Back in December, I wrote about how Jerry Seinfeld maintained perspective by keeping a photo from the Hubble telescope in the Seinfeld writing room. This week I got an email from the spouse of a professional astronomer who said her husband gets through some work days by reminding himself that astronomy doesn’t matter. “He will say, for example: ‘It’s just astronomy. We’re not saving lives here. It’s okay if we finish this tomorrow instead of today.’” I loved that.
Jerry Seinfeld kept photos from the Hubble Space Telescope up on the wall in the Seinfeld writing room. “It would calm me when I would start to think that what I was doing was important,” he told Judd Apatow, in Sick in the Head. “You look at some pictures from the Hubble Telescope and you snap out of it.” When Apatow said that sounded depressing, Seinfeld replied, “People always say it makes them feel insignificant, but I don’t find being insignificant depressing. I find it uplifting.”
This is one of the reasons I look at the moon.
In the midst of the mortgage crisis, Meg and I went out and bought a house. We closed today, we move in this weekend. In the five years that we’ve known each other, we’ve never lived in anything bigger than a one-bedroom apartment. Now we both have offices, a washer/dryer, a two-car garage…it’s very surreal.
When you live with someone in a tiny apartment, you’re always in close proximity. You never see that person more than 10 or 20 feet away, because there isn’t 10 or 20 feet to gain between you. You get used to seeing them from a particular distance.
Meg and I often meet each other for lunch on campus. When I see her from far away, walking towards me, she looks like a different person—she looks like a stranger, or someone I just met. It’s like a visual refresh. (I wonder if this visual element isn’t part of the hidden magic of what self-help couples books tell you to do: meet for dinner, but take separate cars…)
I’m reminded of this passage from Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville:
Maps are of two kinds. Some seek to represent the location of things in space. That is the first kind – the geography of space. But others represent the location of things in time – or perhaps their progression through time. These maps tell stories, which is to say they are the geography of time. […] But these days I have begun to feel that stories, too, are basically concerned with spatial relationships. The proximity of bodies.
I wonder about this proximity of bodies. I wonder how we will grow in a bigger space, with an upstairs and downstairs. How our changing spatial relationships might alter our story…
Above is a sketch of the house, superimposed over a page from William Maxwell’s wonderful short novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow.
Be patient with me: I have the feeling the next week or so is going to be filled with a lot of posts about my newfound obsession with Otto Neurath and his ISOTYPE system of pictograms.
Poking around Google scholar and JSTOR, I came across an article on ISOTYPE by graphic designer Ellen Lupton called “Reading Isotype.” (There are no coincidences: I just happen to be reading her book on typography.)
In “Reading Isotype,” Lupton points out that Neurath suggested “two central rules for generating the vocabulary of international pictures: reduction, for determining the style of individual signs; and consistency, for giving a group of signs the appearance of a coherent system. These rules…reinforce the “language quality” of picture signs, making individual signs look more like letters, and groups of signs look more like complete, self-sufficient languages.”
The rules could just as easily be adapted to comics! Tonight, we’ll focus on reduction:
Reduction means finding the simplest expression of an object….
The silouette is a central technique of reduction (figure 7). Silhouette drawing is a kind of pre-chemical photography that emulates the shadow, which is an indexical image made without human intervention, a natural cast rather than a cultural interpretation. International pictures suggest a rationalized theater of shadows, in which signs are necessary geometric formulae cast by material things—Plato’s cave renovated into an empiricist laboratory….The sign as geometric shadow of reality is both a rhetorical connotation and a practical technique for many symbol designers. Martin Krampen suggested “simplified realism;” he urged designers to “start from silhouette photographs of objects…and then by subtraction…obtain silouette pictographs.”
This reminded me of Matt Groening’s claim that the secret of designing cartoon characters is to make a character immediately recognizable in silhouette.
And Saul Steinberg’s obsession with the profile view:
The designer Nigel Holmes points out in his book, Designing Pictorial Symbols, that this graphical reduction does not equal emotional reduction:
[Let] no one think that the stylized figures that appear in pictographs are cold and devoid of human characteristics and emotion. Look at this figure of a worker. He is unemployed. Not only is there no doubt about that, but the man’s very sadness comes through the simple drawing. He is shivering. He is looking back, rather than to the future. So much can be conveyed by so few shapes.
Figures such as this can too easily be dismissed as “stick-men,” “pin-men,” or “robot people,” but in fact, they evoke a whole host of emotions that belie their simple execution. And that perhaps is the point: to evoke rather than describe. The mere slop of the shoulders (as in this example) or the thrust of a pair of jauntily marching legs can convey a range of feelings…one doesn’t need a photograph…to bring them out.”
Back to Lupton: she switches gears and begins to talk about perspective:
Flatness suggests a factual honesty, as opposed to the illusionism of perspective drawing. Isotype characters pull the shape of an object onto the ideal flat plane of a draftsman’s drawing: They are blueprints of language (figure 8)….
When depth is expressed in Isotype graphics, isometry is used instead of linear perspective. In isometric drawing, parellel lines do not converge; dimension is fixed from foreground to background (figure 9). Isotype rationalizes the retinal by translating distorted sense material into a logical scheme. An isometric drawing describes what we “know” to be true, based on observation. Neurath was impressed by children’s drawings, believing them to express naive, natural, and thus universal perception. Children, he wrote, do not use perspective. They are able to draw an object from all sides at once, and represent an entire forest with a single tree: “Isotype is an elaborate application of the main features of these drawings.”
The isometric drawing that we’re probably the most familiar with is the artwork for the Sim City games:
But it’s the child-like lack of perspective Neurath refers to that captures my imagination. One can imagine adapting an Isotype drawing like this to a comic world:
Does anyone else find this stuff fascinating?
“It was my first encounter with the works of the German artist George Grosz, when I was in my twenties, which showed me that drawing need not just be a space-filler in a newspaper: in the hands of an honest man, drawing could be a weapon against evil….Look at [his drawings] and you know the world is sick. You may say that he was sick too — but it is a common mistake to believe that sick drawings indicate a sick mind, rather than a reflective indictment of society. His drawings scream indelibly of human depravity; they are an eloquently barbaric response to life and death, right through the First World War and into the wild, helpless excesses of 1920s Berlin, which rotted away the lives of all those caught up in its suicidal glee.”
My first encounter with George Grosz (1893-1959) was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s glorious show, “Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s,” which we happened to stumble upon during our honeymoon to New York last year. After seeing his work, it was unsurprising to learn that Grosz had a major influence on some of my drawing heroes, including R. Crumb and Ralph Steadman. In the past week I’ve been sifting through a fat stack of his books borrowed from the art library in the hopes of sharing some scans of my favorite drawings. Barring “Pimps of Death” (shown above), the rest of the drawings are presented in chronological order.
“Riot of the Insane” might be familiar to anyone who has a copy of Ivan Brunetti’s Anthology of Graphic Fiction — in the introduction Brunetti analyzes the piece in terms of cartooning:
I have been struggling lately with how to depict space, and specifically, people in space. These drawings are amazing to me because they look like they were drawn by someone who knew the rules but didn’t care about them.
“Family” might be my favorite. The way the baby swings with four legs, the flowers, the dogs, the man’s face (what is he doing there? is he spying? bringing a message?), the crosses, the windmill, the way it looks like the sun is setting over a horizon that is several thousand feet above where it “should” be. And where did that tree come from?
Many of these drawings came from the collection, Ecce Homo, — the words come from the Latin that Pilate spoke while presenting Christ: “Behold the man.” Some artists in Grosz’s circle took this to mean “How pitiable is man”; others “What a beast man is.”
The more I look at these drawings, the more they look less like drawings and more like collages. It’s no coincidence — Grosz collaborated with the famous anti-Nazi photomontage artist John Heartfield.
It’s impossible for me to look at “Cross Section” as just a drawing:
It’s a confection.
From the beginning, the models he looked to were not the plaster casts of antique sculptures he was forced to draw when he studied in Dresden and Berlin; they were, rather, taken from the realm of popular imagery. The figures he admired were not the heroes of antiquity and history but those of dime novels. Grosz studied and collected children’s drawings and toilet graffiti. He was fascinated by garish pictures of horrifying atrocities and catastrophes of the sort displayed at carnivals and riflemen’s gatherings, and he loved the lurid illustrations in western novels and detective stories. And of course he knew the great caricaturists of the past: William Hogarth, whom he explicitly names as a model, Honore Daumier, Wilhelm Busch. Over the years he extracted from these widely divergent sources a unique and characteristic drawing style. With this style, he prowled the metropolis, studying its marginal districts, circling around such subjects as crime, nightclubs, bordellos. He was fascinated by the lower depths of society and of people.—Matthias Eberle
David Hockney argues that the use of optical lenses probably had something to do with the widespread the 15th century method of perspective:
…the [optical] projection yields up one-point perspective–and nothing else does. It’s difficult nowadays, in a world saturated with television and photographs and billboards and movies, to recall how radically new one-point perspective would have appeared to those first exposed to it. That’s not how the world presents itself and can’t help but present itself through a one-point projection, be it a pinhole or a lens or a curved mirror.”
We see with two eyes. It’s called “binocular vision.” Each eye receives a slightly different image, and the brain processes the two images into 3-D to generate the sensation of depth.
Western one-point perspective is an attempt to fabricate this sensation. It is an illusion. Hockney calls it “the point of view of a paralyzed cyclops.”
And when it comes to comics, some of my favorite artists choose to completely ignore it.
Here’s Scott McCloud from Making Comics:
Dig this funky Grosz. See a vanishing point?
What about this Ron Rege?
Death to tyrannical
one-point linear perspective!
Ever since I saw this bit from Art Spiegelman’s PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG %@?*! where his mentor Ken Jacobs tells a young Art to just think of paintings “as giant comic panels,” I’ve had a new eye towards paintings and all kinds of visual art. I spent a good part of our recent visit to the Art Institue of Chicago thinking, comic…comic…comics!
When I was 20, I had the good fortune to study renaissance art in Florence, Italy for a few summer months. My teacher was Kevin Murphy, an expert on Italian Renaissance Art who teaches at the British Institute of Florence. (His other claim to fame is giving art tours to Mel Gibson whenever Mel’s in town.)
Florence has been my favorite city in the world ever since. (And consequently, Meghan’s, too.)
So I was really excited to hear that three of the newly restored panels from Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” are going to be at the Met while we’re on our honeymoon in New York.
The “Gates of Paradise,” are actually gilded bronze panels on the door to the Battistero di San Giovanni in the Piazza del Duomo:
Their 10 panels depict scenes from the Old Testament, intricately illustrated in high and low relief. When the three-ton, 20-foot-tall doors were completed, in 1452, Michelangelo pronounced them grand enough to adorn the entrance to paradise, and so they became known as “The Gates of Paradise.” They have for centuries been considered one of the masterpieces of Western art.
Of course, it’s impossible for me to not look at those panels and think, “A huge comic!”
Now here’s the bizarre part, courtesy of my old textbook, A. Richard Turner’s Renaissance Art:
We assume that a represented fictive space will contain narrative events understood to be happening simultaneously. For instance, a picture may show several events, say a friar preaching, a man leading a train of donkeys across a square, a fishmonger purveying his wares. We do not necessarily assume that these events have any narrative connection with one another, but because they occupy a common space, we assume they are happening at the same time.
Take a look at the “Isaac” panel from “The Gates”:
At first glance, it looks like a single moment frozen in time, right? Lots of people standing around.
But that’s not what the viewer of the fifteenth century saw, or what the artist intended! What you’re really looking at is the sequence of a story (Isaac’s unintentional blessing of Jacob) spread out across one compositional field, or panel. When you understand the story, the panel can be read sequentially:
Perspective, in this case, isn’t just used to fake the illusion of depth and space: it’s actually used as a storytelling device. So if you look at The Gates as a comic, each panel doesn’t represent a moment of a story, it represents a complete story in itself, and the panels together tell a bigger story.
For some reason, this really blows my mind.
To see more really cool pictures of “The Gates,” check out this site.