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.

Stencil graffiti website goes semantic

Screenshot from a first step towards releasing the information on my stencil graffiti website as Linked Open Data, I have now created XHTML+RDFa files for all graffiti. They can be found in the directory, or by clicking on the RDFa icon in each entry. These files contain only two pieces of information so far (not counting ID and licence): place and date. Now that they have been normalised (to the W3C Basic Geo and Dublin Core vocabulary, respectively) and cast in standard RDFa syntax, it should be easy to query and analyse this data, and to re-use it in mashups.

I did a short presentation on this conversion recently, the slides of which can be found on SlideShare (in German). The next steps are obvious: there is still a lot of information on the website that could be normalised, expressed in RDFa, and added to the XHTML files. Once I’ve got round to that I’ll post about it. As a good resource for getting started with Linked Open Data, I recommend Ed Summers’s recent paper “Linking Things on the Web: A Pragmatic Examination of Linked Data for Libraries, Archives and Museums”.

Heinrich Wölfflin’s plane and recession – in comics?

Welcome to the second installment of what might become a series of blogposts on classical theories in art history and their relation to comics. Twenty years after Franz Wickhoff’s Wiener Genesis, Heinrich Wölfflin published his seminal book Principles of Art History (Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe, München 1915), in which he introduced five pairs of terms with which the formal differences between Renaissance and Baroque style can be described.


Let’s focus on one of these pairs, plane and recession (“Fläche und Tiefe”), which achieved additional notoriety through the excerpt reprinted in the textbook Methoden-Reader Kunstgeschichte. According to Wölfflin, Renaissance painting is characterised by planar composition in layers parallel to the picture surface, whereas in Baroque painting, the depth of the pictorial space is emphasised. In order to find other whether these different modes of composition can be found in comics, I’ll now turn to two more or less randomly selected examples from titles I had been reading lately.

Page 7 of chapter 26 (in volume 6) of Tsutomu Nihei’s シドニアの騎士 / Shidonia no Kishi (Knights of Sidonia) consists of four panels, each of them an example of planar composition. In the first panel (in “Japanese” reading direction from right to left), the space ship crew members are arranged in a row nearly parallel to the picture surface, which only slightly recedes to the right. Panels 2 and 3 show computer screens, the first one being tilted sideways but still, again, parallel to the picture surface (the English lettering is somewhat misleading). Finally, in the last panel of the page, the figure is almost exactly frontally orientated towards the picture surface, while the background is largely undefined.


In contrast, .hack//黄昏の腕輪伝説 / Tasogare no udewa densetsu (.hack//Legend of the Twilight) by Rei Izumi and Tatsuya Hamazaki employs quite a different style, for instance in the first three panels on page 2 of chapter 7 (in volume 2). In the first panel, the ground is tilted towards us, so that we look down on the wolf at an angle, which allows us to perceive the wolf and the space in which it is placed as three-dimensional. In the second panel, the four characters are arranged in three tiers, receding from left to right so that we are pulled into the depth of the pictorial space. Likewise, in the third panel, we look onto and over the wolf’s head and follow its gaze towards the character Mireiyu, thus experiencing once more a pull diagonally into the picture.

What do the differences between those two examples tell us? I wouldn’t go as far as saying that Nihei’s personal style is planar, while Izumi generally favours recession. In fact, even within these two volumes, both compositional modes can be found. What we can see, though, is that plane and recession fulfil different tasks: planar compositions are useful to convey information to the reader, whereas recession puts the reader into the midst of interactions between characters. I still think Wölfflin’s principles are useful for stylistic analyses of comics, but the samples would have to be much larger.

Franz Wickhoff’s methods of narration – in comics?

Franz Wickhoff’s 1895 text Die Wiener Genesis (also known as Römische Kunst, available in English at is best remembered for two things: on the one hand, Wickhoff recognised the value of ancient Roman art at a time when it was still regarded as a poor man’s Greek art. On the other hand, he proposed a theory of three methods of pictorial narration:

  • the isolating method: each scene of a story is depicted in its own image, clearly separated from the others.
  • the continuous method: different scenes of a story share the same background, so that the image of one scene continues into the next one.
  • the complementary method: all scenes of a story are depicted in one single image.

Obviously, comics with their panel borders usually use the isolating method to tell their stories. There have been attempts by comic scholars to use all three of Wickhoff’s narrative methods in definitions and classifications of comics, e.g. by Eckart Sackmann in 2006 (in German). What I’m more interested in, though, is if we can find examples of continuous and/or complementary narration in comics that predominantly use isolating narration.

J. P. Nishi: À Nous Deux, Paris, p. 5To test this, I picked up a comic that I happened to be reading (not a scholarly sampling method, mind you), the French edition of J. P. Nishi’s  パリ 愛してるぜ~ Paris aishiteruze (À Nous Deux, Paris! in French). And sure enough, there are plenty of examples of continuous narration on the first couple of pages already. Consider, for instance, an image on the third page (p. 5 in the Philippe Picquier edition): the same figure is depicted twice in a telephone booth, standing up and kneeling. The effect of this use of continuous narration is to emphasise the suddenness of the young man’s diarrhea attack – in one moment he’s still able to stand, in the next moment he isn’t anymore, but the time between these two moments is too short even for a panel transition.

This kind of continuous narration is fairly common in humorous comics, but I have yet to find an example of the complementary method in comics. I can imagine that certain kinds of short episodes within a story, such as dreams, or events narrated by a character, lend themselves to the complementary method.

Stencil graffiti website: the biggest and best update yet

stencilled paste-up advocating organ donationOnce again it’s been a while since I last updated my website, Schablonengraffiti in Freiburg-Mittelwiehre. There are some noteable things about yesterday’s update:

  • There are now over 200 stencil graffiti (i.e. pictures + metadata) documented on the website – 203 to be precise. For the record, no. 200 is a heart near the Max Planck Institute.
  • This piece is also part of a larger, multi-medial series advocating organ donation. It consists of several stencil graffiti showing hearts and lungs (nos. 182185, 199200, plus more instances of these motifs on Sedanstraße which I haven’t photographed yet), a spray-painted slogan (which you can see on the picture of no. 185), and stencilled paste-ups (pictured here but not included on the website).
  • There is another three-coloured piece now, “Lausbuben” (nos. 188190, though no. 190 is only two-coloured). I guess it refers to a sprayer crew of the same name. (The first three-coloured piece in Mittelwiehre, at least since I started the website, would be no. 174 with three different shades of grey.)
  • I’ve discovered two more instances (nos. 192193) of the “Mikey Wilson” piece (no. 168), and on these newly found graffiti the words “I HATE NAZIS” are legible. I hadn’t been able to discern the writing on no. 168 before, so the anti-fascist connotation had escaped me completely.

I hope to get round to updating the website more frequently in the future, and I also have some exciting changes to the data structure in mind – more about that in a later post.

Using a daily art calendar for age determination exercises

Harenberg's motif for October 20/21

Harenberg’s motif for October 20/21, 2012

As the year draws to a close, you might think of getting a calendar for 2013. While there are other ways of keeping track of what day it is nowadays (computers, watches, mobile phones), a calendar with a sheet for each day is useful for age determination (dating) exercises.

In her book Das Studium der Kunstgeschichte, Renate Prochno says an art historian should be able to determine the age of any work of art with an accuracy of +- 20 years. To practice this, she recommends using books like Propyläen Kunstgeschichte, or a postcard collection. However, even more useful for this purpose is an art calendar, because each day it shows a work that is likely to be new to you.

There are drawbacks, of course: all images are printed in the same size, they are cropped in different ways, there’s usually only one view of three-dimensional works, and the selection of motifs is always biased and must not be mistaken for a scholarly sample that is representative of anything.

That being said, I’ve been using Harenberg Kunst calendars (other brands are probably just as good) for years, and I use them like this: when I turn the sheet, I cover the lower part of the new sheet where the artist and title are given (sometimes they’re on the left hand side instead), plus maybe the lower part of the image where the picture is sometimes signed and dated. Then I try to guess the exact year in which the reproduced work was made, and write my guess down on the sheet. On the next day, when I tear the old sheet off, I turn it and compare my guess to the actual date given on the back of the sheet.

This is my success rate for the first ~100 days of 2012 (if a date range was given, I simply took the year that was closest to my guess):

  • exact matches: 4 (I guessed the precise year of production of four paintings, all from the classical modern period which I feel most comfortable with.)
  • within +- 20 years: 66
  • missed by more than 20 years: 31
  • missed by more than 100 years: 3 (All of them are Dutch landscapes from around 1665, and each time I mistook them for early 19th century paintings. This is clearly an area I still need to become more familiar with.)

Upcoming talk: presence in comics

ultimates_bannerI’m going to present a paper at the conference Presence and Agency: Rhetoric, Aesthetics and the Experience of Art, which takes place in Leiden from Thursday to Saturday this week. Here’s a very short abstract for my talk:

Presence is the feeling in a viewer that a depicted figure is a living being that is really there. Theoretical literature suggests that the size of the figures and their deictical orientation are the most important factors of presence in single images. Comics, however, consist of a sequence of images, so the degree of presence in a comic panel is influenced by its surrounding panels, either by means of contrast or progression. Another typical feature of comics is written text, which betrays their mediality and consequently decreases presence. The example used here is the superhero comic The Ultimates (Marvel, 2002-2004).

I’ll post further information about this paper and its publication by and by.