Sequential art by Ansel Adams

ansel_adams-surf_sequenceAnsel Adams (1902-1984) is well-known for his landscape photography, but what I didn’t know before seeing his current exhibition in London (National Maritime Museum, until April 28, 2013) is that he also did sequential art. On display is a five-part series of photographs from 1940 (pictured e.g. here), each showing waves breaking on the same patch of a beach, from the same point of view. The interesting thing is, it’s not only a series, it’s intended by Adams to be a sequence. Whether this work can be considered a comic, following Scott McCloud’s definition, depends on how it is displayed, i.e. whether the five images are juxtaposed (as they are on the wall in the London exhibition – not pictured here) or not (e.g. in a folder). Another problem is that their order doesn’t seem to be clear, judging from the different images found on the web. On the other hand, the individual titles sometimes contain numbers, e.g. in this collection at the University of Arizona Libraries.

Fascinating, at any rate, are the differences between Adams’s sequence and the average panel sequence in a comic. Whereas a comic sequence usually implies a chronological order of events (with the exception of flashbacks, or even rarer non-temporal panel relations), I find it hard to hard to recognise a chronological order in the Surf Sequence. The shadow of the cliff suggests that the pictures were taken at roughly the same time, but the wet area of the beach is not constantly growing or shrinking, so if the images are ordered chronologically, Adams must have witnessed several waves between the first and the last picture he took.

Maybe Adams ordered them by another criterion, e.g. by formal-aesthetic considerations (such as the relation of lighter images with more spray to darker ones?), thus deliberately disrupting any chronological order. Then again, he called his work a sequence, not a polyptych. A sequence implies a viewing order: the first image should be viewed first, then the second, etc.

The logic behind this sequence escapes me. Maybe Adams explained it in one of his writings or interviews, but I’m not sure if I want to know. For me, this mystery is part of the appeal of this work. I wish the comics produced today were more daring and, only every once in a while, incorporated such ambiguous and enigmatic sequences.

Exhibition review: Neue Galerie, Kassel

Between documentas, Kassel hadn’t really been on the map for art lovers lately. With the reopening of the Neue Galerie in November last year (which was closed for five years for refurbishment), this is likely to change.

This collection of 19th-21st century art is truly impressive in terms of both quantity and quality: there are masterpieces by Hans Makart and Wilhelm Trübner, two rooms of Paul Baum paintings including his lesser known pre- and post-pointilist phases, two rooms of works by the underrated Curt Herrmann, lots of stunning impressionists and modernists I’ve never heard of… It’s almost easier to name artists you won’t find there. For instance, I think I didn’t see a Hans Hartung there, although it would fit nicely into the otherwise well-equipped Informel section.

However, the gaps become larger the closer we get to the present, and that’s where the problem with this collection becomes evident: its scope isn’t clear. For the 19th century, the museum does a great job at representing German painting (with some local or regional emphasis). In the contemporary section, though, the scope widens to encompass international art, at which point the collection isn’t complete or even representative anymore, showing classics next to artists that have yet to make a name for themselves. Likewise a problem of scope is the ratio of painting (predominant) to sculpture (very little) to other arts (almost none). Maybe the museum should be named “Gemäldegalerie” instead of claiming to house a “collection of modernism – art of the 19th-21st century”.

That being said, the Neue Galerie is still definitely worth a visit. Besides, the admission is only €4 (conc. €2). Another cool thing about this museum is its website, which is made entirely in posterous (albeit in German only).

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○