Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Other Abstract Art Movement

Left: Female Bust by Picasso, 1937. Right: Popeye by E.C. Segar, 1929-1937
While Picasso was experimenting with abstraction in the world of galleries and museums, another abstract art movement was playing out right under people's noses in the realm of comic characters.

Left: Picasso Bull, 1945. Right: Disney Studios Hell's Bells, 1929
In both modes of image-making, artists discovered that a certain power derives from simplification, from stripping away layers of reality and searching for basic psychological symbols. They recognized this power in the older work of the cave painters, the Egyptians, the African mask-makers, and the Japanese printmakers, to name a few.

George Herriman, Krazy Kat, 1918
The forces driving innovation in the two movements was different. In animation, the whole medium was new; there was no grand tradition of painting to overthrow. No one had seen drawings move before. They were alive! Simplification was a practical and economic necessity because they had to be hand-painted by the thousands on acetate cels. It was a collaborative and often anonymous enterprise, yet no less innovative than the work of the easel-painters. 

Cartoon characters in the newspapers had to be reduced to something that could be printed on a mass scale. As the decades passed, comic characters were reproduced more and more quickly at relatively small sizes on cheap paper.

But the most important difference was that images in the world of comic characters had to be expressive. People had to love them. They had to convey character and story and personality. Without that, they were dead on arrival. There was no artificial life support system to keep them going. If no one loved them, they died. 

The language of abstraction in the world of comic characters took a while to develop. The Yellow Kid and Little Nemo were among the earliest newspaper characters, and they were still based more or less on the arrangement of a real face. By the time Betty Boop arrives (lower left) in 1930, we're very far from reality.

Mickey's earlier incarnations had dots for pupils floating in a big white shape that could be either the whites of the eyes or a big forehead.

When Fred Moore redesigned Mickey in 1938 for Sorcerer's Apprentice, his pupils became white ovals with smaller pupils inside them. But Mickey always had those two purely abstract circles for ears, which became a problem as Disney Studios strove for more and more realism.

Characters from Pixar's Inside Out. All Disney images ©Disney, Inc.
The give and take between realism and abstraction continues to this day with character designers in the 3D digital animation world deciding how to boil down the characters to their simple essence. The goal is always to make them more expressive, to make their emotions come across better in a story.

The person who first got me thinking about comics as the "other abstract art movement" was toy collector and inventor Mel Birnkrant, who is fascinated by the design of comic characters, especially between 1920 and 1940. In this heretical view of art history, the art of comic characters is not only a legitimate art form, but perhaps the most protean, innovative and enduring form, which transcends all the "isms," and is the central story of 20th century art history.

Mel says, "Isn't it ironic that modern art had to fight so hard to introduce abstraction to the world? When all the while, abstract art had already been peacefully introduced and willingly accepted by an eager public, many years before, in the form of comic characters."
Mel Birnkrant's essay "Reflections in a Pie-Cut Eye"
All copyrights to their respective holders.


Rubysboy said...

Nice insight, but on second thought I think there's a big difference in the types of abstraction employed in comics and abstract art. Comics strive for (and generally achieve) quick, direct communication of objects by using by using simple signs in ways that people readily interpret as standing for a familiar object, much the way that children draw, a circle for a head, dots for eyes, a curved line for a mouth, and so on. It's simplification via abstraction in the interest of readability. Abstract art does just the opposite. It abstracts in the interest of impeding a common reading of the image and thus stimulating further reflection or expressing a feeling. Similar means, very different ends, I think. Thanks for a stimulating insight.

thraxil said...

This anthology deals with later developments of the 60's through current time with R. Crumb, Moebius, etc. exploring completely abstract approaches to Comics: Abstract Comics: The Anthology (Fantagraphics, 2009).

(disclaimer: I'm one of the artists featured in the anthology)

Mario said...

This is something I've been thinking about a lot, and I'm happy that other people share my view. Perhaps I wouldn't use the word "abstract", which calls to my mind something "nonfigurative"; I would say something like "exploring and creating innovative languages for human (and animal) body representation".
We simply didn't know that it was possible to express strong or subtle feelings with very few lines, sometimes using great deformations. It's an "anatomy of expression", or perhaps a "study of human perception", which had never been understood before, and it's definitely an advance in visual language.
One of my favourite example is the character of Woodstock from Peanuts.

Don Ketchek said...

Interesting post! I think in a very general way, the abstract movement in comics and animation succeeded while many of the abstract art movements in modern art have failed (my opinion, of course) is that in comics and animation the goal is to communicate and create a way to express emotion clearly. Much of modern art on the other hand tends to be enigmatic, confusing and communicates poorly. In that way, animators and comic artists are much more similar to traditional realistic artists who also attempt to communicate clearly and express emotion for the viewer to share.

Anonymous said...

Great blog topic and smartly presented! Enjoying the insightful comments.

I sure hope Mel Birnkrant reads these as well. Thinking he'd have some worthy insights to share. He's been on to this for decades and that's wisdom worth sharing.

For me, animated/cartoon art uses abstraction as a vehicle to seemingly casually and ever so effectively reach into the lives and hearts of the viewer. The desire is to establish a connection. The purpose may be for entertaining, stimulating, and perhaps even for transforming. Like all art, it can reflect and relate the human experience, and maybe even inspire. The sense also is that artist is one of us.

Conversely, with so called "abstract" art, my sense is the artist is not really one of us, but residing in some other lofty or quirky realm. In so called "abstract" art, abstraction is used to create a challenging rift between the artist and the viewer. To some, that is exciting! While such art may seek to politically and socially transform, (like Picasso's Guernica ) I can't help feel that the while the "abstract" artist expresses himself, he does so in a challenging and condescending way, all the time maintaining separation, except for the desire that his art be viewed. To me, "abstract" art is onanistic, while cartoon/animated art goes all the way.

Mel Birnkrant said...

Wow! Christopher R. That is a brilliant observation! Something I have always sensed, but could not, or dare not, articulate. Now that you point it out, I realize there is often an element in abstract “art,” in which the artist is in effect saying , “ Ha Ha, I know something you don’t know!” and daring us to like it, or slink away in shame, suspecting that we might be stupid, and afraid to suggest the Emperor is naked.

Bobby La said...

Interesting post alrighty. I'd introduce another fine art notion that pretty much defined the American art scene post war - the relentless pursuit of flatness. The way that the picture plane had to maintain its integrity over the image. Clement Greenberg banged on about it an awful lot. From the stained canvas of Georgia O'Keefe to the Ben-Day dots in a Lichtenstein. This preoccupation with flatness was the main driver in Abstraction.

...and can I thank you James for the George Herriman "Krazy Kat" reminder. What a giant!

Regards Ross

Mark Martel said...

There's a similar analogy to abstract music. The atonal, dissonant music of mid-century became unlistenable--except in film soundtracks. Psycho immediately comes to mind but many more subtle film scorers do likewise. And we love it as a subliminal emotional underpinning to the scene.

But I've got to defend pure abstract art here. Sometimes it's just plain pretty, like a sunset. Part of the blame may be in our inborn need to find the pattern or meaning behind random visual input.

Unknown said...

Interesting idea and perspective. I have never looked at it like that or even thought of looking at it like that, but I do now. Amazing! Great post.

Abstract Painting Los Angeles

Peggy Stermer-Cox said...

Hi Mr. Gurney,
This is such a memorable article of yours. I have read it a couple of times and find myself re-reading it today. I'm a long time fan of Krazy Kat (so surreal), and Pogo, for example. I love the artwork. Again thanks!

kev ferrara said...

I've often said on david apatoff's blog that there is a third pillar to this abstract movement and that is in graphic design. Graphic Design, Modern Art, and Cartooning all came of age just prior to the turn of the 20th century and all stem from the same foundation of boldly simplified expression.

James Gurney said...

Kev, yes, and graphic design overlapped a lot with composition theory in that era between 1890 and 1910. Even among realist painters and illustrators the compositional theory books talked all about placement and shape and line and harmony, as if it was a form of visual music.

I like your phrase "boldly simplified expression." As I'm sure you know, Scott McCloud, in his book "Understanding Comics," has an interesting theory about why it's easier to identify with an abstracted face than with a realistic one.

Peggy, thanks for saying that. I kind of forgot about this post, and it was fun to revisit it. Let me credit again the influence of my friend Mel Birnkrant and his collection of 1920s and '30s comic characters. This whole idea really comes from him.

Mark, good points. I think we can draw the analogy between art and music only so far because the way the brain processes visual form and acoustic form is so completely different. That's perhaps a subject for another post.

Karen G said...

This is a great article — don't know how I missed it earlier, as I've pored over your archives so many times. As a relatively new cartoonist (coming to it at a ripe old age after many long years of doing more realistic art), I've struggled with the simplification needed for comics. Now I know that that abstract phase I passed through some years ago will come in handy after all (I enjoyed the heck out of it, but professionally, it was a low point in my art career). I've also enjoyed reading the intelligent and insightful comments here. I'm particularly liking Mark's analogy to music.
Thank you so much!