Some notes from the 33rd Kunsthistorikertag, Mainz, March 24-28, 2015

photograph by Peter Pulkowski from www.uni-mainz.de

Kunsthistorikertag, the conference of the German society of art historians (VDK), takes place every two years and is one of those huge events with hundreds of participants and up to four parallel tracks. I won’t even try to sum up all the talks I’ve heard. Instead I’ll just pick one ‘highlight’ from each of the five conference days with some connection to sequential art and/or Japan.

  • Tuesday: One of the three parallel talks that kicked off the conference was Miguel Taín Guzmán on “The views of the cities of Spain drawn by the Florentine artist Pier Maria Baldi [ca. 1630-1686]: the codex of the journey of prince Cosimo III of Medici in the Laurenziana Library” (one of the few presentations in English by the way). The codex consists of a written account of the prince’s journey, interspersed with 86 ink drawings of cities and other stations of the journey. Some of these drawings not only depict the place, but also a specific situation at the time of the prince’s visit: Cosimo’s travel procession, camels at Aranjuez, a thunderstorm over Santiago de Compostela, etc. In this huge book of 60×100cm, the drawings are arranged on double pages with two drawings on top of each other. As the placement of the drawings corresponds to the chronology of the journey, one could speak of juxtaposed images in deliberate sequence… Some of the digitised drawings can be seen at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Pier_Maria_Baldi, and there’s also a huge PDF of a book reprint.
  • Wednesday: Irene Schütze examined the exhibitions of Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and Joana Vasconcelos at the Palace of Versailles in 2008, 2010, and 2012, respectively. It was the only talk at the conference, at least of the ones I heard, that mentioned manga: apparently, Murakami “learnt about Versailles through the girls’ comic book Rose of Versailles” (Riyoko Ikeda’s ベルサイユのばら / Berusaiyu no bara, also known as Lady Oscar), a quote (published in various places, e.g. The Independent) which has been used against him by his critics.
  • Thursday: Christian Berger re-introduced the almost forgotten conceptual artist Douglas Huebler (1924-1997). Many of his works consist of photographs accompanied by writing (or vice versa?). Compared to other conceptualists, the form in which he presents his images and texts is much more important and might even be considered as the artwork itself, not merely a documentation of some photography performance as the ‘actual’ work. Location Piece #5, for instance, is a series of ten pictures of patches of snow next to a highway, taken on a road trip in specific distances, as the text explains. Talk about juxtaposed images in deliberate sequence again.
  • Friday: Helmut Leder and Raphael Rosenberg presented results of someone else’s study which tracked eye movements of people from Austria and Japan who where looking at a digital reproduction of the same painting. The paths of the eye movements and the areas on which they focused were similar within the group of Austrian participants on the one hand and within the group of Japanese participants on the other hand, but there were notable differences between the Austrian and the Japanese average. For Rosenberg, this proves the cultural influence on perceptual physiology.
  • Saturday: On the last day of the conference, several field trips were offered. I joined the one to Tadao Andō‘s sculpture museum in Bad Münster am Stein. It consists mainly of Andō’s signature concrete blocks with their characteristic hole pattern, but the building is unusual for him in that it combines an old, relocated half-timbered barn with the new concrete parts. The guide at the museum suggested the concrete blocks were modeled after tatami mats, which might be true for their measurements (90×180cm), but the pattern in which they are arranged in the museum walls differs from traditional Japanese tatami floor layouts.

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”.


New article published – “I’m always touched by your presence, dear: Blondie album covers and the concept of presence”

Blondie, Parallel Lines cover detailI’m pleased to announce the publication of my latest journal article. You can read the abstract at the ERAS journal website and directly download the PDF here: http://www.eras.utad.pt/docs/JUN%202013%20estudos%20interdisciplinares1.pdf

In case you were wondering: no, this article isn’t about comics. But my previous blog posts about Michael Fried from February last year and photography theory from January last year are connected to it (and of course my conference paper on “presence in comics“, which will be published too, eventually).


Svetlana Alpers’s modes of representation – in comics?

In 1983, the same year in which her book The Art of Describing came out, Svetlana Alpers published an interesting essay in the journal Representations, titled “Interpretation without Representation, or, the Viewing of Las Meninas”. In this article, she describes “two modes of representation that are central in Western art” (i.e. pictorial art, primarily figurative painting). Basically, these modes are specific constellations of perspectival, deictical and above all diegetic dispositions.

A picture in the first mode – the “Albertian” mode, after Leon Battista Alberti – “is conceived to be like a window on the perceived world”. That is, the recipient is aware that the picture was made by an artist, and from a particular point of view. Thus, the recipient in front of the picture takes on the same position as the artist when he or she beheld the scene that would become the subject of the picture. (In contrast, Alpers writes that “the artist positions himself on the viewer’s side of the picture surface”, but I’m describing things from the reception side here.) Cues for this mode can be artificial compositions of objects framed to be painted, such as a sitter posing for a portrait, or objects which appear to have related to the artist in some way, such as a figure seemingly looking at the beholder/artist.

The second mode of representation – “the northern or descriptive mode” – is characterised by the perceived absence of the artist. The picture looks as if “the world produces its own image”, a “replicative image”. Such a picture “does not assume the existence of viewers prior to and external to it”, but it may contain “a figure situated as a looker within” who does not appear to look out of the picture, or at least not towards the position of the artist/viewer. In a way, such a device is similar to Michael Fried‘s concept of absorption.

For Alpers, the choice of mode is a meaningful and almost ideological one. The Albertian mode betrays a “commanding attitude toward the world”, whereas in the descriptive mode, “the world seen has priority”. In other words, “the artist of the first kind claims that ‘I see the world’ while that of the second shows rather that the world is ‘being seen.'”

Does it make sense to look for these representational modes in multi-image works such as comics? It might, if we assess the mode for individual images and then extrapolate to determine the predominant mode of the work as a whole. In Alpers’s main example, Velázquez’s Las Meninas, the two modes are intertwined, but for simplicity’s sake let’s assume here that as a rule, either one mode or the other is employed in any given picture. I’ll contrast the two modes of representation with each other by using two older manga as examples, Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa, and Haine by Kyōta Kita and Keiko Ogata.

Heine in Japan, p. 35Let’s stark with the more obscure one,  ハイネ: 愛と革命の詩人 / Haine: ai to kakumei no shijin (“Heine: poet of love and revolution”, published in German as Heine in Japan in 1988). It is the biography of the German poet Heinrich Heine (1797 – 1856), who actually had never been to Japan. In these two panels from p. 35, we see the young Heine in conversation with his aunt and uncle. The figures in the top panel look orthogonally out of the picture so that we, the readers, feel as if they were looking at us, and as if we’d look through Heine’s eyes. In the bottom panel, the arrangement of the figures makes us imagine we stand right next to Heine’s aunt, as if we were a fourth family member taking part in the conversation. Both panels are clearly composed in the Albertian mode of representation, as they give the impression of a plausible human point of view. This mode is predominant throughout the comic.

Barefoot Gen, p. 3 of the German 1982 editionIn contrast, consider these two panels from the beginning of the classic Barefoot Gen (はだしのゲン / Hadashi no Gen), on p. 3 of the German one-volume edition from 1982. The top panel shows running feet, seen from slightly above ground level. On the bottom panel, we see the Nakaoka family fleeing into an air raid shelter, depicted from a slanted view from above. What these two points of view have in common is that they can hardly be said to show the action from a human perspective: it is unlikely that a figure within the story could perceive things from the same position as we, the readers, do. Therefore, we can say the descriptive mode is employed here. Particularly the oblique and elevated point of view of the bottom panel is a frequent device in Barefoot Gen to freshen up traditional “shot/reverse shot” dialogue scenes.

Our analysis of the modes of representation shows that in each of the two comics, a mode is chosen that complements it: Barefoot Gen is based on its author’s personal experiences, but in order to show that the horrible events depicted in this comic are neither purely fictitious nor singular, the descriptive mode of representation is used to make them less personal and more credible. In Haine, on the other hand, the Albertian mode is used as an invigorating device that puts the reader into the action and almost turns this second-hand account into an eyewitness account, thus bridging the gap of 150 years between our time and Heine’s.


Raymond Bellour’s fragmented perception – in comics?

Raymond Bellour’s essay “Of an other cinema” (PDF) was first published in French as “D’un autre cinéma” in 2000. While parts of it read like merely a review of video installation works at the 1999 Venice Biennial, the article has become an important contribution to the theory of video art. Bellour’s main point is that video installations are a different kind of cinema, and they (often) transform cinema by “dividing and multiplying” the image in several channels. Because of the difficulty to keep track of what’s going on on multiple screens at the same time, Bellour characterises the video art recipient as a “dissolved, fragmented, shaken, intermittent spectator”. Other terms used by Bellour to describe such phenomena are: “aesthetics of confusion”, “expansion of projection”, “segmentation”, “exploded story”, “explosion of perception”, or (after Abel Gance) “polyvision”.

This fragmented perception that Bellour describes is specific to (and characteristic of, maybe even defining for) video installation art. But isn’t there something similar in comics? In a way, such experiences of fragmented perception occur quite often when reading comics of several pages length: as you flip the comic open to start reading it from page 1, you involuntarily glance at another page, say, page 42. You can force yourself to continue reading from page 1, but you cannot forget what you have already seen on 42. It’s as if something is already happening in the story on page 42, at the same time that you’re reading page 1. In this respect, each comic page (or each double page) is like a screen or a channel in a video installation, as only one can be perceived at a time, while on each another segment of the story unfolds simultaneously.

But there are certain comics which are even closer to what Bellour describes. I’m thinking of experimental comics, particularly “choose you own adventure”-style comics with parallel story branches. As an example, I initially wanted to dig up a particular episode of Winston Rowntree’s Subnormality that employed this method, but I discovered that the latest episode, 214: “Accidentally Insulting a Friend”, serves this purpose just as well. Instead of embedding the original image of this webcomic here, I suggest you follow the link to read it.

Subnormality #214

For the first five panels, this comic is relatively traditional, as we follow the conversation of the two young women in a car. Then, by the sixth panel, things get interesting. Which is the sixth panel, actually? Which is the seventh? The reading order up to this point was left-to-right and top-to-bottom, but that wouldn’t make sense at this point anymore, as the comic is split into a left branch and a right branch, which show what’s going on inside each protagonist’s head (plus the middle branch with the traffic light panels). The branches unite again towards the end of the episode, but in the middle, they unfold in parallel, both spatially and chronologically. You can start by reading the left branch first and then scroll up to continue with the top panel on the right hand side, or vice versa. However, while you’re reading the branch you’ve chosen to start with, you’re missing out on what’s happening at the same time in the other one. Thus, as the story of this comic “explodes”, the perception of it is fragmented, not unlike that of a multi-channel video installation.


Owens’s postmodernism, Foster’s postmodernism – in comics?

Although some people have already proclaimed the death of postmodernism, it is still a relatively new phenomenon, and the term is quite ambiguous. Therefore it makes sense to approach it by reading several texts which reflect different opinions, for instance “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism” by Craig Owens alongside “Postmodernism: A Preface” by Hal Foster (the art historian, not the comic artist). Both were published in the early 1980s already – Owens’s in the journal October in 1980, Foster’s as an introduction to a book he edited in 1983 (The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture), and this timeliness might have contributed to the differences between their respective understanding of postmodernism.

Owens lists six artistic strategies which distinguish postmodernist from modernist art: appropriation, site specificity, impermanence, accumulation, discursivity, and hybridisation. As with Foucault’s heterotopian principles, these strategies are not necessary characteristics – the artists discussed by Owens employ some of them, but not all six at the same time. In this sense, many comics can be identified as “postmodernist”.

Take, for instance, Shotaro Ishinomori’s マンガ日本経済入門 / Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon (translated as Japan Inc.: Introduction to Japanese Economics in the English edition), first published in 1986. Sometimes referred to as a non-fictional comic, it actually tells a fictional story of two young managers in a Japanese company, while at the same time introducing the reader to economic facts and theories. However, it’s not the content that makes this comic a postmodernist comic, even though it would have lent itself to a discursive treatment of e.g. economic policy. It is a postmodernist comic in Owens’s sense because it is a hybridised medium (at least in the German edition from 1989 which I’m referring to in the following): apart from the comic panels, Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon consists of three repetitive pictureless elements. There are hand-lettered notes of usually about 3 to 5 lines length at the bottom of approximately every other page, which provide economic background information that may or may not be connected to the events on the same page. Then there are longer, typeset texts on their own pages (pp. 27, 41, 105, 167, 223, 257) in the same vein, and quotations from economists on the chapter title pages (pp. 9, 71, 125, 179, 233, 285). This clash of regular comic layouts and non-comic elements shows that hybridisation is at work here, one of Owens’s six postmodernist strategies. (A similar example of this strategy would be the use of text-only pages in Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, of course.)

japan_incWhile Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon and many other comics could be called postmodernist in Owens’s sense, it would be more difficult for them to qualify as postmodernist in Foster’s sense. More precisely, in “Postmodernism: A Preface”, Foster distinguishes two kinds of postmodernism: a “postmodernism of reaction”, and a “postmodernism of resistance”. The difference between the two is that the resistant postmodernism “seeks to question rather than exploit cultural codes, to explore rather than conceal social and political affiliations.” For the resistant postmodernism, which Foster clearly champions, the trait which Owens calls discursivity is essential.

Although the cultural codes and social and political affiliations of the business world are extensively featured in Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon, they are never put into question. Economic doctrines are presented as irrevocable truth. One of the protagonists, the young idealistic manager, has his employees’ welfare on his mind and tries to change things for the better, but he does so from within the business system, by playing along with its rules. Neither are paternalistic and sexist tendencies criticised. Because of this lack of discursivity, I doubt that Foster would regard Ishinomori’s comic as (resistant) postmodernist.

The difference between Owens’s and Foster’s definition of postmodernism is symptomatic for the twofold meaning that the term “postmodern” has taken on. On the one hand, it denotes the era after modernity – postmodernity. All art produced in that era is by definition postmodern. On the other hand, it denotes a certain style that some artists choose to employ and others don’t. Around 1980, in a period of transition, this distinction is still blurry, so I wouldn’t equate Owens’s postmodernism with the former meaning and Foster’s with the latter. Yet, both Owens’s postmodernism and the concept of postmodernity as an era are broader definitions than their counterparts – more works of art fit into them than into Foster’s definition and into the concept of postmodernism as a movement.

All of these notions of postmodernism are valid. They unfold their usefulness in different contexts: broader definitions stress the similarities of contemporaneous works, while narrower definitions stress the differences. When we’re talking about “postmodern” art, artists, or comics, we just need make clear which definition we’re referring to.

For a different take on postmodernism and comics, see Noah Berlatsky’s essay on Fredric Jameson at The Hooded Utilitarian.


Erwin Panofsky’s perspective as symbolic form – in comics?

In his essay “Perspective as Symbolic Form” (“Die Perspektive als ‘symbolische Form'”, 1927), Erwin Panofsky dispels the myth that artists didn’t know anything about perspectival construction before the Renaissance. He shows that the Ancient Greeks and Romans just employed a different system than the vanishing point system we are used to today, and neither can be said to be more “correct” than the other. For Panofsky, the transition from the old to the new system was a paradigm shift. As long as a perspectival paradigm is upheld, artists will construct their pictures in that system. Once a paradigm shift occurs, there is no turning back to the old system – artists don’t choose between different systems.

If we follow Panofsky so far, one question remains: is the vanishing point system still the uncontested paradigm today, or has another shift occurred in the last 85 years? Let’s look at a random comic book to see how perspective is handled there. It’s been a while since I last reviewed Astonishing X-Men, and I’m going to properly review the current issues in a later post, but for today I pick issue #57 from December 2012 (cover dated February 2013). With this issue, Gabriel Hernandez Walta took over as the regular artist from Mike Perkins. It is a harsh transition, as their art styles are so different: none of the lines in Hernandez Walta’s art are exactly straight; they are all slighty irregular and seem nervous, vibrant and sketchy. And yet, see how he constructs perspective in the first panel on the second page:

Astonishing X-Men #57If we trace the lines indicated by rows of windows or sidewalk seams (traced in red by myself here), which would be parallel to each other in real three-dimensional space, they converge in a single vanishing point when Hernandez Walta projects them onto the two-dimensional space of his panel. Furthermore, this vanishing point is at the same location in the picture as the head of the character Warbird, the protagonist of this story.

This comic book is full of such obtrusively constructed vanishing point perspectives, often including floor tiles or other grid patterns that help to convey a feeling of depth. However, this is not the only perspectival system employed by Hernandez Walta. In several panels, he switches to isometric projection. For instance, in the third panel on p. 3:

Astonishing X-Men #57, p. 3Parallel lines formed by the furniture in the depicted room (assuming the furniture is meant to be rectangular and arranged in parallel) stay parallel in the projection – they never converge even if we extend them beyond the panel borders.

Overall, the predominant perspectival construction system in Astonishing X-Men #57 is still the vanishing point system. But maybe Hernandez Walta’s little isometric deviations are a sign that the vanishing point paradigm isn’t quite as uncontested nowadays as it used to be.