The art of Frank Frazetta

Image for The art of Frank Frazetta

Next week sees the once-in-a-lifetime auction of dozens of paintings and drawings by the legendary Frank Frazetta. Taking place in New York and Los Angeles, and organised by auctioneers Profiles In History, it’s all the collection of one man: Frazetta’s friend and lifelong enthusiast ‘Doc’ Dave Winiewicz. Empire spoke to Doc Dave and got the lowdown on some of his favourite Frazetta pieces from that personal archive, as well as some thoughts on Frazetta’s most famous characters and movie posters.

Conan the Destroyer by Frank Frazetta


Doc Dave: I have a couple of studies. I don’t have any of the oil paintings [like the one above]. Those go for well over a million dollars. They’re all owned by the family and they’ve only let two go so far. Conan really put Frazetta on the map. From the '30s to the '50s, [Conan author] Robert E. Howard only had a very isolated audience, but once the paperbacks with Frazetta’s covers started being published, they sold in millions of copies. Some of them went into 40 printings. Forbes magazine said that Arnold Schwarzenegger became Governor of California because of Frazetta: the reason Arnold became famous was Conan, and the reason Conan became famous was Frazetta. He had a profound impact culturally. He and Norman Rockwell influenced thousands of artists. Their visual vocabulary became part of mainstream media.

Empire: I’ve always found Frazetta’s Conan interesting because he’s facially quite ugly…

Conan the Barbarian (detail) by Frank Frazetta

Yes, definitely. He’s a primitive. The face reflects the world and his soul and the kind of life he’s been living. Frank wasn’t trying to make pretty-boys. A lot of artists would have done that, to give their Conan a kind of surface desirability, but with Frazetta there was that visceral quality. That’s what people responded to. I bought The Savage Sea [below] directly from Frank: there are actually two versions in the auction. The earlier one has Conan actually in the water and a tentacle monster getting ready to attack him. It’s very brightly coloured. Frank thought the problem with that design was that Conan was clearly going to lose! So in the second version he took Conan out of the water, standing on rocks. He thought that gave Conan a fighting chance! Conan and the Savage Sea by Frank Frazetta


You might think that Conan and Tarzan could look superficially similar, but Frazetta makes them very different.

Absolutely. His Tarzan is a much more graceful character. There’s still the visceral nature, but the worlds of Conan and Tarzan are very different. Frank enjoyed the world of Tarzan more than Conan, because there were more elements available to him: the women and the jungle and the animals and the ancient cities… He loved all that.

Tarzan at Earth's Core by Frank Frazetta

His finest work for Tarzan is the early paintings, of which two are in the auction. These are when he’s still experimenting in the early 60s. Then there are also the drawings, which are just world class. The level of life and energy that flows from them is unmatched. We did a documentary about Frank in the early 2000s, and those drawings were the ones everybody wanted to talk about. They were so influential. They’re the epitome of Frank’s career. They have such power, and strength and presence. They’re fine art.

Tarzan Savage Jungle by Frank Frazetta

Flash Gordon

When he was doing the John Carter Of Mars books [also by Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs] he was following the text to a certain extent. He’s giving all the proper clothing, and the scenes reflect scenes from the books. But when he’s doing Flash Gordon it’s a little bit different: it’s his own complete spin on the character. In both of the images I have of Flash Gordon, Flash isn’t wearing a shirt. He paints him like a caveman! Here’s Flash encountering a terrible monster on the planet Mongo, and he doesn’t even have a ray-gun, or space apparatus: he was going at it with his fists!

Flash Gordon / Monster of Mongo by Frank Frazetta

That drawing was done in the early ‘50s and it gives you an idea of the way Frazetta would approach a character. He didn’t like all those extra accoutrements: he wanted everything as primitive as possible. It’s very strange as a Flash Gordon drawing, but it works.

In the other drawing he’s holding Dale, and it’s a very erotic pose, with him just touching her breast. And of course, on Flash’s codpiece there’s an F. That stands for Flash and Frazetta. He liked to invest himself in his drawings. Why should these characters be having all the fun? That hair is Frazetta’s too. He looked like that from the ‘50s onwards. Frank didn’t change at all. He hated rock n roll. The ‘60s didn’t exist for Frazetta. He lived in his own universe. He’d found his era.

Flash Gordon / Princess of Mongo by Frank Frazetta

Film Art

Everyone came to Frazetta: Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, George Lucas, Robert Rodriguez, Dino De Lauretiis, Ralph Bakshi… All these people got in their planes and came to him. Frazetta wouldn’t leave his house to see anybody. I don’t have any of his film art, but my favourite is The Night They Raided Minsky’s. Another one that’s more typically Frazetta is for a movie called Luana, which has a big primitive jungle girl!

Luana poster by Frank Frazetta

But he did a lot of poster work, to the extent, I’ve been told by many different people, that art directors would simply point their artists at Frazetta’s work and say, ‘Try to do it like this, buddy!’

He loved doing those caper movies [where caricatures of the cast are invariably piled up and running around]. He was great at getting all these bodies running around and jumping up and down. That was his thing. Everybody copied him, and made careers doing it.

What's New Pussycat poster (detail) by Frank Frazetta

The Fearless Vampire Killers poster (detail) by Frank Frazetta

He was an amazing cartoonist. When he was drawing Li’l Abner he told me he could do a week’s work in a morning, so the rest of the week was all his own time. I wrote a book about his work on Li'l Abner and he inscribed it, ‘To Dave – Nine years shot to hell! Frazetta.’ He was just putting in the time and picking up a cheque, but he wasn’t being true to his artistic gifts.

Lord Of The Rings

Obviously his Howard and Burroughs work is very famous, but I’d never seen any of Frazetta’s Tolkien art before: where does that come from?

That’s all from a portfolio he did in 1975, of a thousand copies. Once again, it’s just profoundly affecting, and so many artists borrowed from it. He didn’t do any other Tolkien work apart from a colour painting of Gollum. He did that on spec, I think.

Lord of the Rings Nazrul by Frank Frazetta

Eowyn in that scene with the Nazgul is supposed to be disguised as a man, and yet Frazetta draws her wearing a thong! What was his attitude to women?

Oh, he was a fanatic! He loved sex more than any human being I’ve ever met in my life. He told me before he got married he never missed a day. When he was a young man he was very good looking and he dressed well and he was very articulate; women just flocked to him. He took full advantage of all his opportunities! Any of his paintings or drawings that have women in them are very highly prized and treasured.

The Lion Queen by Frank Frazetta

Frazetta & Winiewicz

Why are you getting rid of your collection??

I started collecting when I was five years old and this is the ultimate result of all that. I told my wife when I turned 65 I would sell my collection. And I just turned 65, so it was time. It’s very psychologically difficult to let it go. The walls of my home have always been filled with art, so I’m just going to have to hang up some photography and go on to a new phase of life!

What was your relationship with Frazetta?

When I was in graduate school getting my PhD, I decided I needed to write an essay about Frazetta, trying to figure out why I liked his work so much and why it had such an impact on me. I wrote it and sent it to him to get his reaction, and he called me and said it was the best thing he’d ever read on his art, and he invited me to his house to talk. That essay is actually part of the auction catalogue. After that I continued to write about him and his work from all conceivable angles. My specialty is medieval philosophy, so art wasn’t even really my subject! But the natural connection is that I would teach about aesthetics and beauty. We really hit it off. We were best friends for a little over 25 years. We would talk every day. When I lived in Buffalo, New York I would take the 300-mile trip to his house at least once a month. We’d have a tremendously good time!

Doc Dave Winiewicz and Frank Frazetta

What was he like?

He was just a good guy. He wasn’t a snob, but he suffered fools very poorly. You could have a beer or a cup of coffee with him and just talk normally with him, but he could deepen his level of conversation depending on what you brought. He was just that bright. I’d watch him draw or paint something, and sometimes I’d ask him to verbalise what was going on in his head, and this stream-of-consciousness would start to flow. It was amazing the depth of his grasp of what he was trying to get at on the canvas. He was a child prodigy. He did go to art school, but he told me all he did there was sit around and listen to music. He learned what good music was! He never catered to the art industry: he didn’t seek out the galleries on Madison Avenue, or exotic publishers. They all came to him.