Sunday, February 27, 2011

Visual News of the World: Flaneur No. 2

UPDATED February 28.

My last post on Baudelaire and his reflections on Guys the illustrator as observer-reporter left off at the Spanish-American War. The turn of the 20th century coincides with widespread adoption of the halftone screen as a method for photo-mechanically rendering a continuous tone image for reproduction purposes. Practically speaking, this development brought an end to the era of the illustrator as reporter. Once it became possible to print photographic images at low cost and high speed, illustrators would not again be needed as visual stenographers.

Reportage drawing would not die out, however; it would shift in emphasis, intriguingly so. That's for another time.

But today I'm interested in what happened, culturally and technologically, to the visual news-of-the-world.

In Alfred Waud's day, Harper's or the London Illustrated News provided the technological means and the cultural frame for presenting visual reportage. A wood-engraved translation of the drawing below, of wounded soldiers at the Battle of the Wilderness threatened by a burning forest, was presented to the reading public in May 1864. The authority of the publication and the authority of the image were mutually reinforcing.

In subsequent decades, new technologies of production and display would provide new temporal and spatial contexts for consumers of news. World War Two newsreels were viewed in movie theaters. Castle Films' U.S. Carrier Fights for Life, about "Carrier X" (the U.S.S. Yorktown) did much the same job as an Alfred Waud field sketch in Harper's from the American Civil War, except that the newsreel adds the elements sound and motion. (A video file of the whole reel is available here) The attack on the ship by Japanese bombers feels quite immediate; I imagine it would have been distressing to watch at the time. The first half of 1942 was rough in the Pacific; people sitting in those theater seats would have been eager for good news. As it happened, the Yorktown survived the attack but was sunk in the Battle of Midway a few months later (in an otherwise decisive victory for American forces.)

The script for the newsreel reads a little like overheated sportswriting:

An enemy plane is spotted swooping down on the mighty flattop. Anti-aircraft guns mark their warning, but the Nipponese airman throws caution to the wind. There's a hit on the afterdeck, port side. A bomb blasts through...Under clouds of black smoke, two Jap planes dive to a smoldering, watery end... As another dawn breaks through the tropical skies, Carrier X again gives battle. Again the Japs swoop down from the clouds, again our anti-aircraft guns pepper the sky with tracer bullets, each carrying bad news for the invaders...Uncle Sam's gunners are straight shooters. The Japs find that out in this fight to the finish.

The newsreel brought propaganda-inflected reportage to the public space of movie theaters in the World War Two era. Military censors shielded the public from the most ghastly combat images. The newsreels simultaneously provided a technologically current format for updates and a device to keep people focused on the task at hand, which was winning the war. Twenty years later, television brought the Civil Rights struggle and the Vietnam War into people's living rooms. The medium of television moved at new speeds. In part for this reason, in Vietnam the press was able to play an editorial role which challenged authority of the government.

Cable TV accelerated the reach and pace of broadcast news coverage in the 1990s.

Today, events in North Africa are adding a new chapter to the story. Accounts from Libya suggest that the footprint of the Gaddafi regime has shrunk to areas in and around Tripoli.

Consider the cultural frame provided by the image at the top of this post, a screen shot from a broadcast segment on Al Jazeera English posted to YouTube. This is the already-classic Gaddafi rant from the golf cart with the umbrella. The AJE report goes on to note that the rant has been bracketed by footage from what looks like a Libyan Lawrence Welk hour (directly above) utterly unconnected from the ongoing collapse of the regime. Ponder the frame-within-a-frame conceit of Libyan State TV showing a governmental absurdity, self-consciously [and disapprovingly] bracketed by AJE, subsequently bracketed by YouTube.

An aside: how about that guy in the yellow suit? Has he misplaced his hat? Is he looking for a curious monkey?

Images: Citations forthcoming.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Flaneurs @War No. 1

Today in Commercial Modernism we explored shifting cultural and technological frames for visual reportage. Civil War illustrator-correspondent Alfred Waud produced onsite sketches close to the action. Above, a Waud sketch from the first day at Gettysburg, on brown paper in pencil with Chinese white. Waud also produced written accounts to support the illustrations he sent back to the shop:

CULPEPPER, Friday, September 18. Your artist was the only person connected with newspapers permitted to go upon the recent advance to the Rapidan. An order of General Meade’s sent all the reporters back. It was a very wet and uncomfortable trip part of the time. I did not get dry for two days; and was shot at into the bargain, at Raccoon Ford, where I unconsciously left the cover and became a target for about twenty of the sharpshooters...

Above, Waud captures a cavalry unit on reconnaissance at Raccoon Ford. His written account (cited above and below) and the wood engraved translation of his sketch appeared in the October 3, 1863 edition of Harper’s.

The caption below the illustration reads, “Army of the Potomac–General Buford Attacked the Enemy at Raccoon Ford, September 14, 1863–Sketched by A. R. Waud.”

On Sunday, September 13, 1863, soon after our troops advanced from the Rappahannock, they became engaged with the enemy....General Buford made an attack to unmask their force at Raccoon Ford, while another cavalry division was doing the same at Somerville Ford; since which time shelling and sharp-shooting has been constantly kept up on the river banks. General Custer charged right up a hill to the enemy's battery, taking three guns and a number of artillerymen...

The cannon group that dominates the sketch appears bottom left on the printed page.

Wars and conflicts generally mean good business for publications and outlets like these. Above, an auspicious launch for DianShiZhai Huabao, a Shanghai pictorial (previously discussed) which in its first issue (1884) describes a battle in the Sino-French War, then raging; a matter of pronounced public interest.

The Japanese version of war "reportage" wedded the international vogue for illustrated newspapering with the craft tradition of Ukioy-e woodcuts to produce dramatic images of naval battles in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. (When in Shanghai looking through pictorial coverage in FeiYingGe Huabao for 1895, I was curious to see if that conflict–a disaster for China–showed up in its pages. A cursory review suggested no. But I did not have the chance to look through DSZHB in search of the same information.)

The class had been assigned Baudelaire's The Painter of Modern Life as a reading. That essay, written in 1860 and published in 1863, pairs nicely with Manet's Olympia (1863), as the painting captures the frank engagement with the present for which the poet called, and was experienced as such an affront to the civilizing pretensions of art.

But Baudelaire's putative subject was the unnamed illustrator Constantin Guys, who did significant work for the London Illustrated News, particularly in Crimea. The essayist is less concerned with military reportage than with the immediacy and the evanescence of a cultural moment. Of Guys he writes:

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd: For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world–such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito...

"Any man," he said one day, in the course of one of those conversations which he illumines with burning glance and evocative gesture, "any man who is not crushed by one of those griefs whose nature is too real not to monopolize all his capacities, and who can yet be bored in the heart of the multitude, is a blockhead! a blockhead! and I despise him!"

This imperative–to engage what is, who is, how things look–suggests journalistic output. But other modes emerged, too. There are connections to be drawn between American illustrators and American painter-reporters of the Ashcan School, for example in the person of William Glackens. Glackens traveled to Cuba to cover the Spanish American War for McClure's in 1898; later he focused on his painting career, but not without an editorial edge. The Shoppers (1907) above, suggests a point of view on the Gilded Age.

John Sloan, another of the Ashcan Clan, worked for Philadelphia papers but painted New York.

Sloan's political interests led him to work as the art director at The Masses, a socialist publication. His Ludlow Massacre cover is among his best known works.

But let's come back to Baudelaire and Guys. Baudelaire credits the illustrator with prodigious powers of observation, thoroughly attuned to his modern moment.

By 'modernity' I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable. Every old master has had his own modernity; the great majority of fine portraits that have come down to us from former generations are clothed in the costume of their own period...This transitory, fugitive element, whose metamorphoses are so rapid, must on no account be despised or dispensed with.

Toward the end of class we posed questions of our own period. What would the Constantin Guys of our time notice? Which customs and costumes, which artifacts, what speech, what ways of holding oneself, which contemporary textures, would our illustrator note and record? The beginning of that discussion focused particularly on technology: its manifestations and uses. Such an observation might have credibly been offered in any of the last 100 years. Which technology, what manifestations, and which influences upon contemporary life?

Secondly: what's behind the half-and-half formulation of the now and the ancient, the "contingent" versus the "immutable"? How shall we parse that equation in today's terms?

I invite comment on these questions. With more time to reflect, what do you really think about this? What might be the difference between a superficial answer–iPhones!–versus a more searching one?

Presently, a second installment which extends the technological and cultural dimensions of our discussion of visual reporting, from Alfred Waud to YouTube.

Images: Alfred Waud, Attack of the Louisiana Tigers on a Battery of the 11th Corps at Gettysburg, (July 1, 1863) ink and Chinese white on brown paper; Waud, Reconnoisance [sic.] by Buford’s Calvary Towards the Rapidan River, ink and china white on brown paper; Waud, Army of the Potomac–General Buford Attacked the Enemy at Raccoon Ford, September 14, 1863, wood engraving in Harper’s Weekly, October 3, 1863; Wu Youru, Forceful Attack at Bac Ninh, DSZHB No. 1, 1884; Nakamura Shuko, Great Japanese Naval Victory off Haiyang Island, woodblock print, 1894; Edouard Manet, Olympia, oil on canvas, 1863; Constantin Guys, Reviewing the Regiment, inkwash illustration, n.d.; William Glackens, The Shoppers, oil on canvas, 1907; William Glackens, Loading Horses on the Transports at Port Tampa, Inkwash and Chinese white, field sketch on assignment for McClure’s Magazine, 1898; John Sloan, McSorley's Bar, oil on canvas, 1912; John Sloan, Ludlow Massacre, magazine cover for The Masses, June 1914.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Trippy Shanghai

I'm struggling to find the time to catalog my experience in Shanghai last month, in both w0rd and image. Working on drawings, paintings and textual notations; confident of a good product in coming months, but also desirous of capturing the experience in parallel forms, too. I shoot photographs for a variety of purposes, as I have reflected previously. January in Shanghai in a cold winter–high 30s Fahrenheit, unheated buildings, people in 9 layers of clothing, visible breath indoors–is not, to say the least, an ideal environment for onsite drawing, not to mention the gawk factor of the +6 footer redhead thing–heightened my reliance on photography as a recording tool.

These photographs were all taken on a cold-ass night along the Bund, the European-inflected promenade in Shanghai, captured in art deco architecture, which gazes across the Huangpu River at Pudong, formerly an encampment of whorehouses and poverty, razed circa 1990 and replaced by Jetsons architecture and a Disney sensibility, most prominently captured by the Pearl TV Tower, shown at the top of this post in poor focus. (Diagram that sentence.) Somehow the blur captured the weirdness better than proper pictures.

What a crazy place. The river traffic on the Huangpu, especially for a denizen of St. Louis, suggested a 21st century Huck Finn view of China, barges three abreast in both directions, replaced after dark by wacky sightseeing boats wrapped in neon.

The spectacle of buildings-as-screens (Indy cars and tropical fish zoomed and swam, respectively, across this building, alternating with bizarre, infantilizing graphic elements like the happy symbol-TV shown here, 40 or 60 stories tall) stupefies in two senses: as pure advanced opticality, and a contrast with underwear and blankets draped over clotheslines to dry on city streets. A common spectacle of a different sort altogether. Again, a crazy place...

Monday, February 21, 2011

Malady de Schnozz

Woke up today with approximately six pounds of snot in my noggin. Kapow! a head cold. Have been blowing my nose for hours on end; a reddened schnozz, with heightened self-awareness of same. Geppetto lurks.

Did the only sensible thing. Got home from work (and a cardiologist's appointment following) and prepared a martini the size of a four door sedan. Thinking of you, Dino!

Images: Walt Disney Studios, Pinocchio, 1940; Dean Martin and (I think) Eve Meyer in Artists and Models, Frank Tashlin, director, 1955. Someday I'll write more about A & M as well as Tashlin; I am an aficionado of both, though the former is largely unwatchable for stretches.

Monday, February 14, 2011

St. Valentine's Day

Today's New York Times features a cupid-themed Op-Art by Ji Lee. Seeing it reminded me of a project I started a few years back but never got around to finishing: a deck of fortune telling cards based on a Whitman Publishing product from 1936. (My deck was to be a contemporified version, designed for iPhone distribution. I kicked it around with some friends, but we didn't manage to find the right combination of people, time and expertise.) Anyway, it was ton of fun to come up with ideas for cards and design them. This cupid card was one of my favorites, a riff on the original.

Ji Lee's cupids are a witty bunch.

Since romance is in the air, I thought I'd salute an affair to remember: Bugs Bunny in drag with a credulous Elmer Fudd in the Warner Brothers short "Rabbit Seasoning" (1952).

Finally, a discreet shot of the valentine I made for my wife last night. (Those are her hands.) A little gouache on the black paper Arches uses to cover fresh watercolor blocks. Honestly, the handmade valentine thing never gets old...

Science Problem

I have assigned a dream project in Word & Image 2: design-slash-illustrate a pictorial display to accompany an explanation of a scientific concept to young people. I say "dream project" because it combines picture-making with serious visual thinking: from my perspective, fun as can be.

As promised, here's an example. This picture accompanies a text in The Question and Answer Book of Everyday Science, crisply and thoughtfully written by Ruth A. Sonneborn with terrific illustrations by Robert J. Lee. (Random House, 1961.) These things are so smart. Agreeable, clear, well-selected strategies for what to show and what to let the text do.

Here’s the copy:

Where does electricity come from?

Electricity for your house comes to you from a big power station. In the power station there is a huge piece of machinery called a generator. And inside the generator is an electromagnet. This is an iron core with wires which coil around it but do not touch it.

In a circle around the magnet–but also not touching it–there are other coils of wire. Power, usually from steam or falling water, makes the electromagnet whirl rapidly inside the coil. And this produces electricity, electric current in the outer circle of wire.

The electric current flows from the generator into cables that run sometimes underground and sometimes high up on poles. They carry the current everywhere it is needed. A special cable brings it into your house. When you flip a light switch or turn on your television set, you bring the electric current into your room.

Note that Lee does not bother with the electromagnet, which would be too much. He goes for a gestalt view of landscape with stuff in it. He chooses falling water as the power source and shows the power lines above ground. Both of which lend themselves to display. He shows the generator and the house as insets. Judicious use of labels, too.

A related note: for geeky informational pictures with a certain je ne sais quois, check out Mondorama 2000. Kooky-great illustrations from French encyclopedias, circa 1970. The headline for this image is Equipement de protection individuel.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Notes on Platemaking and Printing

I am teaching a course called Commercial Modernism in America 1865-1965 this semester. It’s a class I first offered two years ago, and I’m happy to be back at it, tinkering with the content, materials and readings.

Today in class we explored the history of platemaking and printing technologies in the West between 1450 to 1850. In platemaking we covered woodcut, metal engraving, etching, and wood engraving; in printing we examined relief and intaglio printing processes. And then we ran out of time.

If the course and the history just described seem like a mismatch, it's a warm up for thinking about the industrial production of popular materials.

Before I pick up the narrative, I’d like to stress again how important these technologies are to understanding how prints look, the speed and volume at which they could be produced, and the uses to which they were put. It never hurts to be reminded that the central significance of printed pictures in human history has precious little to do with art and aesthetics, and much to do with the dissemination of valuable information: botanical, mechanical and cultural. For a bracing review of important developments with a strong point of view, consult grumpy old William M. Ivins Jr.’s excellent book, How Prints Look, issued by Harvard in the mid-fifties and reprinted by MIT more recently.

I mentioned the problem of optical gray as it presents itself to the printmaker. You get one color of ink–black–but you have to make it look like several different values of gray. It’s a density problem.

This print of the martyrdom of St. Erasmus provides naught but contour lines. The black works like a linear fence, dividing up a field of white. (Most unpleasant way to go, having one’s intestines spooled out by a crank.)

By contrast, this detail from an Albrecht Dürer Apocalypse woodcut shows white and black shapes collaborating to establish optical tones when viewed from further back. The red rectangle highlights the area shown a greater magnification below.

The closer you get, the more analytical and abstract it gets.

I mentioned the problem of translation. In both of the prints above the draw-er and the cutter are different people. That makes for more jobs, but it interposes a layer in the process, too. The visual middleman isn’t actually the problem; it’s the step itself. How to produce a printed picture that preserves the initial mark? Secondly, how to produce an optical gray that’s less analytical?

I mentioned the important figure of Thomas Bewicke, who figured out how to flip a plank on its end to get a far harder end-grain block, thereby launching the wood engraving boom of the nineteenth century. But at almost exactly the same time, Alois Senefelder made the unlikely discovery that a particular grade of Bavarian limestone was equally receptive to both grease and water, leading directly to the magic of lithography.

Recall, class, that both relief and intaglio printing methods rely on a system of divots in a plane: the ink goes on top in relief, and gets smashed below, into the divots, for intaglio. These methods are called physiographic, because they rely on physical relationships.

Lithography is a different affair altogether. Lithography (literally, stone picture) depends upon chemical relationships. Specifically, it uses the mutual antipathy of grease and water to create ink-loving areas and ink-repelling areas. Lithography is a planographic process, because everything happens on the same plane.

The Daumier lithograph below showcases the tonal range and sense of touch that the medium supports.

To produce a lithograph, an illustrator draws on a stone slab with a grease crayon or pencil. The stone surface has a slight tooth, to which particles of the pigmented grease adhere. By using light pressure, the illustrator produces a light gray passage with a velvety surface; by using gradually more pressure, she fills the spaces between the tooth. This is still an optical gray, in so far as white and black spots in close quarters produce it. Washes are possible in lithography; in that case the dispersal of pigment in solution creates the tone. Once the drawing is finished, the stone is sensitized to ink and water through the use of gum arabic and asphaltum.

Significantly, lithography is an autographic process; it does not require a translating step by a cutter or engraver, as do woodcut and wood engraving. The mark you make is the mark you get.

Finally, between 1800 and 1900 wood engraving and increasingly photomechanical platemaking processes for letterpress (relief) printing were the dominant matrixes for industrial scale printing in black and white. Chromolithography (multi-stone color images) was used for color printing and packaging, especially high-end stuff. (See chickens above.)

Scores of variations on platemaking emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century, about which another day.

Combined with what we covered in class, this should prepare you to look at the printed samples at Olin Library Special Collections next Tuesday. This will be but our first installment of platemaking and printing in this course. See you then!

Images: The Sion Textile, North Italian (probably Venetian) woodcut on linen depicting the Legend of Oedipus, oldest extant printed textile in Europe, second half of the 14th century; The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus, an unattributed early German woodcut, likely Bavaria, 1400-1450; Albrecht Dürer, details from Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, woodcut, circa 1497-98; Honoré Daumier, Les 100 Robert Macaire, lithograph, 1838; illustrator uncredited, Hühner (Chicken Breeds), Meyers Lexicon, 1894

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Is You Is or Is You Ain't my Artwork

I was trained as a fine artist, which necessitates using a malingering modifier–fine–for purely conventional purposes. This term retains its meaning, despite the fact that it seems like a Beaux-Arts anachronism, as tired as plaster casts of Greek statuary. Ideologically speaking, I dislike the term, and the view of culture it propounds. Especially inasmuch as it aligns itself with a vaguely progressive view of human affairs, according to which all persons move toward greater self-realization and just rewards for their labors. Yet such rewards, often taking the form of simple credit, routinely do not accrue to producers of meaner cultural works. I speak generally of the decorative, industrial and communication arts, but especially graphic works in popular circulation. I’ve opined on this before. The Robert O. Reid illustration below was a subject of such a discussion.

This state of affairs prevails because, according to habits of mind in high cultural precincts, such works are not made by individual people, but rather by “the culture.” Which legitimizes their theft sans attribution. Money is a different subject, into which I shall not wander.
Case in point: the drastically different fates of Roy Lichtenstein’s comic panel paintings, and the printed materials from which they were largely copied. The former have been subject to inflationary bloat for some time, while the latter have been systematically de-emphasized–effectively suppressed–by otherwise freedom-loving officialdom d’art.

The detective work performed by David Barsalou has shown the clear relationship between comic book panel designs by Irv Nowick, Jack Kirby, et. al on the one hand, and on the other, Lichtenstein’s large scale copies of them presented as his own. Sure, we can call this the cutting edge of appropriation circa 1962, but show me the justification for failing to credit the blatant and by now firmly established relationship between them.

Thankfully, Barsalou has been on the case for some time now. He’s tracked down hundreds of panels and matched them with Lichtenstein’s copies. His work has gotten a bump in attention in the last few weeks on comics blogs. Brian Childs provides a roundup at Comics Alliance, including a snippet from that–stunningly–describes a historical relationship between Irv Novick and Roy Lichtenstein.

Matt Duarte picks up the thread at Weekly Crisis, and provides an account of a visit to the Tate Modern, where Lichtenstein’s WHAAM–a copy of Novick’s original panel–hangs. I’ve posted Duarte’s photo of the painting in situ.

The New York Times provided another angle of vision on this discussion just last week. Judith H. Dobrzynsky’s article on the newly re-installed American Indian galleries at the Denver Art Museum explores a fascinating parallel. I am a fan of this museum, particularly its American Indian collections. (The departmental structure of museum itself presents a fascinating set of taxonomic questions, but that’s for another day.) The article focused on the curatorial work of Nancy Blomberg, who I interviewed several years ago on a research trip for a book I’m working on. Blomberg and her colleagues have re-contextualized works previously designated only by tribe with artist’s credits when possible, and Anonymous when not.

Dobrzynsky writes of the installation, “For the first time many of the works on display are attributed to individual artists instead of just their tribes. It is a revolution in museum practice that many scholars hope will spread, raising the stature of American Indian artists and elevating their work from the category of artifacts to the more exalted realm of art.”


I applaud the attribution, for exactly the reasons outlined above. An overdue adjustment, by any stretch. But the goal ought not be the fabulous power of Art. Our aim should be a fulsome multidimensional reflection on humans and what they produce. I am unenthusiastic about “elevating” items into “exalted realm of art.” For God's sake, people, lose the vertical axis! All things that people make are artifacts. The categorical exemption that works of art effectively enjoy from this reality is not to be extended or expanded, but shrunk!

A line-up of selected works on the Denver Art Museum website chosen to represent the collection raises a question or two. The annotations do not include dates, and the dread word "masterpiece" makes an appearance. Temporal reality still matters. Beware the dangers of over-correction. (The DAM site includes a stern warning about image use. Below, a drawing I made in their galleries in the summer of 2008. Never inked it. But I might yet.)

To think about an object contextually–how was it used, by whom, how much did it cost, how was it distributed, how was it made?–is to think about things in a social world. You can ask these questions of paintings just as you can ask them of Northwest Indian masks or comic books. Or amalgams of all three (see top).

Whatever else they are, paintings by blue-chip artists are high-end retail products. Lichtenstein’s estate is no friend of David Barsalou, because quotations of authorless comics are less a threat to prestige–and price structures–than panels by identifiable people. On the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation WHAAM page, the very comic is cited, but without a creator. Robert Kanigher, the editor shows up. But Irv went poof.

I suspect that Irv's revenge will come in future decades. When it does it will probably take the form of deflated values.

But beware claims of singular genius in the source material, too. The comic book business was–is–a workshop industry. Ever since Siegel and Shuster sued over the rights to Superman, the division of labor between writers and artists, pencilers and inkers and letterers, has made ownership a matter of diffusion, aesthetically as well as legally. The company owned the intellectual property; the team owned the bragging rights. In a way, Lichtenstein’s theft of these images just makes the circle a little larger.

Finally, I think I’d like to start a stupid contest. Who can find the goofiest claim for a work of art? I can’t very well enter my own contest, but I can provide an example. I set this aside when I first read it because I thought it represented a monumental misreading of material facts. In last September 23’s New York Times, Roberta Smith (an interesting critic when looking at the right art) wrote the following in a review of Lichtenstein’s drawings:

Lichtenstein’s art forms an ode to the Americana of comic books and commercial art, but it has about it a brisk cosmopolitanism that is also New York at its most New York, which is in the fall. The closest analogy may be musical: the songs of Broadway composers like Cole Porter, which radiate the energy of vernacular language being put in perfect working order.

So: Cole Porter wrote Autumn in New York? Wait, no, that was Vernon Duke! I guess Cole reinscribed the melody on a new sheet of paper, just a lot bigger.

Images: Janet Smalley, Southwest American Indian paper dolls, Jack and Jill Magazine, August 1950; Robert O. Reid, periodical illustration, circa 1940; Irv Novick, air combat comic panel, All-American Men at War #89, January-February 1962; Roy Lichtenstein, WHAAM, magna on canvas, 1963, photograph by Matt Duarte, 2010(?); D.B. Dowd, Northwest American Indian Gallery, Denver Art Museum, pencil drawing on sketchbook spread, 2008; Joe Shuster, cover illustration, Action Comics #22, March 1940.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

News From Abroad: Trainwreck!

Struggling, a little, to get caught up and squared away with the new semester and current projects. But a word on Shanghai and my curatorial exploits.

I traveled to China for two reasons, professionally speaking: 1) to investigate the reportage drawing tradition in that country, especially as it relates to journalism, as the term is commonly understood, and 2) to draw and photograph in expectation of producing the first issue of a new serial I will begin publishing this year, called Spartan Holiday.

My curiosity about the illustrated press in China emerges from a subject interest, not an independently cultural one, which is to say that I had not been a student of Chinese civilization prior to my preparation for this trip. I don’t speak or read Mandarin, not by a long shot (though my son Danny is an avid student of the language). My move, then, was lateral, pursuing a subject interest across geographical and temporal borders. I am at work on an international exhibition project called Drawing Conclusions: The Illustrator as Reporter, projected for 2014. (Details to follow another time, but contact me if you have an interest in the subject.)

Relevant Shanghai historical narrative, to the extent that I have been able to understand it: the late Qing dynasty (1644-1912) was beset by serious problems, including encroaching European powers–the British Empire, primarily–and an insurrection of stupefying scale, the Taiping Rebellion. (In an example of the differences of scale in things Chinese from a Western perspective, the Taiping Rebellion is estimated to have cost 20 to 30 million lives. In the 19th century.) The first Opium War–the unhappy resolution of which contributed to abovementioned paroxysm–pitted China against the British, who practiced a particularly vehement form of free-traderism which lay at the heart of the matter. (Imagine Mexico launching a war against the United States to preserve the cocaine trade, despite the illegality of the product north of the border.) The war lasted from 1839 to 1842; the locals lost. The Treaty of Nanjing forced an unpleasant settlement on the Chinese, who agreed to open five ports and grant foreign settlement rights to the British. Subsequent arrangements of this kind were made with other foreign powers, including France, Japan, and the United States. (Somehow the Germans played a role, too, but I’m sketchy on that.)

Below, a shot of the Bund, a promenade with impressive-looking European buildings that runs along the Huangpu River (and looks across at the architectural Disneyland of Pudong).

These settlements, known as “concessions,” were defined as extraterritorial districts: they were, in effect, gigantic embassies, each with its own police force and court system. However galling to the Chinese, the system bore fruit of a kind: an emerging commercial culture transformed Shanghai from a provincial place into a thriving international city, and in effect helped to launch Chinese modernity from that spot.

The Japanese invasion in 1937 was the beginning of the end for the European presence in Shanghai.

A savvy set of Brits led by one Ernest Major created a partnership to enter the printing and publishing business. In 1872 the group commenced publication of a Chinese daily newspaper, Shenbao. Major ran the operation, and seems to have been a genuine admirer of Chinese culture. He hired Chinese reporters, editors, illustrators and printers. The paper did well, and subsequently in 1884–after a few experiments–Shenbao launched an illustrated supplement, Dianshizhai Huabao. Huabao has been translated as “Pictorial.”

My curatorial work in China involved tracking down a run of DSZHB as well as a second pictorial, Feiyingge Huabao. The image just above shows a bound set of the full run of DSZHB at a teahouse owned by the collector who'd bought them from the dealer who became my intercessor. Got that?

I’ll write about these pictorials, and the process of gaining access to them, in a coming post. Below, a characteristic image of the pictorial news from the huabaos: a visual description of a trainwreck, reported to have occurred in America.

Illustration by Wu Youru, the most able and prolific of the artists associated with the pictorials in the late Qing. Feiyingge Huabao. September 1890. A detail of this image is shown at the top of the post. Note the contrasting visual languages of traditional Chinese painting and wood engraved illustrations of the London Illustrated News and its ilk.