There is a lot to like about the exhibition The Adventures of the Ligne claire. The Herr G. & Co. Affair (German: “Die Abenteuer der Ligne claire. Der Fall Herr G. & Co.”), which can still be seen at Cartoonmuseum Basel until March 9, 2014. With a lot of original drawings and original editions, it shows what ligne claire (“clear line”) comics are and tells the story of the ligne claire style: from precursors such as Bringing Up Father and Bécassine, through Hergé and his contemporaries, to Joost Swarte coining the term “ligne claire” in 1977 and the ligne claire revival from the 1980s onwards.
There are only two things that the exhibition lacked:
Although some recent examples of ligne claire comics are exhibited (e.g. Christophe Badoux, Chris Ware), there is no mention of ligne claire webcomics – even though these exist, e.g. Tozo by David O’Connell, or The Rainbow Orchid (albeit that’s only an extensive preview to a printed comic) by Garen Ewing. The latter also interviewed the former once. It would have been interesting in the exhibition context to examine the clash of the new, online presentation format with the venerable drawing style.
My other minor complaint about the exhibition is that it mentions “André Franquin’s atom style” (or “atomic style”) as a comic style concurrent with ligne claire, without explaining what that atom style actually is. Some googling led me to Paul Gravett’s website, who has curated the exhibition In Search of the Atom Style in Brussels in 2009. He says, the atom style “seems to be less an artistic style to be adopted, and more an attitude, a state of mind, or as Swarte sees it, ‘… the taste for inventing things in a positive direction.'” – in other words, it’s more about which objects to depict, rather than how to depict them, thus similar to retro-futurism. Furthermore, the atom style appears to have been closely linked to the Marcinelle/Charleroi school (or is a revival thereof). “Atom style” (a term coined by Joost Swarte too) seems to be a difficult and vague stylistic designation at best, which makes it even more regrettable that the Basel exhibition uses it only offhandedly.
Last week I visited the Biennale di Venezia, which still runs until November 24th. There seem to be far more comics-related artworks there than at the documenta last year, possibly due to this year’s topic of the Biennale, “The Encyclopedic Palace”. Here are some that caught my eye (click on images to enlarge):
Ansel 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.
The poster (PDF) advertising the exhibition “Lost Paradise: Blumenbilder in der Fotografie der Gegenwart” (“Flower pictures of contemporary photography”, Mönchehaus Museum Goslar, 11.8.-23.9.2012) shows an arrangement of flowers in front of a black background. Now if that isn’t by Sarah Jones, I thought. Jones’s series The Rose Garden (or Gardens) is exactly that: brightly lit rose bushes standing out against an impenetrable darkness. When I learned that the photograph used for the poster was by one Luzia Simons instead, I was even more intrigued to go to Goslar to see the show, amazed that two different but contemporary photographers could come up with such similar pictures.
Of course, flower still lives with black backgrounds have a long tradition – in oil painting. Simply recreating such paintings in the medium of photography isn’t what Jones does either: her roses are not arranged in vases or on tables, but blossom on living shrubs, which she encounters in public parks, apparently. In the Goslar exhibition, where six works from Simons’s Stockage series are displayed, it becomes clear that her approach is different from both the old masters and Jones. Simons doesn’t just shoot photographs but makes scanograms: she places cut flowers (tulips, not roses, by the way) on the glass of a customized scanner, which then produces a digital image of them.
One of the results is the luminosity of the flowers in contrast to the completely black background, just as in Jones’s works. Other effects mark a clear difference: you can see where pollen has fallen on the glass plate, petals and leaves bend against it, and the arrangement of the flowers is unlike that in a bouquet or shrub; they seem to grow into the picture from all directions, leaving the beholder puzzled about whether the laws of gravity are still in effect here.
Both Luzia Simons and Sarah Jones draw attention to their respective production process. They make the beholder wonder how they could achieve this contrast in lighting, and at the same time they manage to create beautiful pictures. The “Lost Paradise” show (which Jones isn’t part of, unfortunately) is an impressive proof that flower still life is a genre of surprising timeliness.
Comics will be part of documenta when hell freezes over. However, there are some works at this year’s documenta (Kassel, June 9 – September 16) that come quite close to the McCloudian definition of comics. The following list is just a personal selection and by no means meant to be exhaustive.
The very first work I’ve seen at documenta could actually be called a comic, sort of. In the Ottoneum, Amar Kanwar has several books (and other things) on display. One of them, Photo Album 1: The Lying Down Protest, documents a protest action in India through a series of photographs, sometimes with captions added. There is one photo on each page, on both sides of the leaf, resulting in a layout similar to that of Martin tom Dieck’s hundert Ansichten der Speicherstadt (cf. my essay).
For an exhibition of contemporary art, there is a lot of old art to be seen, e.g. a sizeable collection of abstract drawings from the 1940s and 50s by Gustav Metzger in the Documenta-Halle. Some of these drawings are arranged like comic panels, i.e. in different sizes, with clear borders, on the same sheet of paper. Are these drawings meant as independent sketches which Metzger placed closely together on the sheet only to save paper? Or is there a relation between adjacent drawings, maybe even an intended sequence?
Another example of a not-quite-contemporary exhibit is Charlotte Salomon’s widely publicized Leben? Oder Theater?
Khadim Ali‘s four-part painting The Haunted Lotus in the Neue Galerie is reminiscent in style of traditional East Asian religious paintings, but at the same time the framing makes it look like a panel sequence in a comic: the continuous background evokes a “tracking shot” from left to right or vice versa, so that each of the four parts can be seen as one point in a chronological sequence. The figures in the foreground remain largely the same in all four parts of the painting, thus giving the impression that some figures move between the “panels” while others stand still. Another comic-like feature is the writing next to the figures’ heads.
Then there’s Nedko Solakov at the Brothers Grimm Museum. Among many other works, some drawings are shown in several display cases. Their arrangement in two horizontal lines suggests a sequential relation between them, but although each drawing has a handwritten caption text on it, it’s hard to make out any order in which they could form a narrative. Still, the surrounding works by Solakov strongly suggest a narrative reading, since they are all about his dreams and fantasies of medieval knights in shiny armours.
All in all, while not completely absent, sequential art is sadly underrepresented at documenta (13). Unfortunately, the exhibition of comical art, Caricatura VI, which is on in Kassel at the same time, doesn’t show many comics either, although it contains cartoons by comic artists such as Guido Sieber, Harm Bengen or Nicolas Mahler.
“For the first time, the legend that is Asterix and its archaeological roots are shown”, that’s what the Völklinger Hütte says about its current exhibition (December 17, 2011 – April 9, 2012). And, granted, that much is true: we get to see Asterix comics, and we get to see archaeological objects. Therefore, it wouldn’t be correct to call this show fraudulent. And that’s about the most positive thing I have to say about it.
But let’s start with what there is to see in this 6.000m² exhibition space. There are over 120 original pages from Asterix comics. However, as a text at the beginning of the exhibition tells us, they (or at least some of them) aren’t really originals, but rather facsimiles. Furthermore, most pages are the final, coloured proofs, which (naturally) look exactly like in the printed albums. I find it pointless to exhibit such pages, and I would have preferred to see sketches instead. On some pages it is interesting to compare the original French texts to their German translations, but the accompanying texts on the walls next to the pages don’t comment on that. In fact, the accompanying texts don’t refer to the exhibited pages at all, but rather to the content of the albums they are taken from.
So what about the archaeology part? In the vicinity of the comic-related objects, there are glass cases with the sort of Celtic and Roman artifacts you would expect: weapons, armours, pottery, utensils and the like. Now, I’m not an archaeologist, and I can’t say if these artifacts are particularly interesting in themselves. Who knows, maybe they are. The problem is: the exhibition doesn’t even try to connect them to the comics. For instance, there is a case with a replica of a Roman armour, and nearby there’s a picture of Obelix as a Roman legionnaire on the wall. When I compare the replica armour to the one that Obelix is wearing, I can see there are some differences. So why did Uderzo draw it like that? Didn’t he have access to models or pictures of Roman armours? Did he model it after a different real Roman armour that isn’t exhibited in Völklingen? Did he just simplify it to make it easier to draw, or alter it to achieve an aesthetic effect? Did he even care about historical accuracy at all? I thought answering such questions was what this exhibition was all about. But just what it is about must have escaped my notice entirely.
Oh, and don’t expect to find the latest German edition of Asterix albums (“Ultimative Edition“) in the museum shop. The salesperson there hadn’t even heard of it, although you can read about it on the publisher’s website on a computer terminal in the exhibition.
Don’t get me wrong: I do think it is possible to make good exhibitions about comics. “Asterix & Die Kelten” just isn’t one of them.
Rating: ● ○ ○ ○ ○
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: ● ● ● ● ○