Friday, September 2, 2016

Comics as Art — in 2016

[1] King.
Thoughts about a large exhibition of American newspaper comics in Germany, titled Pioniere des Comic; Eine andere Avantgarde (Pioneers of Comics; A different Avant-garde), with works by Feininger, Forbell, Herriman, King, McCay and Sterrett
by Andy Bleck

ART. Are comics art? I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to answer this.

The problem is the tremendous fuss everybody is still making about fine art, because our idea of civilization is so caught up with the great works of art. Compared to fine art, other human achievements like politics or science, seem slightly grubby and ephemeral. Ephemeral, because they always can be improved upon. Art since around 1400 (and music since around 1700) cannot be improved. The masterpieces of classical Western art are perfect. Hence the fuss. 

Why shouldn’t comics be called art? you may think. Any old rubbish is called art nowadays, why not comics? Maybe because comics aren’t any old rubbish. Comics are important.

As interesting as the degree to which comics might or might not be art, is the fact that comics often aren’t even accepted as an art form. Why is almost any human activity nowadays pronounced to be some sort of art form or at least worthy of study, with museums devoted to virtually everything, except comics? Any old schlock gets a look-in. Except comics.

[2] McCay. The exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, upon entering starts with the first Winsor McCay animation. 
[3] McCay. Little Nemo, 7 April 1909. 
[4] McCay.
[5] McCay. Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, 5 May 1906. 
[6] McCay. 
[7] McCay. Detail from Dream of the Rarebit Fiend — note the leftover pencil pre-drawing. 
[8] McCay. 
[9] McCay.
[10] McCay.
[11] McCay. Little Nemo, 1 May 1910. 
[12] McCay. Note the way McCay’s text sections are pasted in. They’re on darker, more discoloured paper. At the exhibition you can see the odd spots where he had to redraw edges of artwork around balloons.
[13] McCay. Another McCay animation is Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), shown together with an original drawing for it. Probably his only animation that reaches the quality of his comics. 

The exhibitors in Frankfurt have a theory. They think it is because comics were created as a popular entertainment, whereas art is elitist.

So, why are photography or cinema held in such high esteem then, with dozens of museums and institutions taking care of them? Cinema is even more admired today than contemporary art, literature or music. It’s true that with the emergence of more elitist (if only because less entertaining) comics, the art form has garnered more academic respect. But really — what is the problem with comics?

I have a theory.

THEORY. First you need to understand what comics are. Comics are not — exclusively — the type of picture stories developed in American newspapers (as claimed by this exhibition in Frankfurt). Comics are not visual narratives. Comics are not ‘sequential art.’ Comics most certainly are not ’a combination of text and images.’

[14] Feininger.
[15] Feininger.
[16] Feininger.
[17] Feininger. 
[18] Feininger. These are not preparatory drawings, but second versions Feininger made for possible publication in Germany. Unfortunately nothing came of it.
[19] Feininger.
[20] Feininger.

Comics are a very specific type of sequential art. They consist of static images which work as a group but also do not work as a group. The reason they don’t is because when you look at comics, one after the other, they suggest to the viewer the passage of time. They do this by pretending that a picture that follows another picture is not really an entirely new picture. It pretends to be the same picture again, but different. When the viewer understands this underlying relationship between the pictures in a comic, he will no longer view them as separate entities. He understands that a picture following another is not an additional picture. It is a replacement. He can still see the preceding picture. Indeed, only by constantly comparing the pictures that follow each other, can he understand that they are not supposed to be viewed as a group — the focus is on one picture, and then the next. The shift of focus from one picture to the next is in fact replacing one picture with another. Most people reading comics do not realise the iconoclastic brutality of this.

[21] Forbell. Most of Forbell’s 18 Sunday pages are shown. It’s hard to believe the publication date (1913) — you’d expect twenty years later at the earliest.
[22] Forbell.

Comics are too inventive, even for that great inventor Leonardo. He compared painting to poetry and — surprise, surprise! — valued painting higher, because poetry could not conceive a work in its entirety at once — each part only results from the preceding part, which then dies. Leonardo must have disapproved of medieval comics in illuminated manuscripts. (Read ‘decorated in colour’ for ‘illuminated,’ and google Cantigas de Alfonso el Sabio as a good surviving sample.)

This technique of brutally replacing one picture with another only became possible after the image-worshiping culture of ancient Greece and Rome was confronted and suffused with the image-despising culture of Judaeo-Christianity, when the emperor Augustine adopted the new religion.

The reason comics are the only art form not given any respect is because comics are the only art form not practiced by the ancient Greeks.

Photography and cinema may seem more technically advanced than the first comics in early Christian manuscripts, but they can be understood and ‘dealt with’ as a variation of painting and theatre. The brashness and ubiquitous deluge of photography and the fast-paced complexities of film may seem more aggressive than a meek little picture story. But in terms of what they do to the concept of the sanctity of the image, it is the little comic which is the iconoclastic ruffian.

When you understand this, you can see the dangers of viewing comics as yet another variation of fine art.

[23] Sterrett. Surrounding wall decoration composed of Cliff Sterrett panels from various pages. Very spectacular, although I would have preferred a complete story. A comic. 

[24-25] A round red reading couch with German translations of McCay, Sterrett, Feininger and Herriman, and the exhibition’s catalogue. 
[26] Sterrett.  
[27] Sterrett. An afterwards coloured-in original of Polly and her Pals, 26 Sep 1926.
[28] Sterrett. 
[29] Sterrett. Polly and her Pals, 21 Sep 1958. Three of Cliff Sterrett’s originals from the 1950s impressed me by their slick professionalism and sheer size. Very inspiring.

Comics are not a subsection of fine art or of literature. The reason people need to make an effort to embrace them is because they are uniquely new: a few hundred years as opposed to hundreds of thousands for every other art form. Children have no problem accepting comics for what they are, because their assumptions about other art forms — or the world in general — are far less fixed or developed.

Does that mean comics shouldn’t be exhibited in fine art galleries? Actually, no.

Making cultured and probably influential people understand that comics are an art form is almost impossible. Because, to some extent, it contradicts the aesthetic demands of sanctified forms of expression like painting or literature, while at the same time it provides a venue for artistic expression that isn’t just another art form — like pottery, cooking or shoe design — a venue that’s possibly similar in potential to the big four: Art, Architecture, Literature, and Music.

Suppose you wanted to teach comics in a school. Would you try to persuade the teaching profession to create a new subject, comics? Or would you rather try to sneak it into art classes or the literature curriculum perhaps? More urgently, comics need to be preserved for future generations. This may include not just storage, but complicated de-acidification. Which takes serious money. So, even though it would be preferable to let dedicated comics institutions take care of comics, one must be realistic. If declaring comics to be art means they have a better chance of survival, let’s pretend they are.

[30] Herriman.
[31] Herriman. Krazy Kat, 28 August 1938. The original drawing of a Sunday page compared with the printed version

There are nevertheless some reasons for not pretending comics are art, or some disadvantages one should be aware of. The exhibition in Frankfurt has chosen types of comics which seem to surpass fine art in the degree of avant-garde inventiveness, such as expressionism or surrealism. It was this which made it easier to invade the hallowed ground of an exhibition space normally reserved for fine art. Clever. But I wonder if it was McCay, Feininger or Sterrett who were the innovators. The real invention came just before, some years earlier, when Dirks, Opper and Swinnerton infused the picture story format, that had existed in American weekly magazines for decades, with a new vitality, changing its character so much that many people (including the exhibition organisers) came to think: here we have a completely new art form. But it’s not all that new. Only when you understand that comics are neither as old as is sometimes claimed (like cave painting and similar well-meant but misleading suggestions) nor as new as sometimes claimed (like the works of Outcault or Töpffer), can you appreciate what’s interesting about comics in terms of their placement within the arts in general. Comics exist in parallel to what is nowadays perceived as modern developments in fine art. (Time will tell whether the history of 20th century art will be revised somewhat.)

[32] King. Original dailies by Frank King, good to see, but less beautiful as artwork than his coloured Sunday pages, especially his ‘one-image-devided-up-into-12 panels’ stories.
[33] King. 
[34] King. Gasoline Alley character dolls.
This Frankfurt exhibition shows that certain comics are also part of that modernism. But what’s really liberating about comics is that their slapdash attitude to ‘the image,’ their technique of constantly replacing something you’ve just admired, has a similar devil-may-care attitude towards the exigencies and restraints of academic modernism.

Claiming comics are art because some of them are even more avant-garde than fine art, could sideline a majority of superb comics. A similar danger lies in regarding comics as literature, complete with awards and reviews, and recognition given to comics with ‘relevant’ subject matters. Again sidelining titles that seem less worthy.

I have no clear answer. If this exhibition makes it possible for more comics exhibtions to take place, let’s call comics art. But always remember that they are also both less and more.

[35] King. A Sunday page original with an instalment of Frank King’s Bobby Makebelieve, 8 Dec 1918.

HOW. One more thing. How come these supposedly avant-garde artists were published in popular newspapers?

Herriman and Sterrett started out with perfectly ordinary cartooning styles. They came up with sensationally arty shenanigans only after having established their comic characters. McCay and King were not drawing in an avant-garde or experimental style. McCay was using Art Nouveau for his line work and the Beaux Arts style for his architectural fantasies. King used some of his Sunday pages to play around with the format. Only Feininger and Forbell jumped in at the deep end, with striking formal inventions from the start, but the characters and stories didn’t have time to mature. Actually, Feininger is not a fluent read. Not because of the European-style artwork, but because it has no comic character you’re particularly interested in, no comic character you could identify with. 

Forbell’s strip is a variation on Swinnerton’s Little Jimmy (1904-58) and C.M. Payne’s S’Matter Pop? (1910-40). The little chap is full of zest and it would have been great to see the strip grow into more intricate stories. Presenting a complete unknown like Forbell with only 18 Sunday pages to his name (15 of which are displayed here at the Schirn) acts like a silent accusation, because if the comics readership from 100 years ago had shown a greater appreciation of Forbell’s outstanding ‘art’ qualities, his Naughty Pete might have resulted in one of the great comic strips.

Lyonel Feininger 1871-1956
Charles Forbell 1884-1946
George Herriman 1880-1944
Frank King 1883-1969
Winsor McCay 1869-1934
Cliff Sterrett 1883-1964

Panoramic photography by Andy Bleck, 2016

Andy’s Early Comics Archive is HERE.

[NOTE]  McCay did not invent animation. Search YouTube for Humorous Phases of Funny Faces 1906, and Fantasmagorie 1908 by Émile Cohl. A lo-res version of McCay’s first animation can be found on YouTube too. Search McCay or Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics.


EXHIBITION. The exhibition is curated by Alexander Braun and shown in the Schirn Kunsthalle, in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, from 23 June to 18 September, 2016. With original and printed works supplied by a variety of private collectors in Germany. On display are original and printed artworks by six American author-artists: Lyonel Feininger, Charles Forbell, George Herriman, Frank King, Winsor McCay, and Cliff Sterrett.

A catalogue is published in German, 2016, Pioniere des Comic; Eine andere Avantgarde, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 272 pp. in hardback, edited by Alexander Braun and Max Hollein, with a foreword by Max Hollein, and essays by Alexander Braun, David Carrier, and Thomas Scheibitz.

[36-37] The Schirn Kunsthalle in the centre of Frankfurt. 
[38] Subway poster for Pioniere des Comic; Eine andere Avantgarde.

1 comment:

  1. First time viewer; very insightful! Keep up the good work!