Saturday, March 12, 2016


Everyone enjoys weird pictures that disrupt our conventional ways of thinking (as long as those disruptions don't require us to get up out of our armchair or sacrifice our allowance). 

Walter Schnackenberg  (1880 - 1961) did some mighty peculiar drawings.  He was the Kafka of illustrators.


Schnackenberg trained in Munich and worked for for the magazines Jugend and Simplizissimus



Yet, Schnackenberg was not a slave to his weirdness.  He also did standard commercial work-- magazine covers, posters and  theater illustrations.  His conventional work demonstrated great control-- it was beautifully designed and colored, with strong draftsmanship.  



Artists who try to fake their weirdness are usually not nearly as satisfying.  For example, much of R. Crumb's power to disturb us comes from the fact that we can tell he is a genuinely demented personality.  His funny, unsettling pictures give us a ringside seat to a life that, fortunately, we don't have to live ourselves.  After we're done savoring his strangeness, we can close the comic book and return to normalcy.

But being weird is not enough.  Crumb, like Schnackenberg, really knew how to draw.   We see plenty of popular artists today trying to simulate strangeness in superficial ways.  Some try to be strange by discarding artistic convention and making drawings that are a big, undisciplined mess. Others try to be strange by packaging bizarre or explicit content in child like or mechanical drawing (so the strangeness comes more from the contrast between form and content than from the image itself). 

I think that often the best weirdness, the most unsettling drawings, comes from artists who do not relinquish control, but rather use it well.

George Martin, the producer for the Beatles, died this week.  Before he passed away he discussed how the Sergeant Pepper album succeeded in shattering convention with psychedelic drug images and surrealistic references: "There's no doubt that that if I too had been on dope, Pepper would never have been the album it was.  Perhaps it was the combination of dope and no dope that worked."


Anonymous said...

How about showing some examples of the "fake weird" artists? You used to be willing to name names.


MORAN said...

Was Schnackenberg crazy? You have to be to draw like that.

Anonymous said...

Makes me think of David Lynch's film/art in contrast with his actual personality . Maybe Schnackenberg was like Lynch or Dali - "the only difference between myself and a madman is I am not Mad."

Or maybe not .

Al McLuckie

David Apatoff said...

JSL-- I think many of the artists in underground comics are not genuinely weird, just immature. S. Clay Wilson aspires to be freaky, but he reminds me of a child excited by playing with his own feces. Gary Panter aspires to be disturbing and subversive, but much of his drawing strikes me as a big mess. When you think about how serious artists such as Kafka were tortured into their eccentricities, Panter's weirdness strikes me as shallow and self-indulgent. Chris Ware tried for many years to illustrate strange, alienated stories using a T square and triangle. I understand the point, but personally I always thought that mechanical type of line was less suited for haunting content than the drawings of Schnackenberg or many others.

MORAN-- Well, hard to say. But I don't know how a normal mind comes up with some of those images.

Al McLuckie-- I love that quote from Dali; in fact I think it's just about the best thing he ever did. I am not as impressed with his artwork. His melting clocks etc. were interesting when psychotherapy was new and Freud held unlimited promise, and Dali certainly gets major points for entrepreneurship, but personally I think Schnackenberg was the superior artist.

Anonymous said...

I like Schnackenberg - you can feel his work comes from an uncalculated inner space . For me , Dali has such a breadth of work , some of which I don't like - but some I feel was created out of a need to create , not unlike that Gurney mud puddle watercolor he did while waiting for his car . Once Dali stopped a dumptruck and had the garbage emptied on his lawn and shaped it into a crucifixion image , which looked amazing . Some of his work in the Florida museum , for example , stopped me in my tracks .

I think he may have had a side to him , if he wasn't "on" for the public , that might have been very interesting to engage with . The Morse's , other collectors and a number of scientists and physicists have spoken of their friendships with Dali.

The final sentence in his 50 secrets of magic craftsmanship was moving to me , and hinted at something in his nature that was sincere .

Al McLuckie

Øyvind Lauvdahl said...

"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro".
- Hunter S. Thompson

Disregarding all other aspects, I would argue that - in the present time - these images are, primarily, haunted by yesterday's sense of weirdness. They intrude into the now imbued with an appearance of weirdness, but without any contemporary sense of it.

How can there possibly be any strangeness left to saviour in the works of Crumb, other than that which is conjured from within by a ritual of nostalgia? Any genuine threat to normalcy is far gone from the pages. Only the spectre of a threat remains.

I think that a vital aspect of this issue is that experiencing haunted expressions and phenomena, in itself, produces weirdness. These works appear weird, but aren't. They are speaking the truth, but in a dead tongue. We sense that someting is wrong with them, or with us. And so, cognitive dissonance kicks in. Or maybe existential dissonance? Dissonance, nonetheless.

Also, it occurs to me that mere nostalgia may be a major source of "faked weirdness" in this context. Hauntings are strangely familiar intrusions from without – reminiscence and wishful thinking is child's play, within.

As for what is truly weird today, well, that's a tricky one. Aren't we all now living in the uncanny valley?

Laurence John said...

i don't think 'weird' drawing requires much different criteria to evaluate it than non-weird drawing. namely: is it well drawn ? is the fictional world believable (however 'weird') ? does the dramatic point / narrative of the drawing communicate ? etc.

the problem (for me) with the Schackenberg drawings is that they look like they were made to illustrate a dream-like story (i can imagine him illustrating something like 'The Master & Margarita'), but on their own raise too many unanswerable questions.
for that reason, they're frustrating rather than engaging.

btw, i would never call Chris Ware a 'weird' artist. he's a cartoonist who uses a minimal-mechanical-cartoon style, and most of his scenarios are everyday.
Gary Panter's brand of 'weird' is from the punk / low-brow corner, which tries to mimic the undisciplined look of genuine 'outsider art' (art by people with mental disorders), and i agree it quickly tires with it's contrived 'underground' aesthetic.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discovery, thanks.

To add my comment i think that Chris Ware blends comics with infographics and while overall depressive and uninteresting (to me) I guess that his work shows artistic unity and vision.

The others I agree just look random and messy and irritating.

The combination of weird subjects and great draughstmanship makes me think of Heinrich Kley,another German and more or less a contemporary of Schnackenberg.
Going a bit back in time, Max Klinger and Goya come to my mind.

Ed from Italy

David Apatoff said...

Al McLuckie-- Well, you've now given me reason to go back and re-examine Dali. I haven't read his "50 Secrets" but I will now. I liked his "persistence of memory" and a few other early pictures that seemed sincere to me, but it also seemed that he rapidly devolved into a showman and trickster who used gimmicks that were easily appropriated by armies of illustrators doing paperback covers for pseudo-Freudian mysteries in the 40s and 50s, or those covers for classical music album sets. Most of all, I found the "realism" part of his surrealism awfully thin. His Sacrament of the Last Supper, for example, or his Christ of St. John on the Cross struck me as the kind of photo-realism you see on B movie posters. I always thought Magritte did it better. But as I said, time for a fresh look.

Øyvind Lauvdahl-- An interesting point. Are you suggesting that novelty is essential to weirdness? Do you think we assimilate and digest old weirdnesses, so that they are no longer weird? I don't know... I understand that we lose our sense of shock after we've heard a story several times, but that's different from weird, isn't it? I think there's a certain timelessness to the weirdness of Gregor Samsa waking up to discover that he has turned into a huge bug overnight. And when R. Crumb beheads a strange beast/woman and has a twisted series of sexual interactions with her headless body as it runs around enraged, well... that seems perpetually weird too, no matter how numb we become.

I agree with you, the tricky question is, what can still qualify as weird today? Does art have to become even noisier and more shocking to qualify as weird? That isn't a promising path. I wouldn't say we all live in the uncanny valley, but speaking of the uncanny valley the new animated film Anomalisa is pretty darn strange.

Laurence John-- How do we tell if a weird drawing is "well drawn"? You say the point of the drawing must "communicate" but often the point of weird pictures is intentionally obscure. For example, that odd sea creature in the first picture is a cipher, like the sea creature at the end of La Dolce Vita. It is open ended and creepy. The creatures spying on them (from the adjacent tank and from the hallway) have a clear point, and the drawing seems to communicate that very well, enough to make them seem really spooky to me. But I think the weirdness of the picture would be reduced if we could read the dramatic point / narrative of the central creature more clearly. The "unanswerable questions" don't bother me, they kind of intrigue me and expand the scope of the drawing.

Also, we're at something of a disadvantage because we can't measure these pictures by traditional standards of skill. The Schnakenberg pictures don't use perspective or anatomy or even color in any traditional sense. For me, it's their disconnect that helps make his pictures seem so odd. I do think that weird drawings must be well drawn to be effective, but I'm a little hard pressed to articulate what "well drawn" means here.

Re Chris Ware, I think you have a good point. In the beginning he did drawings I characterize as strange because they were intensely sad and alienated, drawn with a highly peculiar sense of timing. Mere seconds were put under a microscope where they crawled at an excruciating pace. Time flipped backward and forward. Nobody spoke. And intensely personal subjects, as painful as an open wound, were drawn in the most mechanical, lifeless style. I viewed that as badly drawn weird. But as time has elapsed, there has been less pathos in his subject matter and more sensitivity in his line.

Anonymous said...

David - Dali was my first "favorite artist". At age 9 , my parents got a big coffee table tome of his work - the one designed like an ornate box of chocolates , and spent hours staring at it . I'm sure Ferrara and others could write treatises on the meanings of his work pro or con , never had the interest myself . He researched old methods of paint/varnish/mediums and had a hell of an output over the decades - some prompted by his wife but some out of a need and desire to create . I think he tried to find connecting threads in art , psychology , physics , religion and bring them into his work , successfully or not . A scientist friend on a visit was shocked , when in a discussion , Dali pulled an obscure essay on whatever they were engaged - passages were underlined showing a deeper appreciation than he expected .

He wrote an elegy to Gala that I bet you would find moving ; a moment of dropping his public mask .

Not to spoil your reading of 50 Secrets , but [ I believe ] it is written with a design , all serving the effect of the final "secret".

Al McLuckie

Øyvind Lauvdahl said...

Not so much novelty as immediacy. Or intimacy, perhaps. But, there are many levels of weirdness, of course.

The shock of experiencing a different culture while travelling abroad for the very first time is a different kind of weird than, in those same surroundings, suddenly glimpsing a familiar face in the crowd. Similarly, there's reading Stephen King, and then there's reading Kafka. Both authors offer a break with normalcy, but only one had the power to actually threaten the state of normalcy in the mind of a young reader.

I'm not so sure that the weirdness of Samsas predicament is timeless, though. To the internet-savy youths of today, it might just appear as a flutter in the slipstream. As part of a meme, macro, or mash-up. "Man wakes up as a bug - complications ensue. That's Spiderman, right? Did you see him in the new Captain America trailer?" The concept will have been encountered, consumed, recycled, and forwarded long before the actual text is read. Or, perhaps more likely, the idea will be looked at, and the book never read.

For me, there is no more weirdness in Crumb than there is angst in Munch's "The Scream". These wonderful images of works by Schnackenberg remind me of Goya and Beksiński, and make me want to re-read Stefan Grabiński and Bruno Schulz. They effectively remind that there is such a thing as strangeness, but they do not, in themselves, disturb my sense of familiarity. I have seen this, or things similar, before.

Laurence John said...

David: "How do we tell if a weird drawing is "well drawn"?"

i was simply meaning good draughtsmanship, as oppose to weak draughtsmanship.
we've covered the 'how can you tell if someone can really draw (even when they're drawing loosely...e.g. John Cuneo) ?' topic before. for me, the Schakenberg 'weird' drawings don't score very high on drawing skills alone. they're adequate, but not bravura.

David: "You say the point of the drawing must "communicate" but often the point of weird pictures is intentionally obscure"

an obscure, mysterious point (moment) can still be dramatically made in a strong composition, even if the point doesn't make logical sense. the Schakenberg drawings are a bit like 'obscure whimsy' for the sake of it, but don't have any real dramatic force. said...

Yeah, this works can be called weird. Tough I do really like them. They all bring me some strange mood and actually make me watch on them and think about the situation painted there.

Anonymous said...

Crumb is still alive, you know...