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Emshwiller, Ed

Entry updated 13 May 2024. Tagged: Artist, Film.

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Working name of US illustrator and film-maker Edmund Alexander Emshwiller (1925-1990), who frequently signed his sf artwork "Emsh", with some early-1950s interior illustrations being signed "Willer"; married from 1949 until his death to writer Carol Emshwiller, who regularly served as his model for paintings of beautiful women. He studied art at the University of Michigan, the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, and the Art Students League in New York. Beginning in 1951 with artwork published in Galaxy, the amazingly prolific Emsh, along with vast numbers of interior illustrations, produced over four hundred cover paintings for two dozen magazines, including Amazing, Astounding, If, Infinity Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (which he dominated through the 1950s), and Startling Stories, as well as many hardback and paperback books; his work for Ace Books alone would have made his reputation. He, Frank Kelly Freas and Richard M Powers were the undisputed rulers of the sf-art realm during the 1950s and early 1960s, and they were among the few sf artists of the time who could make a decent living from their work. Emshwiller shared the first Hugo for Best Cover Artist with Hannes Bok in 1953, and won further Hugos in 1960, 1961, 1962 and 1964; during that period, the only other cover artists to win Hugos were Freas and Roy G Krenkel.

Emshwiller also painted abstract expressionist canvases for gallery exhibition and worked in experimental 16mm movie-making. Dance Chromatic (1959), his first film, and Thanatopsis (1962) are still remembered, and his 38-minute Relativity (1966) is regarded by many critics as one of the greatest short films ever made. This second career was notably distinguished, the Museum of Modern Art being one of many bodies to recognize its importance. In 1971 he began working with videotape, then a very new medium, and he was artist-in-residence at the Television Laboratory, WNET/13 in New York, winning yet more awards. From 1981 to 1986, he served as provost of the School of Film and Video at the California Institute of the Arts. After turning to full-time moviemaking in 1964, he thereafter only did occasional sf artwork as a favour to friends; one noteworthy project was the numerous interior illustrations for Harlan Ellison's massive anthology Again, Dangerous Visions (anth 1972).

As an sf artist, Emshwiller seemed equally at home in every sf illustrative mode, whether dramatic, symbolic or humorous, and he was adept in handling a wide variety of subject matter, from Spaceships and future Cities to whimsical Aliens and gruesome Monsters; he is described as "the great all-rounder of sf art" in Brian W Aldiss's Science Fiction Art (graph 1975). A Google Images search of his name will reveal the truly astonishing number and variety of his works. His style was vigorous but polished, though his actual lines (especially in interior artwork) tended to be rough, assured, and full of character. While there is no denying his talent, he may have worked too speedily: from today's perspective, little of his sf artwork seems especially memorable, although some of his classic covers have been revived for recent book publications. For example, his cover for the December 1958 issue of If, effectively illustrating Rog Phillip's "Rat in the Skull" (December 1958 If) with a close-up of a man's head cut away to reveal a controlling Rat inside, was used as the cover for the reprint anthology Science Fiction Gems, Volume 2 (anth 2011) edited by the Editors of Armchair Fiction. Even if his works are seen infrequently, however, Emshwiller will always be remembered for helping to shift sf Illustration away from the colourful crudeness of the Pulp magazines toward more sophisticated approaches. He was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2007. [JG/PN/GW]

see also: Astounding Science-Fiction; Frank R Paul Award; Galaxy Science Fiction.

Edmund Alexander Emshwiller

born Big Rapids, Michigan: 16 February 1925

died Los Angeles, California: 27 July 1990

about the artist


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