Friday, January 24, 2014

Western Tradition Compendium: Ernst

Ernst – A Week of Kindness

In 1918 a Belgian, Frans Masereel, created a wordless novel in woodcuts, often translated to ‘A Passionate Journey’. American Lynd Ward created a similar woodcut novel, ‘God’s Man’ in 1929. German Otto Nuckel followed suit publishing ‘Destiny’ in 1930. So, by these accounts, Ernst’s 1934 contribution to graphic novels, ‘A Week of Kindness’, is a latecomer. But unlike the three pioneers before him, who all worked in woodcuts, Ernst did something new, namely creating his novel from collage. Collage, now the standby of the kindergarten art-class, was a new artistic concept in the early 20th century. The cubists, led by Braque and Picasso, were the first to experiment with the technique, but in a seemingly limited way. Cutting up and rearranging existing works instead came to the forefront of those two sometimes overlapping modern artists, the surrealists (who used the technique to make statements through juxtapositions) and dada (anti-art art).
            Max Ernst (1891 – 1976) was involved with dada and surrealism both. Modern art can be traced back to the 1800s, and Picasso’s 1907 unveiling of ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, the first work of cubism, definitely raised eyebrows. Beginning with modernism, art confronted the viewer. Art was now, by design, trying to provoke a reaction. Compare this against Munch’s famous 1893 painting ‘The Scream’. ‘The Scream’ strikes us, viscerally, and we react. But the painting was not intended as such, instead attempting to convey the painter’s own feelings of existential horror at perceiving a red sky. With the instillation by Marcel Duchamp of ‘Fountain’, an upside-down urinal, signed ‘R. Mutt, 1917’ modern art really began. ‘Fountain’ got people asking a question that previously hadn’t been asked, not whether or not a piece was good or bad art, but whether it was art at all. From here it was a short step to asking ‘what is art?’ The provocation would continue into the abstract, separating those who understand this as the purpose of modern art from those who want art to ‘represent something’.
Ernst was German, and spent time, like most twentieth century western artists, in France. From there he moved to America, with Peggy Guggenheim. Guggenheim continued to collect art, including Ernst’s, as her father had done, eventually opening the second of the four Guggenheim modern art collections, in Venice. He was joined by other artists fleeing the war, Duchamp amongst them. Ernst, meanwhile, remarried and eventually moved back to France after the War.
            The surrealistic landscapes he created are second only to Dali. By 1921 he was incorporating collage elements successfully into his surrealist works. Twenty years later his landscapes became unquestionable unique masterpieces, for example ‘Napoleon in the Wilderness’ from 1941, or ‘The Eye of Silence’ from 1944. Interesting, surely, to the art historian, but why is Ernst in this collection?
            With ‘A Week of Kindness’ two milestones are met. First, it represents the graphic novel and graphic story-telling generally. The 20th century has seen an explosion of this sort of narrative – truly a unique development in literature, spanning from the Superman and Batman comics that millions read, to the revered indie art of Kim Dietch and Chester Brown, to the middle ground of Alan Moore, Will Eisner, and Neil Gaiman. Graphic storytelling now accounts for a huge share of the global reading population, from Tintin to manga. Ernst’s work is made more interesting as the narrative is a surrealist one.

            Second, the importance of collage makes Ernst’s work critical. We live in a collage age. Our movies lift characters and dialogue, overtly as tributes or subtlety as ‘nods’, from the works that came before, as well as rotoscoping and using existing footage as templates, all examples of Hollywood interested in presenting the old as new. No one can listen to hip-hop, or pop, without getting a sense that these works are just collage. In literature William Burroughs would take Ernst’s graphic collage storytelling and revitalize it by cutting and pasting existing text to create his 1961 novel ‘The Soft Machine’. In visual art the ‘pop’ movement began with collage in 1956. New international agreements and legislation has branded much of this collage-style art illegal. ‘Sampling’ in music has now left the world of creativity and entered the realm of lawsuits for infringement on ‘intellectual property’, a once-brilliant notion now distorted far beyond original intent. Works such as ‘A Week of Kindness,’ if created today to be sold in bookstores would now be illegal. This disconcerting trend should give us pause as we move forward into the 21st century. 

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