Tuesday, August 26, 2014


I am a big fan of the work of children's book illustrators Martin and Alice Provensen.


I especially love their beautifully designed books, The Iliad and The Odyssey and Myths and Legends.


It's difficult to imagine how  a creative team could have been any closer than the Provensens.  The two came from very similar backgrounds: both born in Chicago, Martin and Alice each moved to California when they were twelve.  There they attended high school and college, then went to work for Hollywood studios (Martin at Disney and Alice at Walter Lantz).  During World War II, they met and got married, then moved to Washington where they both held jobs supporting the war effort.  


In 1950 the Provensens purchased an abandoned farm in upstate New York, far from city life.   They moved two drawing tables into a barn and started working together, back to back.  Their excellent book, A Year at Maple Hill Farm,  describes their sweet life on the farm. Their styles blended together and for nearly 40 years  the couple worked so closely that no one could distinguish who had contributed what.  In response to persistent questions Alice simply said, “we were a true collaboration. Martin and I really were one artist.” No one ever saw their works in process.



Living and working together in one room there was very little space for privacy or egos.  The two seemed to share everything,  completing each other's thoughts and brush strokes.


Yet, I was charmed to read that there was one small part of their process that the Provensens decided to keep private from each other.  When they were just beginning to come up with an idea, they would sometimes tie a string across the room and hang a sheet or blanket between their two tables.  As Alice recalled, "Once in a while one of us may have had an idea we were just developing that we didn't want the other person to see just yet....We would string a curtain up between our desks."

Even though the barrier was purely symbolic-- a flimsy drapery that could easily be breached at any time-- it still had psychological importance.

In those first fragile moments of the creative process, when you are trying to coax an idea into existence, words and voices-- or even a second set of eyes-- might scare it off.   The premature constraints imposed by an existing vocabulary could rob the idea of its potential.  

People share all kinds of things.  You might work together all day in the studio, as nekkid as Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, and never blush once.  But the nakedness of a new idea-- that's a little too personal, and sometimes needs to be kept concealed.


Anonymous said...

Great design and use of negative space...they have obviously paid careful attention to Ancient Greek pottery painting.

Tororo said...

I got their Iliad and Odyssey book as a Christmas gift when I was 6. I went totally immersed in the pictures, no matter I was unable to read the text, and these stayed in my mind for years. Of course I had no idea who the authors were; I learned about them only recently. And the more I read about them, the more fascinated I am! Thanks for this story.

MORAN said...

You used to have a series called artists in love. I'd like more of that.

Priya Sebastian said...

That is a very beautiful story. I always found how they seamlessly combined their styles intriguing. This part where they kept the genesis of an idea private until it was ready to be shared is good to know.

David Apatoff said...

etc, etc-- you hit the nail on the head. Some of their illustrations for Greek stories are openly derived from Greek pottery painting. Even today those vase images remain a superb lesson in negative space.

Totoro-- Thanks for writing. Sounds like you received the same Christmas present I did, perhaps two years earlier than I. Like you, I was a little young to appreciate these books but I could tell there was something special about the illustrations, and they were worth the patience.

MORAN-- I suspect the Provensens qualify for that series-- by all accounts they had a marvelous marriage-- but there just wasn't enough information about that aspect of their lives.

Priya Sebastian-- Thank you, it sounds like you had the same reaction I did to the Provensen's solution. The notion of tying a string is so darn sweet I can hardly stand it. It must have been an idyllic working relationship.

Anonymous said...

When you look at Greek vases in chronological order you witness a Cambrian explosion in style when the painters switched from black figure to red figure, because they were then painting slip/black in the negative spaces and so naturally began to pay attention to the negative space. Personally I'd nominate it for the most important moment in the history of Western art. As much as I love Riegl's writings, it vindicates Semper's materialism theory of art.

David Apatoff said...

etc, etc-- Well, there's certainly a lot of competition for that "most important moment" trophy. Centuries before the Greeks were painting black in the negative spaces, the Egyptians were doing the same thing in paintings such as the sky goddess Nut on the vaulted ceiling in the Tomb of Ramses VI. (http://www.natgeocreative.com/ngs/photography/search/comp-view/index.jsf) The painting of Nut bending over the earth is a masterpiece, one of the most astonishing things I have seen in my life, and well worth a trip to Egypt all by itself. In my opinion, the black negative space gives it the same kind of dramatic intensity that the Greek vase paintings enjoyed.

But with that as context, I heartily agree with you that those Greek vase drawings were stunning, with the kind of sensitivity and stylistic variety that the Egyptians never achieved. Robert Fawcett, who took composition very seriously, wrote that "the study of Greek vase paintings is obligatory." And their ability to paint such lovely lines on those curved surfaces is particularly impressive.

kev ferrara said...

That "over arching" character of the Goddess Nut is a perfect example of what I said a few months back; that the vocabulary of "cartooning" ... of the graphic synthesis/association of otherwise disparate visual concepts to create new symbolizations and symbolic organizations... stretches back to antiquity and probably beyond.

The first example of such writing with graphics is surely lost to history. But it could easily have been done ~200,000 years ago, arriving simultaneously with the appearance of the human mind. Perceptual analysis, conceptual synthesis, and the noting of conceptions as signs are probably our three defining abilities, after all.

Robert Cook said...

I have never previously heard of them, but I love these examples you share. Their close, two-as-one working method sounds very much like Leo and Dian Dillon.

JonInFrance said...

Yep, I got it as a gift back in the early 60's too - big impact on my imagination. I'm so glad you finally got round to them (bit sad tho' that there's not more to say) - interesting to read their life story.

Wiki says re Alice "As of 2006, she continues to write and illustrate"..

Graphic design ...
..and childhood nostalgia - touches me, like:


Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

Anonymous said...

That's one of the great things about cartooning, multiple cartoonists (2 in this case, many in the case of a feature length animation), can work in the same style, and by doing so build that style into a visual pidgin of its own.

The same never seems quite true of the poor artists, who, despite perhaps being along the same fashion, are never quite speaking the same language.


Tom said...

Greek vase painting?   Nice design but the figures look like they were cut out of construction paper with scissors , like those 1950's "Notan," books.  There is no development of the internal forms, that constitute the body, in the Provensens drawings, only puzzle shapes which is the antithesis of the figures on a Greek vase. Where each form of the body is conceived as a volume and given definition and rhythm in relation to the rest of the body.  The muscles flex to the joints, they are tangible entities that can be cut or pierced with a sword. One only has to look at the thumb joint in Greek vase painting to sense how solid and tactile the world was to the Greek painter.  Much of the power of the negative space in Greek vase painting comes from the flexion of these positive volumes of the body creating both convex and concave shapes throughout the work. The Provensens simple separate the negative and positive with an even unchanging straight lines. I am not saying the Provensens didn't make good illustrations  but the Greek comparison seems cliched.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I remember that conversation well. I was originally concerned that you meant "cartoon" in a pejorative sense (the way so many do today) but the image of the goddess Nut demonstrates how the biggest, most profound concepts of the cosmos can be the subject of the "graphic synthesis/association" you describe. No topic is beyond "symbolizations and symbolic organizations" despite the fact that such symbols are often distilled into high contrast simplifications. In fact, to the extent that symbols (or cartoons) are less explicit and more open ended, they are better vehicles for the metaphysical than narrative texts.

Robert Cook-- Yes, the Provensens made me think of the Dillons as well. I know we're all enraptured with the notion of an artist as a single heroic individual whose soul can't truly be understood, but there is something awfully appealing about the close, tandem lives that the Provensens and the Dillons carved out for themselves.

JonInFrance-- Thanks for sharing that Carol Ann Duffy poem. I was not familiar with it, but its message really resonates, doesn't it? I had to look up that last line, but it's a great way to symbolize "Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer."

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous / Richard-- I think it's interesting that sometimes those cartoonists who subordinate their own personal styles to work in a common "pidgin" enoble themselves by working in the service of a higher communal cause (such as the drawings on the walls of Egyptian tombs that conformed to strict conventions) while at other times they demean themselves by surrendering their individuality to crude expediences (such as Hanna Barbera cartoons). I'm not sure how you can tell when abandoning your personal preferences is the right thing to do.

Tom-- Wow, that's being pretty tough on "nice design," which I (and incidentally, the Greeks) thought could be pretty darn special. Getting the zen of those "puzzle shapes" right may bring us closer to the Greek notion of ideal beauty than the inner lines describing muscles flexing to the joints.

When you say "There is no development of the internal forms" in the Provensens' work, I would agree that there is very little development in a descriptive sense, but there is development in the sense of geometric shapes and abstract design-- for example, the lines on that winged creature in the first picture or the lines on Theseus and the Minotaur in the last picture. Those lines are stolen directly from countless Greek vases.
And while the human thumb in Greek painting may qualify as a milestone in observation, those ancient artists went through a huge, unnecessary effort to create high contrast negative space. Why not simply draw against a plain background, the way the Egyptians usually did, unless the outline (design) was very, very important to them?

I am no expert on ancient Greek painting, but it seems obvious from their statues that the Greeks were capable of close representational work, yet deliberately chose to draw in a flat, geometric, stylized way. For much of the history of Greek vase painting, their lines seemed more concerned with geometric, decorative swirls of bodies, hair, cloth, etc. than with accuracy. I think the Provensens use lines for the same purpose, and they even make their lines worn and rubbed in tribute to their ancient atecedents.

David Apatoff said...


In view of the turn this conversation has taken toward Greek vase painting (who could've guessed?) I've added a few more examples of illustrations by the Provensens that directly reference historical Greek paintings. You can see, I think, their admiration for the ancient Greeks as well as how close (or how far) their style is from the original.

Anonymous said...

I too had the Iliad and Odyssey book as a child. I liked it then but appreciate the illustrations more now. I don't agree with Tom's analysis. They are clearly pastiches of ancient greek art but they're not supposed to be copies. The superb sensitivity to colour and the acual "paint" application is wonderful. I believe they used clayboard but I'm not exactly sure how they did these imagesd. Incidentally, not quite the same, but I'm pretty sure Edward Hopper shared a studio with his wife which was divided by a white line painted on the floor, which it was forbidden for either to cross!

Joel Brinkerhoff said...

The Provensens are a huge influence to me and I’m not sure who influenced whom during their productive years, but a similar style became common in illustration and many emulated this look. I don’t know for certain, but I’m thinking that high stylization and heavy textural application originated with the Provensens. I’m still trying to figure out how they created that look.

Mary Blair shares some commonalities with them and she too had people using her style.

My favorite works of theirs is "The Golden Bible-The New Testament", although all their work is a marvel.

kev ferrara said...

I was originally concerned that you meant "cartoon" in a pejorative sense (the way so many do today) but the image of the goddess Nut demonstrates how the biggest, most profound concepts of the cosmos can be the subject of the "graphic synthesis/association" you describe.

Well cartoon-graphics are primitive by nature, and that is their appeal and value as communication devices... that the content is pretty much all surfaced. So one can see exactly what is being said, using known symbols, and the cleverness of the way it was said, the elegance, the depth of the communication idea, and the decorative style... all at once. So there are no secrets, and no performer-audience hierarchy of any significance. It is pure pop communication.

If one considers the word "primitive" to be a pejorative, so be it. But I don't see how such a rejection helps understanding the popular nature of the genre. The demos requires simplicity of communication on a mass scale. And this always leads to decorative text forms, rather than fine art forms.

Anonymous said...

These illustrators are doing a modern version of Greek painting for these books. They aren't copying but it's the same style just modernized.


David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- the Provensens were probably the exact opposite of the Hoppers. Rather than work together, Jo Hopper bitterly resented Edward Hopper's artistic success, and blamed her own artistic failures on his failure to promote her work adequately. Ultimately she became his business manager but that didn't stop them from fighting like cats and dogs (including biting and "swatting." Jo's diary includes long lists of complaints, including Edward's selfish sexual desires (and his affinity for her "rear.") So I'd say any line dividing their space was more likely a demilitarized zone).

Joel Brinkerhoff-- I agree, the Provensens were highly influential. Their style was so new (despite their ancient antecedents) and so attractive. But they weren't wedded to one style. In other books, such as the great Color Kittens, they modified their approach for different content and audiences. But their work was, consistently, "a marvel."

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- Well, I don't have a problem with the adjective "primitive," recognizing that just like its antonyms (such as refined, sophisticated, etc.) it can have both positive and negative connotations.

But I'm not sure where you're coming from when you say, "the content is pretty much all surfaced. So one can see exactly what is being said... all at once." The cartoon of the goddess Nut strikes me as a mysterious, obscure cosmography that condensed centuries of religious beliefs and shaped behavior with life or death consequences. It took hundreds of scholars decades to unravel what we know about its meaning, so it's difficult to argue that "there are no secrets, no performer-audience hierarchy of any significance." I think you'd be hard pressed to find more challenges and secrets in many works of "fine art."

I for one like the duality of a blunt, primitive image that also serves as an alembic for dense, layered content. I love the shock of surface that not only withstands scrutiny but also leads you into complex mysteries requiring patience and reflection. Another example would be the famous "cosmic Buddha" at the Smithsonian Institution, a statue of a solitary figure with "incredibly detailed depictions on the deity’s robe telling stories of the Realms of Existence, from the heavenly devas to the hells of the less fortunate." The Smithsonian says that the accessibility of the statue's surface forms makes the statute "fascinating to small children and PhD-wielding scholars alike."

And by the way, I don't mean to suggest that we should be able to read these cartoons or symbols in any direct sense. Many of the most effective grapbic images are implicit rather than explicit-- Zen art such as circles by ink brush masters serve as a focal point for contemplation of eternity. They can have profound effects, but they do require the viewer to meditate and bring more to the exercise than more explicit works of art do (just as some people say Rothko paintings do).

Sometimes the less literal, the better thew cartoon.

Anonymous / JSL-- I too see much of the Greek vase painting aesthetic in these pictures, although knowledgeable friends tell me that "Greek vase painting" encompasses a wide variety of styles over a few centuries.

kev ferrara said...


We need to separate out the natural language of cartooning from the tribal references that some community would understand about their written communications.

Just because we can't read the tribal references doesn't mean the communication is complex. Your average aboriginal hunter won't even be able to read "See Spot Run" simply because it isn't his language. Certainly not because it is a complex statement.

And just because it takes a long time for some archeologists and linguists to piece together the reference, again, doesn't make the original communication difficult. It just means it was encoded in a code we didn't yet have. But if you were a literate ancient egyptian, this would have been a simple thing to get the meaning of, having been born into the code.

Cartooning, in the sense of simplified graphic representations, is a natural text language I believe. And that which is written in such language will be understandable to the degree a thing is specified in that language. Quite often we see ambiguous ancient symbols... like a man with a radiating sun for a head... and it is mysterious to us. But the mystery is a mystery of elision, not of narrative purpose, if you get my meaning.

The cartooned aspects of the Ramses ceiling are the things that we can immediately read... the starry sky, the giant super-figure that is stretched out under that sky which seems to be associated with the sky... the gesture of "surrounding" that the super-figure demonstrates, which covers and wraps the residence within that has all the smaller people in it, etc. All that stuff simply says what it says. It is "on the surface" even for us, two thousand years later.

If you were an ancient egyptian, the whole ceiling would have been instantly readable.

Yes, I agree that when the cartoon-graphic writing is masterfully interwoven in a complex design of known or unknown meaning, it can make quite a fine and impressive decorative artwork.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- We can agree that some cartoons make for "a fine and impressive decorative artwork" but I would go farther than you. In my view, despite their graphic simplification (which I will also agree with, although I would probably prefer the word "distillation") cartoons (as we've broadly defined them here) can be every bit as complex, edifying, life-enhancing, profound and rich as the best paintings by Sorolla, Pyle, Everett, Frazetta or any other painter you'd care to name.

You are well aware that "simplified" is not the same as "simple minded" (in fact, sometimes they can be the opposite) but I suspect you have less respect for cartoonish art forms where the viewer has to do more of the work, fill in more of the details, and bring a meditative role to the process.

You seem less impressed with the "text language" of cartoons yet are willing to give great weight to the significance of equivalent tribal references of color, form, etc. in the paintings you admire. To me, they are both languages that enhance our appreciation of the respective works of art, but (and this is important to me) if the art is truly good, it can be appreciated (in different ways) whether you don't understand the code at all, you speak it passably, or you are a PhD philologist. The really good stuff usually doesn't require a dictionary for some special "language" in order get some benefit, although the investment in learning certainly helps.

kev ferrara said...

A child’s earliest learnings are very simple, but they aren’t specific. They are, in fact, quite abstract, quite general: Good, bad. Want, don’t want. Happy sad. Dark, light. Everything, something, nothing. Here, there, gone. Hungry, thirsty, food, drink. Mommy, Daddy, stranger. On purpose, accidental. Scary, funny. Etc.

Toddlers learn the primary colors of color space, as well as the primary colors of everything else. And these utterly simple units of abstract meaning are the basic abstractions by which we label and speak of the experience of life. They are a symbolic foundation of understanding.

And that is the sense in which they are primitives. The understandings are the primitives by which, down the line, symbolic sophistication may be engineered. The primitives are raw materials. And it is their level of abstraction that makes them so.

Now there are three basic ways to build out complexity from a core of linguistic primitives. There are linear build outs (1D), planar non linear build outs (2D), and deep non linear build outs (3D). (I’m leaving out the dimension of time for simplicity’s sake)

With each increase in dimension, you get that much more opportunity for symbolic invention and sophistication. This does not guarantee that 3D usage of the primitives will create more powerful communication. But the capability is there to create more powerful communication. And given equal artistry, just by simple math alone, the range of aesthetic forces available in the deeper dimensions offers much greater aesthetic possibility. This should be common sense to anybody who understands the issue and gives it a moment’s thought.

All great capital A art is using the primitives in the 3D way. Generally, lay people cannot see this because the weave of symbolic information in great work is so bloody dense and seamlessly integrated into aesthetic relations, that it defies scrutiny – except, sad to say, by other capital A artists who have the training and sensitivity to break apart the work down to its finest and subtlest level. Which usually does not include people who talk about art in classrooms, newspapers, coffee houses, and academic publications. (And that's the history of art discussion in the 20th century in a nutshell.)

Cartoons are generally using the primitives in a 2D way, with a bit of 3D here and there. And it is not a matter of being impressed or not impressed with cartoons to understand that linguistic fact. It is just so.

Where works of visual communication combine tribal text languages or visual codes with some version of the natural visual primitive language, the works are generally compromised aesthetically to the degree that the reference-knowledge is required in order to understand the work. Which is just why Pyle taught his students to create works that would stand on their own and explain themselves. Which is why he steeped them in abstraction, in the real sense of that word, and warned against allegorical work.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "With each increase in dimension, you get that much more opportunity for symbolic invention and sophistication. This does not guarantee that 3D usage of the primitives will create more powerful communication. But the capability is there to create more powerful communication."

That is an articulate exposition of a painting kind of guy's perspective. Let me offer you the response of a drawing kind of guy.

Your quantitative notion about the greater aesthetic possibility of painting ("just by simple math alone, the range of aesthetic forces available in the deeper dimensions offers much greater aesthetic possibility") is the same argument that some people employ to argue that a symphony is inherently a superior art form to a string quartet. Yet the subtlety and simplicity of chamber music is quite often superior to the banging and clanging and 3D maneuverings of a full symphony orchestra. Neither art form is inherently superior to the other, despite the larger number of mathematical possibilities in a symphony.

I would argue that even a "simple" linear build out (1D) can "create more powerful communication" than a 3D painting. I think I could prove the point merely by mentioning "Michelangelo's cartoon of the Libyan sibyl," but let me see if I can push my point further by invoking the type of flat symbols and pictograms that started this sidebar.

Arthur Koestler wrote about the turning point in his life, in a dungeon cell in Franco's Spain where Koestler had been sentenced to death. As he listened to the firing squads outside his window week after week, he amused himself by scratching analytical Geometric proofs in the wall with a strand of metal from his wire mattress. He later wrote that he experienced a mystical revelation when he was scratching Euclid's proof that he number of prime numbers is infinite. He said that his reaction to the lines and symbols was "aesthetic rather than intellectual" and explained it as follows: "the scribbled symbols on the wall represented one of the rare cases where a meaningful and comprehensive statement about the infinite is arrived at by precise and finite means. The infinite is a mystical mass shrouded in a haze; and yet it was possible to gain some knowledge of it.... The significance of this swept over me like a wave.... I must have stood there for some minutes, entranced, with a wordless awareness that 'this is perfect-- perfect.'" This oceanic feeling (Koestler said it left a lingering "fragrance of eternity" in his cell) is better conveyed, I would maintain, by linear or at best 2D enterprises than by your 3D activity. It would be difficult to find the 3D art image that contains what you call "more powerful communication" than the lines on Koestler's wall or on Ramses' ceiling.

(Looks like I'm at Blogger's maximum length for comments-- to be continued)

David Apatoff said...


Kev, sorry for the extended intermission-- I had a publisher in Japan with a tight deadline so I had to scramble. (For readers in Japan, there will be a major show about Bernie Fuchs and his art broadcast on nationwide television on September 28).

Back to the issue at hand: As a matter of personal taste, I believe you "painting guys" tend to overestimate the marginal value of each additional tier of nonlinear build outs. I also think you don't give enough value to the universal meaning in "language works."

In the first category, I agree that your "deep non linear build outs (3D)" give the artist a broader range of multiverses to navigate. I also agree that navigating multiverses requires mature talent. No argument on that whatsoever. But remember what William Blake said about finding infinity in a grain of sand. If you don't think that mere binary choices offer a rich enough field, keep in mind that every digital achievement you see is the result of simple binary choices between ones and zeroes. Furthermore, while I'm hardly an expert on painting, I think the spine of most successful painting has less to do with nuances of hue and more to do with "value," which is essentially a graduated form of the old binary black or white choices. These are the home turf of those cartoons you call primitive.

As for the second issue, you note that symbol based art are "generally compromised aesthetically to the degree that the reference-knowledge is required in order to understand the work." I agree, but I think that is only a problem with some kinds of symbol use. It is not essential that the viewer understand with precision the symbols employed. The best example of this might be the symbolism of prehistoric cave paintings. There is no way we can confirm the meanings of the strange symbols, although the guessing game turns up some interesting theories and often tells us more about ourselves than about the art. We see dopey theories offered like the one from Dean Snow at Penn state, trying to prove that prehistoric cave painters were women (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/most-prehistoric-cave-artists-were-women/ ) and equally dopey counter-theories offered, such as the one that the oldest cave painters were guys who sat around picturing vulvas (http://news.sciencemag.org/2012/05/engravings-female-genitalia-may-be-worlds-oldest-cave-art). We can't know and we don't need exactly what those prehistoric symbols mean in order for primitive cave painting to be great art, just as a viewer doesn't need a precise key to the ceiling with the sky goddess Nut.

On the contrary, here's an example of what we need to know about a work of prehistoric art to gain aesthetic benefit from it: 25,000 years ago one of our ancestors made a series of lovely hand prints at the entrance of a cave, using bright red clay he or she had selected. Thousands of years later, someone else came along to live in the cave and carefully drew stripes over the original hand prints. I can speculate but I don't need to understand the meaning of these particular symbols and practices to be awed by the fact of indecipherable language and mysterious practices dating back to the dawn of humanity.

kev ferrara said...

First order of business is reaffirm the definitions of the terms of the argument.

"Cartoon" as I am discussing it refers to a highly lossy graphic abstraction. Generally nuances of anatomy, form, light color, and depth are elided. The Libyan Sybil would certainly not be a cartoon of this type, even though it is called a "cartoon" in the original sense of the word -- as being a drawing done in preparation for a painting. Obvious that definition does not apply to 99.99% of what is called cartooning and prep drawings aren't what I'm talking about (and you know that.) So, no, you won't just be easily winning the argument by blithely pointing out that the word cartoon once meant something different than it does today. The Libyan Sybil drawing is replete with dimensional information -- Michelangelo practically chiseled the thing onto the paper -- and it is only a few local colors and a background short of a full fledged painting.

Secondly, we are speaking here of creative visual works. Not math or computer code. When using technical/mechanical/computerized encoding processes, an enormous amount of complex information can be woven into a single linear data stream of electrons. However we can't read such a data stream as experience, like we can read art. There is no aesthetic quality to electronic data streams whatsoever. Their decoding must be done wholly through machinery. So such non-aesthetic encoding is an uttelry unrelated phenomena to what we are discussing.

That such a data stream can be encoded with profoundly life-affecting information of; a viral plague sweeping through a local county, the winning of a billion dollar lottery by one's closest aunt, the death of one's mother, or news of a nuclear strike in Pakistan... still has no effect on whether the electrons themselves are capable of presenting to the human mind aesthetically.

The same goes for mathematics writing. The equations themselves and how they are written down are absolutely dead aesthetically and meaningless to anybody not indoctrinated into the code. If we who know the code suddenly internalize the profound meaning of an equation as an aesthetic experience in the mind, it was not the penmanship of the person who wrote down the equation that caused that aesthetic reaction. It was our decoding of the meaning and then our imaginative translation of the meaning into physical feelings and "real" forces that vivified the meaning to the mind.

But again, such mental events aren't the argument. The issue under debate was visual communication.

We can't know and we don't need to know (who or what)) in order for primitive cave painting to be great art,

Yes, okay. Go on...

Here's all that we need to know about a work of prehistoric art to gain aesthetic benefit from it:

Wait, wait, wait... "Aesthetic benefit" is not the same thing as great art. (Geez, you're a wiley one. Gotta keep my eye on the pea all the time.)

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- Not trying to be slippery. I think we may just be dealing with slippery concepts. We have at least two issues on the table simultaneously: first whether cartoons (broadly defined to include graphic abstractions such as Greek vase painting and Egyptian wall images, right?) can be great art, and second whether symbolic content, which is more consistent with cartoons than with paintings demonstrating your "deep non linear build outs (3D)," is a limiting factor ("the works are generally compromised aesthetically to the degree that the reference-knowledge is required in order to understand the work") or an asset that can transcend your "3D art with deep non linear build outs."

My example of the cave paintings was intended to show that we don't need to have the "reference knowledge" to get artistic benefit from the symbols. If you don't care for my cave painting example, what about the symbols of Steinberg (http://images2.bonhams.com/image?src=Images/live/2013-10/29/8753791-17-1.jpg&height=480&width=640) or Hampton ( http://americanart.si.edu/collections/search/artwork/?id=9897 ) or Basquiat (http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_p2O9FDg3MfI/TJp_9CQJTjI/AAAAAAAADHU/XdR0S1rAbeQ/s1600/Christies-New-York-2.jpg )? Like the cave paintings, there is no "reference knowledge" that would enable us to make a literal translation of these works, but that doesn't diminish the artistic quality.

(PS-- For clarity, I believe that the cave paintings of Lascaux and Alta Mira are "great art," not just that they contribute "aesthetic benefit." )

Tom said...

David; the joints on the new images reflect  stylization.  Greek painters would not draw the transition form the thigh to the calf or the transition from from the upper arm to the fore arm as a hard crisp right angle. They almost always choose taunt curves. The hands of the Provensen's  warriors do not go around and hold the sword or bow. Is the black figure driving his sword into his own leg?    The shield of  the black warrior and the forearm of the grey warrior exist in the same spatial plane. The drapery on a Greek figures goes around the limbs and hangs from the bodily forms that support it.  It does not exist in one continuous line between it and the body as it does in the Provensens drawings.  Without any real discernible difference between the quality of flesh and cloth.

If the Greeks where obsessed with the intangible and the ungraspable nature of emptiness or the negative don't you think their art work would look like China's?  Western art tends to center on things, bodies the tangible even in classical architecture the student is not encouraged to think of space as a shape but always as a volume.  The lines in a Greek figure all travel across invisible volumes that the artist held in his mind as he drew.  You can copy a line that someone else drew but to find the reason and the the motivation for the line is another whole matter, it is what brings a line to life.

I chose the thumb not because it was a great observation but because of what the Greek painters chose to emphasis,  it's  solidity and volumetric nature.  It is where there emphasis lies, in the solid nature of bodies. They did paint against a plan background.  In general the only other thing they painted where geometric decorative horizontal borders on there vases which gives great stability and orientation to their figures.

"yet deliberately chose to draw in a flat, geometric, stylized way"
I guess that is my point,  the Provensens draw flat while the Greeks drew volumes.  I wasn't saying the Greeks where drawing more accurately I was trying to say what is emphasized in their work, what part of reality was given importance and value.  The Provensens are rummaging through art history for style, they want to connote the ancient world, just like their Norseman feel like the figures from the bayreuth tapestry.  The forms of Neal Adams in your pervious post have a much stronger connection connection to Greek painting then the Provensens.  He conceives his figures as volumes. To draw Gods or Superheroes one thinks in terms of strength, one thinks of masses not flat shapes.

Laurence John said...

"The lines in a Greek figure all travel across invisible volumes that the artist held in his mind as he drew."

"The forms of Neal Adams in your pervious post have a much stronger connection to Greek painting then the Provensens. He conceives his figures as volumes."

good points Tom.
most classic animation drawing too, is based on volume rather than flat design, even if the volume isn't explicitly rendered, and is only enclosed by a brush line.
in animation terms the Provensens would be 50s / UPA (graphic modern flatness) rather than Disney's 'centre line' school.

some of the 'ligne clair' comic artists could also be seen as descendants of the Greek vase style.

David Apatoff said...

Gents, in view of all the interest in ancient Greek vase painting and the cramped quarters here, I have opened a new post for the topic. You may wish to fight this out there.