Well, I’m sad to say it’s “goodbye, bucket list dream” of having my portrait painted by monster portraitist extraordinaire, Basil Gogos. :(
A few years ago, I highlighted this brilliant artist’s monsterous masterpieces in the post “Monster Masterpieces A Gogos“, and mentioned that of all the great artists who have ever lived, I’d most want my portrait painted by him. He passed away on September 13, 2017.
He was the man behind many of the gloriously gruesome covers of “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine, as well as the creator of some truly excellent pulp illustrations.
In 1960, when he began illustrating for Famous Monsters at the bequest of publisher Jim Warren, he wasn’t even a fan of horror himself. But as he said in an interview in Famous Monsters #288, he became a fan.
Not surprisingly, Warren and editor Forrest J. Ackerman left the creative details of the covers to Gogos. He mostly worked from black-and-white studio photographs, and then infused our favourite horror characters with his trademark psychedelic colouring.
Boris Karloff became a particular horror favourite of the artist. Gogos said that his favourite cover was #56 — a somewhat sickly but impressive depiction of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster. Sadly, Karloff died before the painting was finished.
I was quite perturbed that reports of this famous artist’s death weren’t more widespread. There was so little said about it that at first, I wasn’t even convinced it was true. Every so often, news of a celebrity’s death spreads like wildfire on social media, and soon he/she is making a public statement that they are not, in fact, dead at all. I think all fans of Gogos waited with baited breath to hear that it wasn’t true. After all, there was only ONE article reporting the news.
But it wasn’t a false alarm. Gogos was gone.
Some 13 long days after his death, the New York Times finally deemed him important enough to report on.
Better late than never, I guess. But as someone who so greatly admired his work, and knows the immeasurable contribution he made to the entire horror genre, I think he was done a great disservice and deserved better.
Thanks to a great friend, I was able to get a copy of the Thursday, September 28th New York Times paper that featured Gogos’s obituary. You can click the picture to view a larger image (it will open large enough to read), or you can scroll down and read the transcription the Times posted online. (Note: I’ve substituted different images than what’s included on the Times site.)
One thing’s for sure, just as Basil Gogos immortalized the beloved movie monsters that have entertained us for nearly a century, so too have those paintings he created cemented the artist himself as a star right alongside them. Thanks to the brilliant talent of one man, both subject and painter will live on forever.
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Basil Gogos, Who Painted Monsters With Love, Dies at 88
By Richard Sandomir
September 26, 2017
Basil Gogos, who painted penetrating and chilling color portraits of movie monsters like Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Phantom of the Opera, and imbued Frankenstein’s monster with notable compassion, died on Sept. 13 at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 88.
Linda Touby, his wife and only immediate survivor, said the cause was probably a coronary.
Mr. Gogos produced dozens of covers for the horror magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland over more than 20 years. Many looked as if Mr. Gogos had invited the monsters into his studio, where he meticulously lighted them and bathed them in brilliant hues.
In Mr. Gogos’s 1969 portrait of Frankenstein’s monster, as played by Boris Karloff, his eyes are downcast, his demeanor is sorrowful. The background is dramatically illuminated by a single glowing candle. The menace that Mr. Gogos brought to his portrait of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula is absent from his vision of the monster first imagined by Mary Shelley.
“He loved that monster,” Ms. Touby, who is also a painter, said in a telephone interview. “He felt it wasn’t the monster’s fault that nobody wanted anything to do with him, or that he was made ugly. He felt he was a victim.”
Mr. Gogos painted other actors who were cast as the monster, including Glenn Strange, Christopher Lee and Fred Gwynne, who played a wacky, very human version in the 1960s sitcom “The Munsters.” But he had a special affection for Mr. Karloff, who died a few months before Mr. Gogos’s 1969 portrait was published on the cover of Famous Monsters.
In an undated letter to Mr. Karloff’s daughter, Sara, Mr. Gogos described some of the traits that made the actor a compelling subject. “A superb facial structure with nicely chiseled planes,” he wrote, “deeply sunken eye sockets, high cheekbones, with one side of his jawbone deeper than the other — pure drama.”
Mr. Gogos created many of his paintings from black-and-white still photographs of films made at various studios, most significantly Universal, which started making monster movies in the 1920s. He painted a bug-eyed King Kong with his mouth agape; the Creature From the Black Lagoon as a red-lipped, amphibious humanoid; Lon Chaney in “London After Midnight” as a top-hatted ghoul with blood dropping from his mouth; and Mr. Karloff as the intense, wrinkled, fez-wearing Ardath Bey in “The Mummy” (1932).
Gary Pullin, whose monster art has appeared on posters and in books and magazines, said that Mr. Gogos’s portraits extended the appeal of the monster movies. “He made those films look as good as ever,” Mr. Pullin said in a telephone interview.
“His work is as recognizable as Karloff’s,” he added, “and as iconic as Jack Pierce’s,” referring to the man who created Mr. Karloff’s monster makeup.
Mr. Gogos was born on March 12, 1929, in Alexandria, Egypt, to parents of Greek ancestry who had also been born in Egypt. His father, Steve, was a railroad worker, and his mother, Maria, was a fashion designer. After living in Boston and Washington, they moved to Manhattan, where they eventually opened a clothing shop. Young Basil’s uncle was an artist who encouraged him to paint, and his grandmother painted on dishes and fabrics to help support her family.
Mr. Gogos attended art schools in Washington and then studied with Frank Reilly, an artist and illustrator, at the Art Students League in Manhattan. While there, he made his first sale: the cover of “Pursuit,” a western novel by Lewis B. Patten.
He had begun illustrating adventure stories for various men’s magazines when monsters entered his life. In 1960, Jim Warren, the publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland, asked him to paint a cover portrait of Vincent Price, the star of a new film by Roger Corman, “House of Usher,” based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story. Mr. Warren told Mr. Gogos that his painting needed to be something new and unusual, which Mr. Gogos found difficult to define.
“Then, when it was finished, I was too embarrassed to bring it in,” he was quoted as saying in the book Famous Monster Movie Art of Basil Gogos (2006), a celebration of his career compiled and edited by Kerry Gammill and J. David Spurlock.
After his agent handed in the Price illustration, Mr. Gogos recalled, Mr. Warren called and asked: “Where are you? Why aren’t you here so I can hug you and kiss you?”
Soon after, Mr. Gogos painted Gorgo, a gigantic sea creature awakened by a volcanic eruption in a 1961 film, for another Famous Monsters cover.
“It was a lizard,” he explained in Famous Monster Movie Art. “It was a prehistoric animal. I mean, what colors were they? Nobody knows, so I went ahead and used blues, greens, yellows.”
Mr. Gogos said using stills from old black-and-white films helped him re-imagine the monsters.
In the book, he described the process of turning each photograph into a painting.
“I stared into it for a long time and suddenly it started to change,” he said. “In my mind’s eye it started to change to color, pure color, and the interesting part of it was, when that painting was finished, it was exactly the way I envisioned it.”
But Mr. Gogos stopped illustrating monsters in the 1980s to pursue fine-art painting — abstracts, landscapes, wildlife scenes — and supported himself as a photo retoucher for United Artists and a storyboard artist at the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. He also taught art classes.
He eventually returned to his old world of horrors. He illustrated covers for Monsterscene magazine, attended horror and science-fiction conventions, painted classic monsters for Topps’s Universal Monsters Illustrated cards in 1994 and took on commissions, like one for the cover of the heavy-metal musician Rob Zombie’s 1998 album, “Hellbilly Deluxe.”
Mr. Gogos said that what he liked best about doing monster art was being his own art director.
“Whenever I do a monster for a magazine or a client or even for myself, I’m completely free,” he said. “If people tell me what colors to use, I’m stumped. It gets in the way and it hurts the job. That’s why I tell people, ‘I will do it my way.’ ”
The aforementioned letter to Boris Karloff’s daughter is quite touching, and as an artist myself, I can appreciate his keen observations on a whole other level. His descriptions of Karloff’s face absolutely sing to my painterly soul. Here’s the full transcript:
“In all my years as a professional painter, and they are many, I have excelled most in one area, that of the film monster genre. I have met some of the actors who portrayed film monsters, but much to my regret, I never met the supreme Karloff. A superb facial structure with nicely chiseled planes, deeply sunken eye sockets, high cheek bones, and with one side of his jaw bone deeper than the other – pure drama. I must have painted him a dozen times. I respected Karloff as an actor, and at the same time loved him, as by all accounts a good man, even though he stole Christmas. So long, dear friend, you are missed.”
He may not have had the opportunity to meet Boris Karloff in life, but I for one would like to believe that the two are now united in death. And considering each of their respective horror-centric careers, that seems rather appropriate, don’t you think?
I can just imagine how much more inspiring a Basil Gogos portrait of Boris Karloff would be now; the ugly sting of death having touched them both, but each of them now bathed in the luminescence of life anew…
Until next year, fiends — Happy Halloween and unpleasant dreams . . .
“To a new World of Gods and Monsters. Ha, ha. The creation of life is enthralling, distinctly enthralling, is it not?”
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)