Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Chester Brown As A Gothic Artist

When someone mentions Italian Gothic painting in your presence I bet that the first name coming to your mind is Sassetta. A few others are also likely candidates, of course, but, to me, at least, Sassetta has the added interest of being the Chester Brown of painting. More than that: painting was his technique of choice to do... comics (others use drawings and words, that's the only difference). If you don't believe me just imagine his paintings as panels in a comic because that's what they really are: panels in polyptychs and predellas. There are three problems to view them as such though: 1) they're scattered all over the museums of the world; 2) some disappeared; 3) instead of being viewed as comics telling the life of Anthony or the life of Francis the visual tradition of the West, since the Renaissance, prefers to present them as single images. That paradigm shift also explains why comics are viewed as a minor art form. One = genius; two = stupid.

Stefano di Giovanni (Sassetta), The Blessed Ranieri Frees the Poors From a Florentine Jail1437 - 1444.

Chester Brown, Yummy Fur # 4, Vortex Comics, April, 1987.

To help me prove my point I ask you to look above at the walls - planes -, some in the shadow, some not. Look at the doors that are just simple holes (rectangles) opening said planes to nowhere, or, if you want, to an ominous blackness... There's also a notorious absence of depth because the walls block the view creating a claustrophobic space. Look at the eerie atmosphere of it all...

Chester Brown, Louis Riel # 3, Drawn & Quarterly, December 1999.

Just like Sassetta's characters above, Louis Riel doesn't seem to be running. On the contrary, he seems to be frozen stiff, floating in space.

Stefano di Giovanni (Sassetta), Saint Anthony Beaten by the Devils, 1430 - 1432.

Chester Brown, "Matthew: 3:1 - 4:17," Yummy Fur # 17, Vortex Comics, August 1989.

Chester Brown, The Definitive Ed Book: Ed the Happy Clown, Vortex Comics, May 1992.

Many of Chester Brown's comics have a religious text and/or subtext. His demons though, are usually beautiful and young (sometimes too young as you can see above). They're not, like Sassetta's, Frankenstein-like creatures born of speciesism. Below though, Sassetta also represents the devil as a beautiful woman tempting Anthony. The only speciesist detail are the bat wings. 

Stefano di Giovanni (Sassetta), Saint Anthony Tempted by the Devil in the Guise of a Woman, c. 1435. 

Stefano di Giovanni (Sassetta), Saint Anthony the Abbot in the Wilderness, c. 1435.

Chester Brown, "Matthew: 14:1, 14:2; 14:12 - 14:23," Underwater # 3, Drawn & Quarterly, May 1995.

Gothic space doesn't ignore linear perspective, but it is not Naturalistic either. There's a stereotyping of rocks and trees that results in a kind of frozen expressionism. The trees above are very important to create the mood of both pieces. Chester Brown's backdrops are a bit more Natural than Sassetta's, but not much. He is careful to keep everything quite simple and to the point. There's a kind of dance in the composition lines of Sassetta's painting that leads quickly to the church (Anthony is inviting us to follow a path that's not a bed of roses; that's what the leafless trees are saying; the animals are allegories of worldly temptations). There's the same idea in Chester Brown's panels: Christ is alone going upward with determination against a strong wind.

Chester Brown, "Knock Knock," Yummy Fur # 31, Drawn & Quarterly, September 1993.

Trees are very important for Chester Brown. They represent sexual desire in The Playboy, but he goes as far as to identify himself with them in the above panel.

Chester Brown, "Matthew: 14:24 - 14:31," Underwater # 4, Drawn & Quarterly, September 1995.

Chester Brown's compositions are absolutely flawless He has a tendency to use diagonals in order to enliven his hieratic drawing style (another Gothic feature). What's also great about him is his stunning use of the black and white areas.

Chester Brown, "The Playboy Stories: Part Two," Yummy Fur # 22, Vortex Comics, September 1990.

In the above panels there's no explanation for the ground to be black while the trees are completely white. The trees and Chester have no shadows creating a two-dimensional space that reminds the Nabis. The branches are entangled to convey Chester's feelings beneath his hieratic mask. One could say that (unforgivable sin) Chester's panels are decorative. And yet, there're purposes... The same purposes that we can find in Gothic painting: to be clear, to be slightly off (not quite Naturalistic... or not Naturalistic enough; but I'm being anachronistic in the latter's case), to create an engaging and disturbing atmosphere...


Tom Hart said...

Great article, thanks!!!!

Isabelinho said...

You're welcome, Tom! Great to hear from you!...