Pioneers of the Comic Strip – A Different Avant-Garde (Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, until September 18, 2016) is an exhibition of six American newspaper comic artists whose strips started between 1904 and 1921. So instead of creators such as Rudolph Dirks or Richard F. Outcault who actually pioneered the comic strip form, curator Alexander Braun (who had also curated the Going West! exhibition) has selected artists who in some way could be considered avant-garde. The problem with the concept of the avant-garde in comics is that comics developed largely independently of modernist printmaking, draughtsmanship and other ‘high arts’. Nevertheless, this exhibition – hosted by a major fine art museum, after all – tries to find links between comics and avant-garde movements such as Expressionism and Surrealism, with varying success.
The first exhibit isn’t a comic but a film: Winsor McCay the Famous Cartoonist of the N. Y. Herald and His Moving Comics from 1911. Apart from that (and McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur film), there are almost exclusively original newspaper pages and some original drawings on display. In other words, there are a lot of comics to read, which can be tiresome, but it’s better than the reproductions or book covers that one gets to see at other comic exhibitions. In some cases, they even managed to obtain the original drawings to corresponding newspaper pages and show them alongside each other.
Apparently McCay was included in the exhibition because he “can be considered the first Surrealist of the 20th century” (my translation). Salvador Dalí and René Magritte are also name-dropped in the text that accompanies McCays section of the exhibition. This is the central theme of the exhibition: all of the comic artists are judged by their relation to fine art and its avant-garde movements. The same is true for Lyonel Feininger, whose comic work is evaluated here as the job that had given him the financial freedom to pursue painting, and for Cliff Sterrett, whose stylistic changes in Polly and Her Pals are traced back to developments in high art (“echoes of the Bauhaus era” etc.).
The other three featured artists are George Herriman, Frank King, and, as the only really surprising choice, Charles Forbell. Forbell doesn’t even have a Wikipedia article, and apparently he only did a handful of episodes of his comic strip, Naughty Pete, in 1913. Each page is elaborately composed and lavishly coloured, but unfortunately he never used word balloons around his dialogue text. In some episodes he used different lettering styles for different characters, but in others it’s bothersome to figure out who says what. In a way, Naughty Pete is symptomatic of large parts of the exhibition: from a ‘high art’ perspective, one can see the avant-garde sensibility to it and why it was included in the exhibition, but from a comics perspective, it has neither been particularly influential nor is it actually that great a comic.