Comix at Brandts – The Opening

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Right, back from Denmark and Odense, where I participated in the opening of the exhibition on comics and contemporary art at Brandts klædefabrik, Comix. It was a good time. A nice show and plenty of nice people, some familiar others not. The Bunker will hopefully be running a review as well as a photo reportage soon, but in the meantime I figured I’d post a couple of photos and reproduce my opening speech. Stay tuned.

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On a winter’s day in Weimar, in 1830, the ageing Goethe received two unpublished comics by the Swiss cartoonist, author and schoolmaster Rodolphe Töpffer. One told the tall tale of a spindly nature lover’s flight from a female force-of-nature who was convinced she is his fiancé. The other was a rambling rambling burlesque of mistaken identity, complete with talking trees, flying telescopes, and one-eyed astronomers. Goethe, who was at this time mourning the recent death of his son in Rome, found cheering solace in these comics. “It all sparkles with talent and intelligence. Some pages could not be excelled. If, for the future, he would choose a less frivolous subject, and restrict himself a little, he would produce things beyond all conception,” he told his assistant and editor, Eckermann.

Goethe’s enthusiasm was pivotal for Töpffer’s decision to publish his comics, which had originally been created exclusively as an amusement for him and his pupils. They met great success and contributed to the development of the increasingly popular strategy at the time of placing cartoons in sequence, and thereby to the creation of modern comics as we know them. Goethe’s words would prove to be prophetic, although another century-and-a-half would pass before the medium would in earnest start to transcend the ‘frivolous’ foundation that animated Töpffer’s work and for better or worse was comics’ strong suit – its limitation and its strength – through the modern era.

It’s been a long time coming, but comics today are experiencing something of a creative golden age and are seeing a move towards unprecedented artistic diversity. Despite their being part of an ancient tradition of caricature drawing and archetypical storytelling, comics today seem to promise immense unexplored ground and deliver concomitant discoveries that only few since Goethe would have imagined possible. It’s an exciting development, which is dependent on comics’ peculiar position between tradition and contemporaneity, old and new.

Since the Renaissance, comics and its kin – caricature and in popular prints – have seen a parallel but largely separate evolution from the fine arts, distilled as the latter were from the more inclusive medieval visual field. Comics is a hybrid form – text, or at least narration, and image – something that has been ill-regarded in the field of high culture ever since the revival, in the Renaissance, of the antique practice of comparison and grading of the art forms – the paragone. In the era of mass reproduction comics and cartoons found their natural place amongst the popular mass media, playing by their own formal and narrative rules, far from the sphere of high culture.

Granted, the separation has never been absolute; modernism in fine art can for example be regarded as an affirmation of the cartoon’s iconically condensed expressive representation of the world, while it was simultaneously an influence upon some of the great newspaper cartoonists, who at the beginning of the 20th Century created some of the medium’s most visually generous and poetic works. Another obvious example is the pop artists, who appropriated the imagery of cartoons in a self-reflexive subversion of the institutionalised fine art, and thereby expanded its visual field beyond the domain of high culture.

Nevertheless, the evolution of comics and cartooning has taken place within the field of popular culture. They constituted an anti-mimetic counterpoint to the naturalist tendencies in fine art of the 19th Century, and were one of the most fertile refuges for figuration and archetypical storytelling in the 20th Century, when those qualities had a hard time in the art of high culture. These years, as we’re experiencing a greater exchange between popular and high culture than ever before, it is thus not surprising that comics are moving into areas that had previously been reserved for the fine arts and literature. Because of their history they have a lot to offer the fine arts, and are simultaneously undergoing considerable changes beyond their traditional – strong but limited – expressive domain.

It is both intoxicating and edifying to watch. As Goethe further said about Töpffer’s comics, one risks an indigestion of ideas from the encounter with this dynamic visual and narrative field.

The exhibition Comix, which seeks to elucidate aspects of this development, is now open. Welcome!

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På en vinterdag i Weimar i 1830, modtog den aldrende Goethe to upublicerede tegneserier af den schweiziske tegner, forfatter og skoleforstander Rodolphe Töpffer. Den ene fortalte den vidtløftige historie om en stankelbenet naturelskers flugt fra en ustoppelig naturkraft af et kvindemenneske, der opfatter sig selv som hans forlovede. Den anden var en rablende forvekslingskomedie garneret med talende træer, en flyvende stjernekikkert og en sæt enøjede astronomer. Goethe, der på dette tidspunkt var i sorg over sin søns nylige død i Rom, fandt munter lindring i disse tegneserier. “De gnistrer af talent og fantasi. Visse af bladene er ganske uovertrufne! Hvis han vælger et mindre frivolt emne og fokuserer sit arbejde en smule, vil han kunne opnå ting, der overgår enhver forestilling” fortalte han til sin assistent og redaktør, Eckermann.

Goethes begejstring spillede en væsentlig rolle for Töpffers beslutning om at publicere sine serier, der egentlig kun var blevet til for hans og hans elevers morskabs skyld. De blev en kæmpe succes og var medvirkende til at både udvikle og popularisere den i tiden stigende tendens til at anbringe karikaturtegninger i sekvens og derved skabe den moderne tegneserie som vi kender den. Goethes ord skulle vise sig profetiske, om end der skulle gå næsten halvandet århundrede før mediet for alvor begyndte at løsrive sig fra det ’frivole’ grundlag, der animerede Töpffers arbejde og som på godt og ondt skulle blive tegneseriens adelsmærke – dens styrke såvel som dens begrænsning – gennem den moderne tidsalder.

Det har været længe undervejs, men tegneserien befinder sig i dag i noget af en kreativ guldalder og er i færd med at åbne sig mod hidtil uset kunstnerisk diversitet. På trods af at den er udvokset af en ældgammel tradition for karikaturtegning og arketypisk fortælling, syner den af uudforskede territorier og bringer tydelige løfter om landvindinger kun få siden Goethe indtil for nyligt havde forestillet sig mulige. Det er en spændende udvikling, der finder sit grundlag i tegneseriens besynderlige position mellem tradition og samtidighed, gammelt og nyt.

Tegneserien, og dens aner i karikaturtegningen og de populære tryk, har gennem den moderne æra siden Renaissancen oplevet en parallel, men et langt stykke ad vejen separat udvikling fra de skønne kunster tiden udskilte fra middelalderens mere inklusive billeddannelse. Den er en blandform – tekst, eller i hvert fald fortælling, og billede i syntese – og den slags har haft trange kår på parnasset siden man i Renaissancen for alvor genoplivede antikkens sammenligning og rangordning af kunstarterne – paragonen. I massereproduktionen tidsalder fandt tegneserien, og dens slægtning bladtegningen, sig således naturligt til rette som populærkulturelt massemedie med eget formsprog og egne spilleregler, langt fra den højkulturelle sfære.

Bevares, skodderne mellem de to områder har aldrig været vandtætte; modernismen i billedkunsten kan for eksempel på mange måder ses som en bekræftelse af det traditionelle tegneseriebilledes ikonisk fortættede, ekspressive gengivelse af verden, samtidig med at den informerede mange af de store avistegnere, der i begyndelsen af det 20. århundrede skabte nogle af mediets mest poetiske og visuelt generøse værker. Et andet oplagt eksempel er de popkunstnere, som selvbevidst brugte tegneseriebilledets ikonicitet i deres opgør med den institutionelle kunstopfattelse, og derved udvidede billedkunstens virkefelt hinsides finkulturen.

Men ikke desto mindre har tegneserien og karikaturen fungeret på populærkulturens præmisser. De har dannet anti-mimetisk kontrapunkt til de naturalistiske tendenser indenfor billedkunsten i det 19. århundrede, mens de i det 20. har fungeret som en af de frodigste overvintringspladser for figurationen og den arketypiske fortælling mens disse havde det svært i højkulturen. I disse år, hvor vi oplever en større udveksling mellem populær- og finkultur end nogensinde før i den moderne æra, er det således ikke overraskende at tegneserien er begyndt at bevæge sig ind på områder, der før var forbeholdt litteraturen og de skønne kunster. Den har i kraft af sin historie store ting at tilbyde billedkunsten, alt imens den i mødet med samme i disse år gennemgår en afgørende udvikling hinsides sit traditionelle – stærke, men begrænsede – udtryksregister.

Det er både berusende og berigende at være vidne til. Som Goethe videre sagde om Töpffers serier, risikerer man i mødet med dette dynamiske billedfelt forstoppelse af nye ideer og indfald.

Udstillingen Comix, der søger at anskueliggøre aspekter af denne udvikling, er hermed åben. Velkommen!

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Images from the exhibition, showing work by Anke Feuchtenberger, Thaddeus Strode, Yoshitaka Amano, Marcel Dzama, Martin Bigum, Claus Ejner, Kristian Devantier and David B.

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