulp magazines.
It's not something to laugh at, no matter on whose wall it hangs.