Sunday, April 19, 2009

Caricature - Coda

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Images:
1. caricatures by the supreme genius of the second millennium: Leonardo da Vinci (after 1490);
2. the last panel of a "Flash Gordon" sunday page (April, 24, 1938) by Alex Raymond (as published in Flash Gordon, "The Tides of Battle," volume three of the Kitchen Sink reprints, 1992); the caricature in this image is more a plot problem than a matter of drawing style: following the pseudo science of physiognomy many comics artists in manichean children's adventure comics used their characters' outer appearance to convey their personality; the Edward G. Robinson look-alike above is obviously a villain; this absurd theory is a caricature of science, of course, so, even if the image is not what I, for one, call "a caricature," the use of physiognomy to tell a story is a narrative caricature through visual means (another problem that I have with "Flash Gordon" and other strips like it is how racist these comics are when beauty canons are chosen to combat evil: the hero is a blond, athletic, upper class, Caucasian stereotype, the villain, Ming, is the stereotype of a 19th century Chinese ruler);
3. James Gillray was a better artist than Alex Raymond; he proved it mocking physiognomy one hundred and forty years before the "Flash Gordon" page above was published (print, 1798);
4. Honoré Daumier did this comic (the metamorphosis of king Louis-Philippe into a pear; a slang for "idiot") after drawings by Charles Philipon (c. 1831): Le Charivari, January, 17, 1834 (where the images appeared with a text); after being condemned they had to publish the judges' sentence in their magazine (they gladly complied, as we can see): Le Charivari # 58, February, 27, 1834;
5. Thomas Nast's "The Brains," Harper's Weekly, October 12, 1871; the drawing represents corrupt New York politician William Marcy "Boss" Tweed;
6. one of the worst racist stereotypes to ever appear in a comic: Chop-Chop, a character in the series "Blackhawks" by Reed Crandall (here in a detail of a drawing published in the History of Comics, vol. 2, by Jim Steranko, Supergraphics, 1972); what's shocking is the contrast between the way in which the other characters are physiognomically represented and the crass Chop-Chop stereotype (besides from Chop-Chop I could cite Will Eisner's Ebony White and many other "mammies," "coons," etc...);
7., 8., 9. contemporary comics artists are trying to use caricatural drawing styles in new, creative, serious (believe it or not), ways;
7. page from Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library # 14 (Spring, 2000); we must distinguish between caricature and caricatural drawing; the character Jimmy Corrigan can't be a caricature because it doesn't exist (there's no referent); but he was drawn in a caricatural way; Chris Ware views the drawing in a comic as a kind of writing; these are more like puppets than complex representations of people; emotional connections with the reader come more from the story itself than from these cold, distant, visual representations (the mask effect of Art Spiegelman's animal heads in Maus comes also to mind); or... we connect with their alienation precisely because they are apparently disconnected from the world around them;
8. page from Malus by Jochen Gerner (Drozophile, Spring, 2002); Jochen Gerner uses the ironic tactic of applying caricatural representations (and his drawings are even more schematical than Chris Ware's) in ways that are unexpected (but mostly ironical): here he applied it to the news of real road accidents;
9. page by Seth published on the front cover flap of the dustjacket of An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories (edited by Ivan Brunetti, Yale University Press, 2006); the last panel may be the punchline, but I completely agree with it because, even if I like them, I don't follow Kantian aesthetics into art-for-art's-sake-land.

9 comments:

Nick Mullins said...

I'm getting a bit confused here about your boundaries of the term caricature. When you mention Ware and drawing in a "caricatural way" I get the idea that you group all abstract and simplified drawing into the category of caricature. Is there a difference between simplified drawing and caricature? For instance, would you consider Jose Muñoz's drawing to be caricature? Or Mattotti's?

Isabelinho said...

Hi Nick: when I said that Chris Ware draws in a "caricatural way" I was just doing a distinction between a caricature (which has a referent, e. g.: whichever president is at the office) and the caricatural portrait of a fictional character (which is not a caricature because, well, it doesn't really exist). As for the rest of your question: simplification is not the only issue (there are caricatures that are quite complex, as a matter of fact), it's a certain tradition of simplification (from Gillray to Schulz and beyond). It seems to me that Chris Ware's work belongs to that tradition. As for Muñoz and Mattotti, those are very difficult questions and, sure, the answer is going to be highly subjective: I think that a certain grotesque expression in Muñoz's drawings is caricatural, but I would call them expressionist (grotesque = expressionist in my mind); Mattotti at the beginning of his career, sure, later, not at all... Some Picassos, on the other hand...

Kerry Dennehy said...

Hi Isabelinho,

I like that you compare Chris Ware's work to puppets and I'm interested that you don't consider puppets representations. Would you elaborate?

Likewise, you call Jochen Gerner's work caricature whereas I would simply call them cartoons. Are they caricatures to you because, as imitiations of the appearance of a living person, they would be distorted enough to be called grotesque?

Your comparison to puppets and the distinction you make between caricature and caricatural drawing made me think of an essay by Gombrich other than the one you quote. The essay I'm thinking of is MEDITATIONS ON A HOBBY HORSE.

Significantly too, HOBBY HORSE offers an implicit distinction between the physiognomy which is rightly named a dangerous pseudo-science and something Gombrich describes as "physiognomic vision." This latter, I believe, goes a long way toward accounting for the charm of cartoons. And it is very definitely a different account than the one he gives in the caricature essay.


Gombrich's "physiognomic vision" refers to "certain privileged motifs in our world to which we respond almost too easily. The human face may be outstanding among them. Whether by instinct or by very early training, we are certainly ever disposed to single out the expressive features of a face from the chaos of sensations that surrounds it, and to respond to its slightest variations with fear or joy." Such that the minimum hints of a face, say two dots and a line, will read quite thoroughly as a face.

So this physiognomy relates to simplicity in drawing, as to the simplicity of a child's hobby horse, in that it allows the merest "formal aspect which fulfilled the minimum requirement for the performance of the function -- for any ridable object could serve as a horse." A broomstick can substitute for a horse. And this substitution Gombrich poses as an entirely different form of representation than the kind that imitates the appearance of an "objects external form."

I think it is this latter understanding of representation that stands under the aversion to caricature you express. Your aversion, I believe you say, arises from a degrading exaggeration of the features in contrast to an objective portrayal of the person's appearance. You link this to the bad kind of physiognomy which uses the outward appearance to convey the personality.

What if this other Gombrich offers a different way to look at it, a way in which the simplicity of cartoons are not always grotesque? A way where these "substitutes... are keys which happen to fit into ... psychological locks"?

To me that helps us with the thorny question of how cartoon characters or literary characters, or puppets, are representations without being representations of a specific person. The question is thorny because it requires us to sort out what we mean by "external form" and "subjective vision"-- to account for how our knowledge of the world relates to the world.

The question is already implicit in the Gombrich you quote, he speaks of caricature arising in a cultural age of wit and "insight into human nature which gave us the immortal types of Don Quijote and Falstaff." In HOBBY HORSE Gombrich calls this "the age old problem of universals applied to art...individuals or class."

How are "immortal types" related to fictional characters and how are both related to the use of distortion in caricature to say something about the personality of an individual person?

I'll leave it to the Gombrich of HOBBY HORSE to suggest the answer: "'A history painter,' says Reynolds, 'paints a man in general; a portrait-painter a particular man, and therefore a defective model.' ... The painter ... who wants to 'elevate his style' disregards the particular man and 'generalizes the forms.' Such a picture will no longer represent a particular man but rather the class or concept, 'man.' There is a deceptive simplicity in this argument, but it makes at least one unwarranted assumption: that every image of this kind necessarily refers to something outside itself -- be it individual or class. But nothing of the kind need be implied when we point to an image and say 'this is a man'. Strictly speaking that statement may be interpreted to mean that the image itself is a member of the class 'man'. Nor is that interpretation as far-fetched as it may sound. In fact our hobby horse would submit to no other interpretation. By the logic of Reynold's reasoning it would have to represent the most generalized idea of horseness. But if the child calls a stick a horse it obviously means nothing of the kind. The stick is neither a sign signifying the concept horse nor is it a portrait of an individual horse. By its capacity to serve as a 'substitute' the stick becomes a horse in its own right ... and may even merit a proper name of its own."

The Metabunker said...

Seth has it right. You seem to be letting ideology influence your take on 'caricature' unduly.

The examples you cite in your original post say it all. That you somehow find Feininger's arid geometrical abstractions inherently more worthy than his energetic and supremely inventive cartooning, or Swinnerton's banal illustration of Agathla's Needle more compelling than Herriman's deliciously suggestive, earthily evocative cartoon, is symptomatic of what, to borrow one of your own preferred expressions, could be described as a 'manichean' conception of art.

We can discuss separately the issue of cartooning with 'real-life-referents' as you call it. It is obviously problematic, but also hugely effective, as is continously demonstrated by the incessant rows over editorial cartoons, the ones of the Prophet Muhammed being merely -- and by far -- the most remarkable in recent years (I've written about the issue here). I believe the form has real merit, as do you, it seems, when practiced by masters such as Gillray and Daumier.

But, really, what you seem to be doing, implicitly, is condemning cartooning as a mode of expression, except when you like it, and then it's suddenly 'expressionism.' Why not just recognise -- with Gombrich and Töpffer, to cite one of his sources -- that cartooning is a powerful mode of expression, a way of describing the world and our experience of it in condensed, pregnant form, developed by masters such as Leonardo, the Carracci, Tiepolo, Hogarth and Goya, and which comics have perfected over the last two centuries?

Best,

Matthias

Isabelinho said...

Hi Kerry and Matthias:

First of all thanks a lot for your comments (belated thanks to Nick too, of course).

Kerry:

Your comments are putting me in a moral dilemma: they are proof enough that this last post of mine was poorly written at least in two occasions. I'm going to rewrite it a little bit, but I have to be careful because: 1) I don't want to change it much (this is what I wrote in the first place and that's that); 2) if I rewrite it a lot your comments will fall in a void and I don't want that either (that's why I'm quoting from my text as it is now).
Anyway, here's my answer to your very pertinent questions:
1) "I'm interested that you don't consider puppets representations. Would you elaborate?"
I didn't write "representations," I wrote "representations of people" (with all the nuances that such a thing entails). I was clumsily trying to convey Chris Ware's ideas about drawing. In _The Comics Journal_ # 200 (131), he sez: "And cartoon drawings are - just by nature of how they're used as symbols - in a lot of ways not really drawings, because the information that they have is so rudimentary, or conceptual." Gombrich uses the same word "conceptual" in his hobby horse essay, right?
2)"Likewise, you call Jochen Gerner's work caricature whereas I would simply call them cartoons. Are they caricatures to you because, as imitations of the appearance of a living person, they would be distorted enough to be called grotesque?"
This is simply a mistake on my part; one that rapidly self-destructs: I began by saying "contemporary comics artists are trying to use caricature in new, creative, serious (believe it or not), ways," but just two sentences later I wrote "we must distinguish between caricature and caricatural drawing." (Duh!) I agree with what you say about Jochen Gerner. Even if the situations in _Malus_ really existed he makes no effort to caricature the persons involved. When you say that you "would simply call them cartoons" I understand what you say and I would like to make such a distinction too. The problem is that a real person may be caricatured, for instance, in a political *cartoon.* I'll have to stick to "caricatural drawing," then...
It seems to me that the time as arrived to add Rodolphe Töpffer to our discussion. It was Gombrich who wrote Töpffer's law, after all... But Töpffer didn't call his observations about cartooning "physiognomie," he called them "physiognomonie." A different animal. As an aside: Töpffer says in his _Essay de physiognomonie_ (1845; my translation): "[picture literature] acts mainly on children and the people." This surprising declaration seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy (Goethe saw a lot farther, somehow). no doubt about it: if we exclude the expanded field comics were mostly "popular art" and "children's art" for most of the 19 th. and 20 th. centuries.
Anyway, in his essay Töpffer discards phrenologie (that's one point in his favor) and he also discards physiognomie when (after distinguishing permanent - physical features - expressive signs - and non-permanent ones - laughing, etc...) he concludes that permanent signs prove nothing about the personality or intelligence of a character. We could perfectly illustrate Töpffer's chapter eight with the Gillray cartoon that I posted: "how many faces belonguing to men worthy of our friendship, seemed defiant to us at first [...]; how many times did we find foolishness, silliness, stupidity even in faces that seemed at first to indicate common sense, clear mindedness, or a certain scope?"
The problem is that in chapter ten Töpffer used permanent signs. Oh well!...

Matthias:

My answer can perilously seem like a tennis match, but there goes my ball (sorry!): calling Swinnerton's painting a "banal illustration" or Feininger's paintings "arid geometrical abstractions" is ideology also. We all see things from a certain point of view, no one can avoid that. Swinnerton's painting is banal to those who view the history of painting as a linear narrative. Photographic realism is OK for Vermeer, but it is verbotten to Swinnerton. Me, I'm only interested by the emotional impact that the painting produces, admitedly in my subjective reception (and I'm sure of two things: being this a mere repro, Swinnerton's painting can only be even more impressive in person; Agathla's Needle is a sublime monument, because I sense it as such when I look at the aforementioned repro). Herriman's drawing gives me nothing of the sort (the narrative here goes something like this: contemporary high art is dead, the popular arts are lively). And that's OK, I can't beg caricature to give me something that it wasn't designed to do (as Bourdieu so aptly states).
As for my manichean view of caricature (bad) vs. realism (good) my personal canon answers for me: Gustave Doré, Gustave Henri Jossot, Alberto Breccia, Chago Armada, Roy de Forest, Yoshiharu Tsuge, Fred, Tardi, Chester Brown, Lynda Barry, Anke Feuchtenberger, Ben Katchor, Eric Lambé, John Porcellino, Dominique Goblet, Chris Ware, Carl Barks, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Robert Crumb, Jose Muñoz, Gary Panter, Art Spiegelman, Montesol, Joe Sacco, Mat Brinkman, David B., Daniel Clowes, Peter Blegvad, Blanchet, Max, Seth. And no, I don't call their art "expressionism."
I agree with the last part of your comment. What I tried to do was to address some limitations of the style and some misguided uses of same (e. g.: phisyognomy, racial stereotyping). This doesn't mean that we must condemn all caricature (or caricatural drawing style), of course...

The Metabunker said...

OK, then I think we are more or less in agreement, at least about the fundamentals.

It is true, as you say, that we all perceive things from our specific perspective, but I don't think it's entirely fair to characterise my criticism of the Feininger and Swinnerton images as ideological. Like you say, I'm merely talking about what works to me as art. By calling Feininger "arid" for example, I don't mean to condemn geometric abstraction, merely to state that I find him a dry and fairly derivative abstract painter, but a compelling draughtsman and cartoonist. I like plenty of other abstract painters.

The same goes for the Swinnerton illustration. I don't have a problem with representational art, even in the 20th Century, *per se* (although it would be hard to deny that representation in painting has experienced a crisis through most of the century), I merely find said illustration bland, while I think Herriman's cartoon -- paradoxically -- is much more evocative of the magic of such a place, and -- because of the lush watercolouring -- more sensual, even.

The reason I described your criticism as ideological, on the other hand, was the fact that you seemed to dismiss these cartoons as inferior and somehow "not serious" merely because they are cartoons, as if "high art" and "illustration" is superior by default.

I realise that I'm simplifying your argument somewhat, but the way you formulated your criticism in your initial post made it hard not to.

Kerry Dennehy said...

Hello again,

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I recognize from your comments and your corrections that you were trying to say something primarily about caricature and cartoons that are drawn in a caricatural way. I look forward to your revision, if you make it, or maybe even a second entry on the subject. Thanks also for not consigning my comments to the void. I think the digression of this discussion is also a worthy topic.

Gombrich may use the word conceptual" in the essay, I wouldn't be surprised. But for me that is again where we must all
account for the how of our knowledge in relation to the reality of "universals" such as "species," "Ideas" or "concepts." And I must confess that I am closer to the Romantics and Proto-Romantics like Goethe on that score than I am to Gombrich.

But that is why I like this discussion about physiognomies.
I was unaware that Topffer made the distinction between physiognomie and physiognomonie. (Or that you had translated him! Wow! Always wise to know who you're talking to!)

Excuse my ignorance but is "physiognomonie" his own coinage? I've only read his essay in the translation by Wiese and it doesn't use this word.

Still the distinction makes me hopeful. I too was always troubled by his turn to consider "permanent signs," especially after so clearly distinguishing what he was doing from any such thing and showing the value of what he was doing distinct from any physiological determinism.

Indeed to emphasize his positive contribution, I always thought there should be Topffer's Second Law (and this I say in near complete ignorance of the scholarship on him, scholarship which may have produced countless laws from his musings by now): if the first law is that every drawn face will have an expression which affects us with a definite meaning, the second law is what he suggests next; that two such faces, placed alongside each other will suggest a definite situation to us. And likely any situation will suggest its own before and after. We may discover in the unfolding of a story that the situation we interpret into the meeting of the two faces may be erroneous, but that too is something worthy of our inquiry and as a subject for literature.

By that second law what I think is marvelous in Topffer gets emphasized, that which Gombrich characterized as something like doodling your way toward discovery. In Topffer's exercises we are made aware of just how much subtle knowledge we possess about human expressions, experiences and relationships. We are made aware of it by using it to interpret our own accidental lines! It makes the act of drawing a kind of divination.

I think this kind of precognitive discovery and knowing is a core experience in the creation and appreciation of the arts. So I was always sorry that his so clear demonstration of it was lost in the emphasis given to (rightly) criticizing his foray into what might as well be phrenology.

In speaking of cartoons, introducing his writing on Topffer in ART AND ILLUSION, Gombrich characterizes it as a kind of drawing that provides a unique representation: "the illusion of life which can do without the illusion of reality" -- that's a whole dimension of human experience and possible human expression that we are inundated with in the present and take for granted but which we are privy to in large measure because of the early innovations of people like Topffer. A fact which, as his translator, I should probably assume goes without saying on your blog.

In terms of your continued pursuit of the question of a caricatural way of cartooning and the presence of historically real people in cartoons, why not a comparison between the rendering of the Jimmy Corrigan character and of the Chris Ware character? I made my own CARICATURE of Chris Ware by distorting what I up until now I did not question was his CARTOON SELF-PORTRAIT from Acme Novelty Library number 16.

Isabelinho said...

Matthias:

An ideological reading of a statement made by someone else has a certain percentage of assumption, of jumping into conclusions, that may very well be unfair, as you say. Sorry again!
Commenting what you said about a crisis in representation in painting during the 20th century, I ask myself if that crisis was real or if it was provoked by the critics' blindness? In order to construct a more or less linear narrative art historians need to choose certain artists and art styles and discard others. That's what criticism is all about, this is far from a censure (the critic is as much the one who knows how to see as the one who's blind; that's why the saying states that the work judges the critic, not the other way around). Some great painters like Antonio López were victims of the zeitgeist though... that's undeniable.
I also agree that there's a certain tone of militancy in my post (that's what you called "ideology," I assume). This happens because I wish that many other comics artists, besides those published by Fréon during the 90s, would experiment with other art styles and materials. A whole world of possibilities is waiting out there...
As for your reading of the Herriman drawing vs. the Swinnerton painting we'll have to agree to disagree...

Kerry:

No, no, no, no... I'm not Töpffer's translator (I wouldn't dare because neither English nor French are my native languages). I just indicated that those little chunks of Töpffer's prose were my translation.
The book I translated from is _Töpffer, L'invention de la bande dessinée_ (Töpffer, the creation of comics) by Thierry Gröensteen and Benoît Peeters. Here's what they say: "An erratum written by Töpffer begs to "read in the present work: 'physiognomonie' and 'physiognomonic' instead of 'physiognomie' and 'physiognomic.'" Maybe Wiese never read the above. I committed a mistake in my previous comment though: the differences between Töpffer and Lavater aren't in the name because Lavater's book was titled _Physiognomonische Fragmente_.
This topic is endless and very interesting. I will go back to it in the second life of my blog (after my comics canon).

Sr.Cairo said...

About Chop-Chop stereotype, don't forget the George Webster "Connie" Confucius of Milton Caniff!! Is a good example for a racist stereotypes.

This is a very good post!!

regards from Argentina,
Marcelo