Remembering the king of monster portraits
Basil Gogos never set out to change horror illustration. He began his career painting cover art for western paperbacks & adventure magazines, pursuing realistic forms in extraordinary situations. But it was a chance commission in 1960 that would reunite him with his childhood love of monsters, & the rest is history.
The assignment fell to Basil because he was the newest artist at the agency & a monster magazine work was viewed as somewhat lowbrow. But Basil would prove that any medium could be elevated to fine art if the artist had sufficient respect for the subject, a unique vision, & the skills to realize that vision. And so this commission by James Warren to recreate a Vincent Price character for Famous Monsters of Filmland in a way that was "unusual," "colorful," & "new" would be career defining.
The monster work would offer a new realm of creative freedom, a respite from the sometimes exacting specifications he was used to. Warren's vague instructions allowed Basil to apply the color theory he'd learned under Frank Reilly at the Arts Student League in New York City, & he ran wild with the idea. So much so, in fact, that he was nervous about delivering the portrait, leaving the task up to his agent. But Warren loved the piece, & fans would respond in kind. Not only was the portrait a huge step up in quality for the magazine, both in terms of detail & composition, it was also a leap forward for horror illustration in general. Gogos' imaginative & surreal colors would seem to add a dimension to the character absent in the reference photo, creating a template that would be followed by all horror illustrators for decades to come.
Gogos hadn't simply re-created Price's skin tone, he had imaged vivid gel lighting into the scene. Only the colors seemed to emanate from within Price, rather than from without, leaving the reds & blacks of his costume intact. Price seems otherworldly, cloaked in dubious intent or curdled motivation. And the spooky subtleties of the performance seem baked into the still frame.
Creating the look
Basil's style really began to reveal itself when working from black & white reference photos, recreating classic characters from horror's golden age of the '30s, '40s, & '50s. These photos were necessarily lit for contrast, outlining the characters' features in stark shadows & highlights, rather than color, to avoid muddy, gray mid-tones in the final photo. Basil's imposition of color, then, combined the best of both worlds, creating surreal scenes of contrast & saturation that were entirely new. They seem to leap out of Basil's imagination & onto the canvas. And this unique style quickly came to define the magazine.
Coming to America
Basil Gogos was born to Greek parents in Egypt in 1929, immigrating to the U.S. at 16 years of age. His mother had studied fashion design in Paris & the family relocated from Washington D.C. to New York so that she & Gogos' father could start a fashion business. His father was a writer by trade, his brother a photographer & his uncle a painter, so his career as an artist came somewhat naturally. But it was 1956 before he decided to pursue it in earnest. He won a contest in 1959 to design the cover art for a western paperback--Lewis B. Patten's Pursuit--which served as his introduction to the world of cover illustration. And his subsequent work on adventure magazines would lead to his opportunity with Famous Monsters of Filmland.
His relationship with horror illustration would last until his passing in 2017, but it was never his exclusive passion & oftentimes wasn't even his primary source of income. His horror production, subsequently, came in waves. The first wave came amidst a flood of new interest in golden-age horror fueled by the syndication of classic horror films on American television. Famous Monsters was founded during this boom, & he produced 13 covers for the magazine between 1960 & 1963. He then turned his focus to adventure magazines, but returned to Famous Monsters in 1969 to mark the passing of Boris Karloff, painting an iconic portrait of Karloff as Frankenstein. And he'd remain one of the magazine's primary cover artists until it ceased publication in 1983 amidst the horror genre's move away from monsters & toward more realistic fare.
Gogos spent much of the 1980s working as a photo re-toucher for United Artists & as an illustrator for advertising agencies, working on fine art on the side & attending drawing classes at the Art Students League. This is when he'd meet his wife, Linda Touby, an accomplished abstract artist who monitored a figure sketching class for the school. Friendly artistic competition turned to dating & eventually marriage, but it was well after their relationship had turned romantic that he invited her to a horror convention & she learned about his fame.
Touby would encourage Gogos to return monster portraits, which he would, & she would help to maintain his legacy until her own passing in 2021.
Returning to monsters
The 1990s ushered in a renewed interest in classic horror, & along with it came commissions for portraits, magazines, trading cards & album covers. These illustrations would be some of the finest work of his career, truly substantiating his horror portraits as fine art.
In 1995, he was commissioned by the families of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, & Lon Chaney to create artwork for a set of U.S. postal stamps to commemorate the Universal Monster films. The family circulated a petition which ultimately succeeded, as the U.S. postal service would release a set of commemorative stamps in 1997. But they commissioned Thomas Blackshear to create new portraits based on Gogos' signature style, objecting to the actors appearing on the stamps without make-up. Even though the postal service had passed on his artwork, they couldn't escape the style he pioneered.
But few would do as much to renew interest in Gogos during this period as Rob Zombie, who commissioned an original illustration for the cover of his debut solo album, Hellbilly Deluxe: 13 Tales of Cadaverous Cavorting Inside the Spookshow International (1998). With the album, Zombie would eclipse the success of his previous band, White Zombie, & the accompanying promotional materials--including the music video for lead single Dragula--would emphasize the motifs defined by Gogos' portrait. That same year he'd commission another portrait for the cover of an album titled Rob Zombie Presents the Words & Music of Frankenstein, which would later be removed from shelves over a rights dispute with Universal Studios. But the portrait remains hanging in Zombie's home.
Much of Zombie's aesthetic, in fact, seems to center around bringing Gogos' audacious colors off of the canvas & onto the stage & screen. His debut film, House of 1,000 Corpses (2003) pays homage to Gogos' high-contrast, high-saturation style in a number of scenes including Captain Spaulding's Murder Ride.
Toward the end of his life, Gogos was awarded a lifetime achievement award at Kirk Hammet's Fear FestEvil where he spoke briefly about what might have made his paintings unique. His use of complimentary colors is his calling card, but the heart of the photos was always his empathy for the character. An idea that surfaced is perfect imperfection: Gogos would seek out scars & blemishes &, rather than smooth them over, he would try to paint them as perfectly as possible to capture the uniqueness of the character & their expression. He felt that that it was essential for a portrait to reflect a life lived.
The idea of a monster portrait is itself a curious concept. Conventional wisdom says you flee from monsters, you don't invite them into your studio for hours on end. But Gogos did, if only in his imagination. These weren't blurry shots of Sasquatch, taken just to prove you met the monster & survived. These were sessions where he got to know the monsters & their complicated motivations. He was able to look past the monstrosity & find the sadness & alienation in a character like Frankenstein, portraying something far more nuanced than the typical framing of good versus evil.
He painted the monsters as if he knew them, flaws & all. And perhaps even loved them. And for that, Basil Gogos is in turn loved.
Jordan Peele once said that Get Out was his Frankenstein & that Us was his Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. So much of modern horror still rests upon & will forever rest upon the archetypes seared into the public imagination through the Universal Studios monster films. And our conception of these characters are inseparable from Basil Gogos. He passed away in 2017, but he leaves behind a prolific body of work the likes of which we may never see again. And in that his influence saturates the genre, his contributions will only continue to grow. And generations to come will continue to discover his art & come to know & love the monsters as he did.