The Most Secret Graphic Novel of 2010
Thursday, December 30, 2010
In the midst of last week’s focus on Joe Vigil’s Dog, commenter Jones inquired as to a stray mention of The Baby of Mâcon, a Peter Greenaway movie from 1993. It got me nostalgic, I confess – when I was 14, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover was one of the four or five notorious VHS tapes constantly traded around the lunchroom, and I was perfectly happy at the time to (ha!) catalog the director in my ‘big tent’ approach to horror, a liberal enough perspective to accommodate both that most populist of Greenaway’s features and various ultraviolence-tinged superguy comics such as The Crow, and surely Faust, had I access to it at the time.
Little did I know that a more immediate connection was present: earlier this month, on December 3rd, the very day I was visiting NYC for a certain Comics and Graphics Festival, the Netherlands-based Greenaway was also in town at the Park Avenue Armory for the opening of Leonardo’s Last Supper: A Vision by Peter Greenaway (running through January 6th), the American debut of his ongoing Ten Classic Paintings Revisited project, a touring installation series dedicated to explication of various masterpieces with the stated aim of promoting visual literacy to a public disinclined toward substantive engagement with certain storied arts. This involves the presentation of a digital “clone” of the painting in question (or, in rare cases, the original work) surrounded by light and music and voices, and blasted with projected images that emphasize or excerpt pertinent details.
I didn’t get to the the New York show — which, title notwithstanding, apparently combines elements from European shows on Da Vinci’s The Last Supper and Veronese’s The Wedding At Cana — but photos reveal a small chamber of clear panels to ensconce the audience in projection data, seated against glowing elements out of some faux-Biblical Tron, in a manner more specifically faux-Biblical than Tron manages on its own. Indeed, this whole effort strikes me as the first Peter Greenaway joint that could realistically prompt the Walt Disney Company to back up the proverbial dump truck of cash for a semi-permanent iteration in one of the edutainment-minded corners of its theme parks. Applicable catalog materials, however, reveal the whole thing as a typically idiosyncratic venture for the artist.
Also, there is a comics connection, and not just because the planned library of ten accounts for every Ninja Turtle save for Donatello. No, in light of recent mentions of illuminated manuscripts and the religious element in comics, I will argue that Peter Greenaway is, in fact, the creator of 2010’s most secret graphic novel.
Greenaway, you see, was a painter before he became a filmmaker. Moreover, his entrance into filmmaking came though editing and directing educational shorts for the UK’s Central Office of Information, which doubtlessly colored his bemused, rather puckish eventual participation in the world of experimental (often structural) cinema; Renoir, Godard and Fellini are often cited in discussion of his dramatic features, but Hollis Frampton pops up early on. Visible almost immediately was an obsession with categorization and arrangement, typically acknowledged as a futile human effort at carving meaning and society out of a chaotic total – and what is cinema if not individual frames arranged into an edifying pattern? Thus, cinema as viewed on a screen is self-evidently a frame of an illusion of reality, and from that it could converse with earlier frames and fantasies, older arts. A crucial mature short, 1978’s A Walk Through H, is little more than a filmed exhibition of 92 seemingly non-representational works by Greenaway, transformed solely via a narrator’s insistence into 92 maps the man followed on a mystic flight to, perhaps, reincarnation. Among the ideas suggested is that maps, utilitarian human tools, only remain tools by virtue of utility, and are subsequently reincarnated as testaments to ephemeral organization of a little-changed landscape. Content dies, while form is eternal.
Talk of frames, or rather panels, brings comics to mind. Greenaway was no agnostic in that respect; his appreciation for Tanino Liberatore’s RanXerox is on the record, and Winsor McCay is among the 100 stars counted in 1988’s Drowning by Numbers. To your left is a more direct engagement, a page from The Book of Frames, an assemblage Greenaway put together from 1989 to 1991, but apparently never published, “one hundred and fifty consecutive pages of over one thousand individual frames, eight to a page, suggesting that all human activity can be contained in the ubiquitous rectangle of Western culture where painting, theatre, photography, cinema and television operate. Sometimes these eight-frame sets behave like sequences of film-animation, as here, where they are explosively alive with comic marks mostly derived in admiration from the graphic invention of Krazy Kat.”
The quote and the image are from Greenaway’s 1998 book 100 Allegories to Represent the World, although they might as well come from an anthology of abstract comics, having been excerpted from what sounds like a non-representational graphic novel, circa ’91. This interdisciplinary mindset led Greenaway down some interesting paths; his further use of image frames in cinematographic works like A TV Dante (1989) and Prospero’s Books (1991) were facilitated by the Quantel Paintbox, not an unknown tool to visual artists at the time but used by Greenaway in a manner extremely close to that of its typical utility for composing graphics for television news broadcasts, i.e. layering multiple streams of narratively or thematically linked information, often to some explanatory result. The effect is quite a lot like using the video-streaming internet today — or, frankly, watching prolifically windowed and scrolling cable news broadcasts — although sitting as a helpless witness in the dark and merely observing the internet is strange; interaction seems especially necessary, as Greenaway indicated through increasingly blunt jeremiads on the death of cinema as a relevant and evolving art, and eventually his ’00s movement into movies as only ever a portion of sprawling multimedia engagements, be they his madly self-referential The Tulse Luper Suitcases sequence, or the 2007-08 diptych Nightwatching (a dramatic feature) and Rembrandt’s J’Accuse…! (an essay film), which comprised the movie portion of the first entry in the Ten Classic Paintings Revisited series, concerning The Nightwatch. The New York show covers paintings two and three.
And yet, tricks abound. Rembrandt’s J’Accuse…! details Greenaway’s reading of a murderous conspiracy thriller into the positioning of figures in The Nightwatch (as opposed to Nightwatching, which dramatizes the theory in a manner not disconnected from Greenaway’s name-making 1982 dramatic feature The Draughtsman’s Contract); it was received in a po-faced manner by most film critics I’ve read on the subject, but one can presume that Greenaway — whom at one point, while proffering the advent of painterly chiaroscuro as the birth of cinema, depicts his own windowed talking head as issuing from a horse’s ass — is primarily attempting to demonstrate, by sensational example, tongue, I imagine, firmly in cheek, a means of approaching a Classic Painting that facilitates ‘literacy’ over observation and suggests some skeletal means — form over content, remember — of divining one’s own meaning from a painting. Or, fundamentally, divining narrative, as did a fellow highlighted in one of Greenaway’s digressions as taking a kitchen knife to The Nightwatch in the belief that the painting actually depicted a veiled Satan guiding Christ and, by gesture, the viewer, into Hell.
This brings us to the covert funnybook surprise of ’10, right at the end of the year. It’s the 92-page catalog to a European iteration of the Ten Classic Paintings Revisited project, an installation/projection show held in Venice in 2009, focused entirely on The Wedding at Cana. Greenaway provides a short essay in the front to explain the initial interdisciplinary aim of the project (circa The Nightwatch), tracking areas of confluence between painting and cinema:
We might mention some of those areas as being the parallel and contrasting relationships of form to content, the translation of three dimensions into two, the efficiency of compositional construction, illusion versus abstraction, the translation of metaphor into image, the comparison of the particular with the general, the translation of narrative into a single all inclusive image, the depiction and representation of movement, and the uses of manufactured illusion in the service of the suspension of disbelief. Such investigations of the two media interacting on each other in this way, certainly suggested possibilities for much further exploration of the whole issue of the vocabulary of contemporary visual literacy.
The core of the Ten Classic Paintings Revisited project is duly identified as a “dialogue” with the painting in question via some mechanics of cinema, though Greenaway is careful to specify that subjects have been chosen for their amenability to the process. Philosophies, ideologies and compositional materials differ, but all share:
…what might be described as a cinematic presence and a wide screen, deep-focus appeal, where the painted space is often crowded with human figures, or copious detail of image and materials, where there is a great consciousness of the language of framing, many various uses of different forms of perspective, a great comprehension of the use of the flat picture plain – the ‘screen concept’ in fact – and various schemes of colour-coding and colour-perception, contrast, picture resolution and chiaroscuro – and it can be seen here that the language used to describe painting is often the language used to debate cinema, and vice versa.
Oh, I sense heads nodding! Yes, the language used to debate cinema is indeed often too the language to discuss comics, and the catalog to Greenway’s Veronese exhibition, eccentric thing that it is, implicates the language of comics.
Specifically, the book serves as a dialogue guide to the many figures present in The Wedding At Cana, presumably in keeping with spoken or subtitled lines presented in the show itself. It is a panelization of Veronese’s painting, one panel per page, excerpting the posture of various figures along matching gestures or lines of sight, and providing typewritten dialogue in rectangular captions matched to numerically designated characters. Moreover, the pages/panels proceed chronologically, following the action from a high-positioned figure’s suggestion to his dog of what a wedding represents — “Hey Champion – some wedding, some drinking, some prelude to a long life of alternate tedium and misrule. How long will this one last in high happiness and a bouncing bed?” — through the realization of the lacking libations on the premises and the immediate aftermath of Christ’s intercession.
It is, effectively, the re-translation of all-inclusive image narrative into sequential images. Of working, self-identified comics artists, Dave Sim currently makes the most of this technique in his Judenhass and glamourpuss, which function in large part via Sim’s incorporation of traced photographic images, sometimes broken down and arranged into details that draw narrative power from their positioning on the page and next to each other. In the specific context of glamourpuss, this implicates the practice of photo referencing in comics history, though Sim cleverly links photo-tracing to the inking of pencils as similar means of imposing his narrative identity on fashion magazine spreads and The Heart of Juliet Jones alike, positioning himself as both student of comics masters and a participant in a historical tradition.
Greenaway also has history on his mind, subtly aligning himself with 16th century poet and satirist Pietro Aretino, most famously depicted in Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment as seen to the right, holding the flayed skin of the artist himself. Veronese also inserted the (then dead) Aretino into The Wedding At Cana, and Greenaway posits that the theatrical schema of the painting was actually inspired by a devotational transcription of the event as imagined by Aretino, purportedly influential on an earlier, similar miracle painting by a different artist. Doubtlessly, Greenaway is also aware of Aretino’s participation in the 1527 release of what is popularly known in English as Aretino’s Postures, a suite of Sonetti Lussuriosi added to a publication of three years prior, I Modi, presenting pornographic engravings of historical and mythical scenes by Marcantonio Raimondi, from images composed for a private commission by Mannerist painter Giulio Romano, who was apparently unaware of the book endeavor until after the initial verse-less edition was printed. By Aretino’s intercession, words and pictures combined to form a most illuminating manuscript, survived only in partial and copied form due to the goodly efforts of the Roman Catholic Church, which probably has near mint copies slabbed and stowed in the Papal longboxes.
Greenaway’s word-picture blend betrays less immediately appreciable content. His dialogue is momentary and conversational, sometimes banal, and stilted in a manner not uncommon to a comics writer struggling to illuminate art that hasn’t manifested in a totally sympathetic way. There also appears to be a production error at work, in which sheets of paper detailing guide lines and vanishing points appear to have been supplied as opaque rather than transparent, limiting their utility as overlays to the full painting, presented three times as double-page spreads. Some minds might accuse Greenaway of padding such limited content, and indeed playing a simplistic game of fancy in the service of overwrought PowerPoint lectures prone to imaginative gallops.
However, to see form over content is to witness the fascinating separation of cinema and comics in Greenaway’s presentation. Comics, in the blunt, linear, potentially inadvertent form seen in this catalog, are cinema honed down, stripped of sound and movement, or the mechanical, inhuman aspect of photography that Bazin identified as critical to its divorce from the plastic arts. Also, centrally, in Greenaway’s catalog, comics replaces the source work, the Great Painting, transforming it into something else as surely as Dave Sim running ink over Alex Raymond. This puts the reader in the eyes of a secondary artist, while the true ‘dialogue’ of the project — the live projection of image and sound onto and around the painting — perches Greenaway over your shoulder, theoretically illuminating a cinematic read of the cloned original. Comics, then, provide a replacement reality to that of the painting, while Greenaway, from his prior works, and the trajectory of his career, might intend instead to spark some participation from the stationary viewer in imposing sequence, comic-ness, onto the Great Painting, so as to live with it, and keep it alive apart from canonization, which is only enjoyed by dead Saints.
You can also say that Greenaway has limited — framed — the swathe of painted art in his selection of such crowded, theatrical work. The next two planned subjects, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and Jackson Pollock’s One, Number 31, 1950, promise movement away from ‘realistic’ human staging and into a more iconographic or mark-based exploration of “copious detail of image and materials” that joins such painting and cinema.
But then, Greenaway is fond of saying that there is no history, only historians, suggesting the overarching authority of human fallibility over yet another cataloging of existence. Many of his prolonged projects and series — like Sfar’s & Trondheim’s Dungeon — seem designed to remain unfinished, grouped by way of personally charged, meaningful numbers. Ten comes up a lot, being the number of paintings under examination, and especially 92, which is the number of pages in the book, the number of books in the “Greenaway Catalogue” series helpfully identified on the back cover, the number of maps in A Walk Through H, the atomic number of Uranium and therefore totemic of the birth of apocalyptic modernity, and, most importantly, Greenaway’s own inaccurate count of the number of anecdotes in John Cage’s Indeterminacy: New Aspects of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music – it’s actually just 90. And so, fallibility is built right into the core, not merely a risk but the inevitability of categorization and panelization as practiced by the human observant.