Alois Riegl’s group portraiture of Holland – in comics?

On the surface, Alois Riegl’s 1902 book The Group Portraiture of Holland (German full text here) is about a quite specific kind of artwork – Dutch portrait paintings from the 16th and 17th century. However, it also provides some concepts and terms applicable to any group portrait. Among those, the following three oppositional pairs are arguably the most intriguing:

  • subjectivism vs. objectivism: in a subjective mode of depiction, the figures in the portrait present themselves as they would to a spectator present at the same site. They are embedded in the landscape and affected by their surroundings, so that e.g. their outlines may “evaporate”. In the objective mode, in contrast, figures appear in a sort of ideal or neutral view and are detached from their surroundings, resulting e.g. in clear outlines.
  • subordination vs. coordination: in many groups there is a hierarchy, e.g. different ranks in a military unit. When such a hierarchy is clearly visible in a portrait, for instance by gestures, dress, symbolic objects, or placement of figures, Riegl speaks of subordination.
  • symbolism vs. genre*: in 1902 the Symbolist art movement was in full swing, but that’s not what Riegl means by this term. Figures in a group portrait often perform actions and/or hold objects, and when those actions seem believable, i.e. when it looks as if the sitter actually performed that action, the action itself threatens to overshadow the individuality of the figure and the painting is in danger, so to speak, of becoming a genre painting instead of a portrait. Symbolic actions and objects, however, are metonymic signifiers of something else, most often character traits of the respective sitter. A telltale sign by which symbolism and genre can be told apart is how much attention the figure is paying to the action it performs or the object it is holding: if the figure is looking somewhere else (e.g. out of the picture), the action/object is probably symbolic.

Does it make sense to look at comics the same way Riegl looks at paintings? It is not unusual to compare individual comic panels to paintings, and many panels feature three or more figures. It can be argued that such panels sometimes resemble portraits – for instance, superhero comics books often contain a splash panel that introduces the main characters.

Let’s look at two examples from a fairly standard current superhero series, Batman/Superman by Gene Luen Yang and Ivan Reis. In issue #17, our protagonists encounter a supervillain team on a parallel world. This is the panel that introduces the villains:

Panel from Batman/Superman #17 by Gene Luen Yang and Ivan Reis

Is the subjective or objective mode of depiction at work here? On the one hand, all four characters are bathed in the same turquoise light, which suggests subjectivism. On the other hand, the composition ensures that most of the figures is clearly visible, especially their faces, and there is no interaction between them – the Penguin is pointing upwards, but the other three are looking elsewhere – so that each is shown in isolation, as it were.

The composition also emphasises subordination: the foremost figure, and also the one who seems tallest (i.e. who is drawn to the largest vertical extent), is that of Warden Luthor, the leader of the quartet. The quality that definitely allows us to speak of this panel as a portrait, though, is its symbolism. As mentioned before, the only real action of the Penguin pointing to the sky is unrealistic because the others are not able to perceive it. Joker, Warden and Jones appear to be engaged in conversation with Batman and Robin, but their gestures have little to do with that conversation. Instead, the gestures tell us something about those characters: Jones is holding a bauble because that’s the weapon he throws at his opponents, Warden Luthor is depicted adjusting his tie and having a hand in his pocket to show how conceited and overconfident he is, and the Joker is laughing because that’s what he always does.

A few issues later (#20), the arrival of our protagonists on another parallel world is shown in this double page spread:

Double page from Batman/Superman #20 by Gene Luen Yang and Ivan Reis

Despite the orange reflections of the fire on the figures’ clothes and skin, the subjectivism of this image is doubtful: while the threatening demons are situated next to and behind the heroes, the latter don’t interact with them (nor with each other really) and look towards the picture surface, as if they are posing for us, each on his or her own in empty space.

Again there is a clear subordination, with Superman – normally Batman’s equal, but temporarily the leader here on his home turf in the Metropolis of the “World of Tomorrow” – depicted much more prominently than the others, especially the diminutive figures of Alanna and El Diablo (throwaway sidekicks introduced in #19 who now tag along with Batman and Superman on their inter-dimensional journey).

As for symbolism, this is again the dominant mode in which the figures’ gestures are depicted. Everyone has this mildly concerned look on his or her face and isn’t really interacting with anyone or anything. Even Alanna, who carries El Diablo with her jetpack, isn’t all too focused on her task. With the exception of Superman and his wide-open mouth, one could cut each figure out and stick it on a poster against a neutral background, each character a model of typical superhero stoicism.

Just to show that not all comic panels serve as portraits, here is another panel from earlier in the same issue that features the same five characters (who are wearing cowboy hats now because they’re in yet another parallel world):

Panel from Batman/Superman #20 by Gene Luen Yang and Ivan Reis

Here the figures are very much absorbed in their respective actions – firing grapple guns, swinging a whip, flying to escape the quicksand – and we don’t get a clear view of all of them; poor Alanna in particular is mostly concealed. In this panel, the focus is on what happens, and not so much on who the characters are. This only shows that in typical superhero comics like Batman/Superman, creators purposefully insert panels resembling group portraits only every now and then.

Index to all “[theory] – in comics?” posts on this weblog

* ^ More precisely, Riegl presents a multi-tiered model of the development of Dutch group portraiture in which symbolism and genre are only two of the stages, the other two (sometimes combined into one) being ‘novella’ and ‘drama’. Genre, novella and drama are all in opposition to symbolism and the status of the painting as a portrait.


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