Realism plus

(Mostly about art.)

Today’s Zippy has Griffy and Zippy reflecting on comics and art — Griffy from the viewpoint of a cartoonist (Is my stuff art?), Zippy from the viewpoint of a cartoon character (concerned with the conventions of the genre: speech balloons, punchlines):

The artists Griffy is drawn to are all what you might think of “realism plus” artists: like Griffiths in his cartoons, they create realistic depictions, but infused with extra content (allegorical, magical, self-mocking, absurdist, etc.). Hence the title “Realistic expectations”.

(The “But is it art?” question arises on this blog again and again, with respect to cartoons of many sorts, especially on the web, and with respect to “language artists” of several types.)

Griffy’s favorites include several “magic realists” — Hopper, Tooker, Cadmus — people who probably wouldn’t turn up near the top of other people’s lists of great artists.

(Magic realism on this blog: a posting on  Jack Frankfurter, Edward Hopper, and Paul Cadmus; one on George Tooker, with mention of Cadmus and Reginald Marsh; another on Tooker, paired with Michelangelo; and one on Robert Vickrey.)

Then the famous surrealist Magritte (posting on him here).

And the great 16th-century painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer, whose works were frequently allegorical, sometimes in mysterious ways.

And the 16th-century Dutch genre painter Pieter Bruegel (following Hieronymus Bosch), who painted demonological works and works of social protest as well as scenes of rollicking peasants.

And, something of a surprise, the 20th-century painter and printmaker Otto Dix. From Wikipedia:

Wilhelm Heinrich Otto Dix (… 2 December 1891 – 25 July 1969) was a German painter and printmaker, noted for his ruthless and harshly realistic depictions of Weimar society and the brutality of war. Along with George Grosz, he is widely considered one of the most important artists of the Neue Sachlichkeit [‘New Objectivity’].

Not objectivity as one might naively suppose, but again realistic works infused with layers of extra meaning. Here’s Mira Schor on a 2010 Dix show:

[Dix] specialized in turning even the most distinguished scientists and artists, including himself, into demonic characters.

A relatively mild instance, Dix’s Self Portrait with Muse:

Finally, two artists in the Japanese ukiyo-e [‘pictures of the floating world’] tradition, depicting a world that is both part of our world and outside it: Hokusai (ca. 1760 – 1849), whose most famous print, The Great Wave of Kanagawa, was the first in the series 36 Views of Mount Fuji;  and Hiroshige (ca. 1797 – 1858), one of the last great artists in that tradition.

These artists are paired with two cartoonists of totally different sensibilities: the underground comic artist R. Crumb (full of manic excess, coarse and often obscene) and the mainstream daily-strip cartoonist Ernie Bushmiller (stripping the comics to their barest content, in apparently artless simplicity). Crumb paired with Bruegel, Bushmiller with Magritte.

For some time I’ve been meaning to post on the underground comics of the ’70s (and later), but the project grew unwieldy, and I never got around even to the major figure of the period, R. Crumb, the Crumb of the Keep on Truckin’ comics and the characters Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural (seen below):

Crumb’s own site is here. The Wikipedia entry labels him as an artist and illustrator, not a cartoonist (there’s that art vs. the comics thing again):

Robert Dennis Crumb (born August 30, 1943) — known as Robert Crumb and R. Crumb — is an American artist, illustrator, and musician recognized for the distinctive style of his drawings and his critical, satirical, subversive [I would say savage] view of the American mainstream.

Then there’s Bushmiller:

Ernest Paul Bushmiller, Jr. (23 August 1905 – 15 August 1982) was an American cartoonist, best known for creating the long-running daily comic strip Nancy. (link)

A sample:

For years I took the adventures of Nancy and Sluggo to be symptomatic of what had gone wrong with the daily comics after their golden days: bland, flat, formulaic, and not at all funny. (Many people pick Garfield as the exemplar of the great descent into inanity.) But canny observers, including Bill Griffith, have found much to admire in Nancy. Here’s an appreciation from comics theorist Scott McCloud (who’s come up on this blog several times):

Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip Nancy is a landmark achievement: A comic so simply drawn it can be reduced to the size of a postage stamp and still be legible; an approach so formulaic as to become the very definition of the “gag-strip”; a sense of humor so obscure, so mute, so without malice as to allow faithful readers to march through whole decades of art and story without ever once cracking a smile. Nancy is Plato’s playground. Ernie Bushmiller didn’t draw A tree, A house, A car. Oh, no. Ernie Bushmiller drew the tree, the house, the car. Much has been made of the “three rocks.” Art Spiegelman explains how a drawing of three rocks in a background scene was Ernie’s way of showing us there were some rocks in the background. It was always three. Why? Because two rocks wouldn’t be “some rocks.” Two rocks would be a pair of rocks. And four rocks was unacceptable because four rocks would indicate “some rocks” but it would be one rock more than was necessary to convey the idea of “some rocks.” A Nancy panel is an irreduceable concept, an atom, and the comic strip is a molecule. (link)

I get Crumb and Bruegel, but I’m still struggling with Bushmiller and Magritte.



3 Responses to “Realism plus”

  1. Surrealists | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] content, and then in a posting on George Tooker (who was influenced by Cadmus), and also in a posting on cartoonist Bill Griffith’s taste in […]

  2. Zippy on comic books | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] “Realism plus” of 1/11/13, I talked about (and […]

  3. Comics on comics | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Natural and Nancy appeared together in a posting of mine (from January […]

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