Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion – in comics?

Heinrich Wölfflin once said, “not everything is possible in every period.” Ernst Gombrich takes this statement as a starting point in his book Art and Illusion (first published in 1960 but based on a lecture series from 1956) and asks: if artists always want to represent what they see as accurately as possible, why do their results look so different from period to period? In other words: why does art have a history?

Gombrich’s main explanation is the “tenacity of conventions”. There is an “enormous pull in man to repeat what he has learned”, and only “exceptional beings” are occasionally able to “break this spell and make a significant advance” (pp. 24-25). That’s why, according to Gombrich, art has slowly become to look more and more lifelike.

So where do comics fit into this model? Gombrich actually mentions them as part of the “victory and vulgarization of representational skills” (p. 8), which had become ubiquitous in the (i.e. Gombrich’s) present day. Is that really the end of the story? Do comics constitute the apex of artistic illusion? Probably not. I think comics retain some features which Gombrich assigns to earlier periods, or “primitive” art.

One of these features is the treatment of local colour. In earlier times, artists didn’t try to represent the colour of an object as they perceived it (not an easy task, as Gombrich explains), but instead chose colours that fit into a specific overall tonality, as was demanded by the taste of the public of that day (chapter I).

Another feature of primitive art is to show each object in its “characteristic shape” (p. 302) – a horse from the side, a coin from above, etc. -, rather than to employ a “purely visual mode” (p. 19) with foreshortenings and intersections. (In a way, this “visual mode” is similar to Svetlana Alpers’s “Albertian mode”.)

When I was reading the first Justice League Dark trade paperback the other day, I found traces of both of these “primitive” characteristics in it. Justice League Dark was (at that time, 2011) written by Peter Milligan, drawn by Mikel Janin, and coloured by Ulises Arreola. I’ll write more about this interesting series in a later post, but for today, let’s look at p. 9 of the third issue.

Justice League Dark #3, p. 9In this scene, the superhero Deadman tries to stop June Moone, who is possessed by an evil witch, to jump from a rooftop. In panels 1, 3 and 4, the colour of that rooftop is black. In the last panel, its colour has suddenly changed to a textured grey, even though the lighting remains unchanged. Which is the “right” colour of the roof surface? That’s hardly possible to say. If it’s made of concrete or a similar material, it could appear greyish in daylight, but the scene takes place at night, so it might just look black. The reason for the colour change is, I believe, a pragmatic one: in the last panel, the roof on which Deadman and June are standing (or falling from, respectively) has to be distinguishable from the other rooftops of the surrounding buildings, so one is grey (thus adding the benefit of allowing to show shadows) and the others are black. (Another instance of a colour change is the reddish background of the second panel, but then again, Justice League Dark is full of such eerie glows.)

As for the second feature, June Moone’s face (her “characteristic shape”) is always shown more or less frontally on this page, regardless of where her body is orientated towards. Often, the figures in this comic are reminiscent of amateur stage actors who are taught to always face the audience so that they can be heard better. Deadman is shown twice frontally and twice from behind, but his red-and-white shape is easily recognised from any point of view – unlike June Moone, the unexceptional supporting character. We need to see her face to instantly recognise her.

I’m not saying the art in Justice League Dark is bad. It’s just in accord with the current style in mainstream superhero comics, which values clarity higher than accurate representation of the artists’ perception. The readers need to be enabled to easily read the comic and identify the important elements on the pictures, in order to understand what’s going on in the story. The story, not the look, conveys the atmosphere. In such a paradigm, there is no place for ambiguity.

That being said, Art and Illusion is a rich and diverse book. For a different connection to comics, see Nicolas Labarre’s article “Art and Illusion in Blutch’s Mitchum” at The Comics Grid. Also of interest to the comics researcher might be chapter X of Art and Illusion, “The Experiment of Caricature”.

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2 Comments on “Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion – in comics?”

  1. […] already written about the art of this series in a previous post, but let’s focus on the story here: as in some of the other comics, mysterious supernatural […]


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