Michael Kupperman on the issue at hand
In the latest instalment
of my irregular column at the Hooded Utilitarian I present a late entry in the debate kicked off last month by Eddie Campbell, with his essay for The Comics Journal
, “The Literaries”.
In his essay, Campbell took issue with the insistence by some critics not just of comparing the achievements of comics with those of other art forms, but also what he saw as an unfortunate, concomitant tendency to understand comics by the logic of other media, especially literature.
It should come as no surprise that I’m sympathetic at least to the second part, having long thought that the visual aspects of comics tend to get short shrift in serious comics criticism. So… well, do pop over and take a look at my column. And do comment — it’s a difficult issue and one that needs more thought, so I would love to hear what you think.
The week in review
I’ve been asked a few times about the painting that the National Gallery in London has recently cleaned and put back on display as Titian’s portrait of the physician Girolamo Fracastoro, as mentioned by Vasari in his Life of Titian of 1568. It’s a difficult one. The argument, as presented in an article in last month’s Burlington Magazine, is based partly on plausible provenance, but mostly on the fact that it it carried on the back of its frame a 19th-century note identifying its sitter as Fracastoro.
The painting is clearly Titianesque, but rather dull. As mentioned repeatedly in the press coverage, by far the most attractive area is the lynx fur worn by the sitter — compelling tactile eruption flecking through an otherwise rather bland surface. In any case, it pales in comparison with the other Titians in the same room at the National Gallery. None of this means the attribution is wrong, however: it is apparently quite damaged, which probably accounts in large part for its somewhat unconvincing appearance, and although very consistent, Titian did have bad days.
Another problem is the identification of the sitter. He looks quite different from known portraits of Fracastoro, such as the woodcut on right. The sitter in the painting is clearly slimmer of face and with a thinner, more elegant nose, but he is also clearly older in the woodcut, which might account in part for his fuller, more plump appearance. Plus, we still know very little about the extent to which, and how, painters at this time idealised, rejuvenated, and otherwise altered the appearance of their sitters . It’s an issue, which always makes identification of sitters in Renaissance (and later!) portraits difficult. The nineteenth-century label helps in this case, of course, but is far from proof, even if it repeats an older tradition.
Summing up, I don’t see any reason to disagree outright with the proposal made by the gallery, which largely convinces, but cannot help but feel a little uneasy about it.
TPB AFK. A lot of people are of course already unto this, and have only watched the beginning, but I’d still like to point in its direction: Simon Klose’s documentary on the Pirate Bay trial promises an important document about a important moment in the development of digital rights discourse. Youtube link.
Eddie Campbell on the ‘Literaries’ and reception of EC Comics. Yes! Campbell formulates much more precisely than I could important aspects of what I’ve been trying get at in my comics criticism of the past few years. A must-read for people interested in comics and how we read them.
David Frum on Booker T. Washington. I’ve only started digging into these stimulating posts occasioned by the publication of Robert J. Norrell’s biography of the early black American leader, but warmly recommend them. Washington has long needed the nuanced and revisionist treatment he seems to be getting now.
G. W. Bush, naivist painter. This is almost too weird — and good! — to be true, but these are supposed to be bathroom self-portraits by the erswhile president. His vacant expression is very well captured indeed.
Stephen Greenblatt on Richard III’s bones. Typically intelligent, if breezy, take on the archeological find of the week.
And finally, this article on the problems faced by museums when accepting gifts with stipulations from the donor is an informative read. I’ve long thought that the control exercised by donors over what happens to their collections once donated to a worthwhile institution is often counterproductive, even onerous, especially in America. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is merely one egregious example that I’ve written about in the past.
The Week in Review
What a week. Starting with Fantask’s fortieth anniversary celebration last weekend and ending with my participation at NNCORE’s foundational meeting with a short Berlin jaunt to see the astonishing Renaissance portraits and Hokusai shows there. I hope to return a bit to the portraits (though I can’t promise anything), but just wanted to say a few words about Hokusai here.
A huge retrospective covering the artist’s eighty-plus year career, the show really brought home just how prodigious an artist he was. He must have been drawing all the time. The kind of artist whose ambition is to understand no less than everything about the world through drawing, like Leonardo or Dürer. From the proliferating analytical notations in his manga and other instructional booklets to the elegant summaries of his brush paintings, his is a recording of human experience as such. Not the idea of it, and not really with an attempt to comment, but rather a continuous ambition to formulate a vision that suspends it within a order that grasps it all without reducing it to style. In a sense, what all cartooning should aspire toward.
Questlove’s Top 10 Life-Shaping Musical Moments. As always writing with passion and insight the Roots backbone takes us down memory lane through the songs that shaped his life and work.
Ben Katchor on picture stories. The great New York cartoonist does something similar, if less personal, for comics here. A fine thinker about comics, his recommendations contain plenty of nutrient for your dome.
Eddie Campbell on Simon and Kirby’s romance comics. The same goes for this, which serves as a reminder just how much of his career Kirby spent creating reality-based comics, and how important the romance genre used to be for comics.
The Week in Review (a.k.a. the feature formerly known as Picks of the Week).
Over at Hooded Utilitarian this week, there’s been an interesting discussion of Orientalism in comics, prompted by the publication of Craig Thompson’s mammoth graphic novel Habibi. It’s an interesting issue and one that warrants attention like Nadim Damluji gave it here, but several HU writers’ sensitivity to offensive material — mostly racist or xenophobic in nature, but to an extent also sexism — is turning a bit predictable. There’s a tendency there to conflate ethics and aesthetics, which is threatening to make a contentious and thought-provoking site something it never was: boring.
One of the sad consequences of this is that the good tends to get more attention than the better. Ng Suat Tong wrote an intelligent, but rather strongly-worded piece on Habibi, which irked cartoonist Eddie Campbell so that he raised the issue of decency in criticism on his blog. I understand and sympathize with this reaction, but don’t really agree with it — sometimes harsh language is the right way to go for a critic, although I’m not sure it was in this case. Anyway, this is my very long-winded way of calling attention to Suat’s other, and far superior recent piece at HU, an essay on Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions — one of the most interesting comics releases this year. So far it has netted all of four comments, and presumably far fewer readers, than the one on Habibi. I wish people would pay more attention to this kind of writing, even if it doesn’t push the hot buttons in the same way.
All right, with that out of the way, here’s some other interesting stuff I came across this week:
Alex Pappademas on DC’s New 52. The best piece I seen so far on DC’s succesful new bottling of their old, stale wine. Hilarious and informative, even — I think — to readers unfamiliar with the minutiae of mainstream American comics publishing.
Jeffrey Kurtzman on the crisis of the humanities. A professor of musicology and recent visiting professor at Aarhus University, Kurtzman writes passionately and cogently the rise of theory and the devaluation of high culture in contemporary Western society. Highly recommended. (Via).
Last week the Hooded Utilitarian ran a roundtable discussion on Eddie Campbell’s Alec comics. Plenty of good stuff on there, though my favourite was definitely Caroline Small’s discussion of Campbell’s prose (go read it; as a critique it goes well beyond Campbell).
Anyway, as part of the roundtable I conducted an in-depth interview with Cambell, which has now been posted over there. Go check it out — the man has a lot of interesting things to say!
Above: from Campbell’s The Dance of Lifey Death (1990-94).