The late painter Thomas Kinkade, who died suddenly a few days ago of as yet undetermined causes, was a polarizing figure in the art world. Both celebrated and loathed for his ubiquitous paintings of idyllic landscapes and scenes from the Bible, which he successfully mass-marketed in shopping malls, television commercials and licensed products, Kinkade claimed to be America's most collected artist and called himself a "painter of light" whose art agent was God himself.

But the memory of Kinkade has found itself an unexpected defender: animator Ralph Bakshi, the author of subversive films including Fritz the Cat and Cool World, who mentored Kinkade when the painter worked as a background artist on Fire and Ice, the fantasy film Bakshi created with comic book and illustration legend Frank Frazetta. In a statement released over the weekend, Bakshi said that critics missed "the true brilliance that is Kinkade," whom the animator suggested was undermining the Tea Party and the religious right by selling their distorted visions of nostalgia back to them.From Ralph Bakshi:

Thomas Kinkade was for me at his very young age already a brilliant painter. That's why, with no prior professional training, I gave him the job of painting backgrounds for my movie with Frank Frazetta, "Fire and Ice". He nailed it, which really was impossible for anyone else with no experience - but not for him.

It was also Kinkade that negotiated for himself and his partner James Gurney all salaries and vacations. He was good at that too, and that got my attention. He was also all country. "Aw shucks," he would laugh. I liked Tom so much, I kept telling him that his "aw shucks" wasn't fooling me, and that there's something about him I really like - and it has to do with how much he knows already.

Now, a few years ago, I met billionaire Kinkade at my booth at the [Comic-Con International in San Diego]. We hugged and laughed and spent a long time together, but he did not look good. I shrugged it off. As far as the art world, the CRITICAL ones shrugging Tom off, as they sell a shark in oil, and polka dots in 12 -- count them, 12 -- galleries at once in one opening, and all the other mindless hype...

They miss the true brilliance that is Kinkade.

Kinkade painted the brilliant landscapes of the religious right, the Tea Party and all the other Rush Limbaughs in America. He's selling back what Americans want. This is the most homespun vision of the distorted right and nostalgia-looking Americans reaching for purity without knowing what it really is -- all through his landscapes.

IT'S BRILLIANT, and goes by every art critic and major museum in the world. I love it. And it's just that that [which] I made my movies about -- the blind, pretentious and ugly.

Tom Kinkade was a great, a good friend of mine and I will miss him. As an artist he nailed it -- and that's rare.

Bakshi also released some images of Kinkade's work on Fire and Ice, including the studio photograph above featuring Kinkade and James Gurney.

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