Fantasy is unusual among the genres in that there is no clearcut distinction between its four primary forms: the written word, Comics, Cinema and art. Certainly the modes of expression differ, but the underpinning is the same. Notably, FA is, like the other modes, essentially a narrative form: although the image is solitary and, of course, static, in the best of "realistic" FA that image is understood as a moment taken from a Story that began some time before and will continue for some time afterwards; more surrealist (> Surrealism) or abstract FA can perform the trick too, or it may convey to the viewer an encapsulation of a story, a collection of images that the viewer can unpick.
The earliest examples of FA date back to long before there was such a thing as "fantasy": the cave paintings at sites like Altamira and Lascaux show what appear to be Mythical Creatures, and anyway are fantasy in that they (one assumes) depict hunting and other scenes on the sympathetic-Magic basis that imagining something can make it happen. Early religious FA includes a depiction of the Sumerian half-man, half-fish quasi-God Oannes as well as numerous South American artworks which Erich von Däniken (1935- ) and his disciples have assumed to portray ancient astronauts.
Religious art has played a large part in the history of FA, to the extent that the genre as a whole can really be traced to religious paintings by 15th- and 16th-century artists such as Pieter Bruegel, Matthias Grünewald and, by far the most notably, Hieronymus Bosch, whose The Garden of Earthly Delights has served as a source of inspiration to fantasy artists to the present day. Even so, for some centuries thereafter there was a reluctance on the part of Western artists to indulge in the full flood of fantasy: there were "realistic" depictions of religious and Classical scenes, but there was little by way of true FA. The next major landmark was probably Henry Fuseli's painting The Nightmare (1781; various other versions), which transports the viewer clear out of mundane reality to create a sense that all is truly not as we perceive it. A few decades later J M W Turner (1775-1851), some of whose paintings can be considered fantasticated, was at work, and John Martin was creating huge and spectacular canvases on subjects like Armageddon. The age of FA had begun.
Martin worked also as an illustrator – he did an edition of John Milton's Paradise Lost – and by about this time Illustration was beginning to have a mutually profitable relationship with FA. Later in the 19th century was seen the rise of imaginative fiction – with writers like George MacDonald and Lewis Carroll coming to the fore – and illustrators like Sir John Tenniel (for Carroll) pointed the way for fantasy artists. Some had already followed that way: Richard Dadd is a prime example, as is Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), who created a sort of fantasticated quasi-historical eroticism that is hard to describe. The Preraphaelites, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, introduced their own very potent brand of eroticism.
In the USA around the same time Howard Pyle was enormously influential on the history of the genre, giving to it the preoccupation with the human figure as focus that is still visible today in the works of artists like Frank Frazetta. Maxfield Parrish, working a little later than Pyle, created an Arcadian tradition that, likewise, still has an overt influence on the many fantasy artists who habitually portray a tiny figure dwarfed by a vast and detailed landscape. Grant Wood (1892-1942) and Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) (>>> N C Wyeth) generated images that, while they seemed to portray reality, were nevertheless highly fantasticated.
As US artists like Wood and Wyeth were working, so too were Europeans, who created the school of Surrealism, which can be regarded as the apex, to date, of FA. Notable among these artists were Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí and René Magritte; to the list could be added the very much later artist H R Giger, but in truth the school still continues in the work of countless currently practising artists. Another major influence on late-20th-century FA has been M C Escher; he was arguably a graphic designer rather than a pure artist, creating impossible Realities often through the use of pattern, but his line technique is clearly evident in the work of current artists like Ian Miller.
FA today takes so many forms that any synopsis would be a travesty. There are the elaborate Technofantasy and Science-Fiction structures of artists like Jim Burns and David A Hardy (1936- ); there are the more straightforward depictions by people like the multiple-award-winning Michael Whelan; artists such as Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, both influencing and influenced by the Comics, portray posed scenes that relate to Conan and that barbarian's many clones; there is the ultra-realism of artists like Harvey G Parker; the superb moodiness of artists like Brian Froud ... the list could go on forever. What is certain is that the FA genre, even ignoring Illustration, is part of the mainstream of today's art, and is likely to remain so. [JG/RT]
see also: William Blake; Edward Burne-Jones; George Cruikshank; Gustav Doré; Michael Foreman; Norman Lindsay; John Everett Millais; Bruce Pennington; Gerald Scarfe; Ronald Searle; Ralph Steadman; Tim White; Gahan Wilson; Patrick Woodroffe.