boris the anthropomorphic

by Art Chantry (

i always thought that guys like basil wolverton were wholly unique weirdos slaving away in their damp basements (tape on glasses, giggling incoherently). i grew up carefully examining wolverton’s crazy insane disturbing drawings (on stickers in bubble gum packs) and wondering what he was thinking as he made that stuff. i later found out that he did work for MAD magazine, too. but, it was so weird that even MAD stopped running it. he was then billed as “the guy too crazy for MAD.”

in reality, basil wolverton was a nice quite chubby fella who lived in vancouver, washington (a small town near the oregon border). he was also a very religious family man and performed as a pentecostal lay minister in his church. all accounts were that he was funny, charming, lovable and devout. so, the idea that he also produced drawings too weird for MAD is even stranger.

after spending over 40 years researching and studying graphic design, i also come to the weird realization that wolverton wasn’t alone in his arcane twisted style. in fact, he may have been influenced by another, far more successful and popular and ubiquitous artist who was profoundly prolific and widely published – almost a pop star in his day.

boris artzybasheff was born in russia, but came to amercia in 1919, over the next 45 years his illustrations were published extensively in nearly every american magazine like LIFE and FORTUNE (including over 200 covers for TIME magazine alone). he did a wide amount of advertising illustration as well (companies like xerox, shell, pan am, parke-davis, and parker pens), which were published in numerous magazines over a very long expanse of time. his started in book illustration and eventually won awards and even wrote and illustrated books of his own.

one of the many things he was very very good at was portraiture. over many years freelancing for magazines, he executed portrait after portrait of countless major historical figures – including that famous “X”ed-out face of hitler (when he was killed) that graced the cover of TIME. it’s probably one of the most famous and iconic magazine covers ever made.

but, the stuff that i’ll always remember and love artzybasheff for are his (what can best be described as) “anthropomorphic machinery.” he had a wonderful knack at drawing hardcore machines that became actual creatures. they popped out arms and heads and did interesting, often funny, things. google him and call up the ‘picture’ collection. you’ll see hundreds of his drawings. look at the machine stuff. when i was a little kid, i so loved his machine drawings that i would literally cut them out of magazine covers and glue them to my clothes (yeah, i was a dork).

if you look at the earliest “monster driving a hot rod” image ever seen – it’s that sweater with the airbrush drawing by von dutch you see reproduced in all the books. you’ll note that it’s not a hot rod being DRIVEN by a monster. it’s actually a “hot rod that IS a monster”. dutch was doing a boris artzybasheff image. even to this very day, people often mistake basil wolverton illustrations for boris artzybasheff illustrations and vice versa (you actually see them credited wrong.) i think you may even be able to drop the work of virgil finlay into that same category of style and image as well. artzybasheff was THAT famous and popular.

this TIME cover is an example i found the other day. it’s dated february 23, 1959. try to imagine TIME magazine doing a cover like this today. try to imagine ANYBODY doing a magazine cover like this today. artzybasheff’s work got stuck in the pas

d has become dated. quaint. but, in his day, he was one of the most popular and famous and successful illustrators on earth. he influenced the careers of so many that you might say that he created and defined a particular cartoon-ish style in american popular art.

now he’s virtually forgotten, but his ‘progeny’ is legendary. you can always tell the pioneer by the arrows in his back.

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