Monday, March 30, 2020

PLAGUE ART, part 2

The last post suggested that when it comes to depicting a plague, a literal, realistic approach usually falls short.  The examples I posted, and the better examples suggested by commenters,  suggested that mere accuracy is not the best tool for a topic such as this.

As one commenter suggested, imaginative symbolism seems better suited:

Edgar Allen Poe's Masque of the Red Death provided ample inspiration for illustrators such as Harry Clarke to anthropomorphize the concept of death:

The talented John Hendrix also used pen and ink, but with touches of color, to create this different and interesting approach:

Note how Hendrix enhances his symbols with words...

The pride of man coming to naught

I've often criticized today's illustrators who resort to words because they are incapable of drawing.  In my view, Hendrix is an illustrator who gets it right.  His words aren't a crutch, they are an enhancement.  They don't make his pictures more literal, they add an element of mystery and obscurity.

In the following illustration of the plague in Manchuria for a 1911 cover of Petit Journal,  the inclusion of a lot of unnecessary details (such as folds in clothing and rocks on the ground) distracts from what might otherwise have been a dramatic image of the plague personified:

Arnold Bocklin had a better sense of priorities.  With fewer details and less precision, his vision of the plague nevertheless seems more creepy and chilling :

But when it comes to anthropomorphized death, few can compete with the famous Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who lived through the black plague in the 16th century.


MORAN said...

That Hendrix drawing is awesome!

Wes said...

These are really interesting, but seemed too cartoony to me when I first looked at them to be convincing.

Asking myself why, the answer is obvious -- the artists needed to dramatize the plague effects and so mostly focused on a bringer/messenger/demon of the plague (Death anthromorphisized) and particularly the devastating effects of the plagues on social order.

Our quiet streets and empty buildings have a different feel than these terrorized crowds. Still, we might get there, and the background of these works may be the most realistic part of a modern plague. Thus explains the present crazed buying of guns and toilet paper and hoarding of goods – at least in the US.

The Bocklin demon is quite creepy.

kev ferrara said...

That excellent Arnold Böcklin plague image is a classic. I mistakenly thought that was by Von Stuck, and was referring to it in my prior comments.

That Hendrix has an overall aesthetic feel of bubblegum. Couldn't be farther from having a unitary expressive effect commensurate with what it depicts. He resorts to words to explain his image, not because he can't draw, but because he doesn't comprehend gestalt expression.

Laurence John said...

Perhaps the association is in my head because i've seen the Chapman Brother's 'Hell' which obviously references it, but the Bruegel resembles the apocalyptic fever dream of an obsessive hobbyist / model maker. The type of introverted person who spends all their time in the attic making landscapes for their model train set peopled with intricately painted tiny figures. The naive quality of the drawing and staging only adds to this feeling.

David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- I agree.

Wes and Kev Ferrara-- yes, I love Bocklin's work, he had a special touch when it came to creating spooky images. We envision him as a haunting, mystical character, but one of my favorite stories about him is that after he painted his famous Isle of the Dead, a wealthy widow came to him and asked him to paint it again with her late husband in the boat. Like any good commercial artist, Bocklin accepted the assignment.

Wes, Kev Ferrara and Laurence John-- All three of you seem to have picked up on a common theme-- that many of these images have a cartoonish or model maker simplicity-- we've taken a step back from realism, which I suggested in the previous post was inadequate, and now we are looking at cartoonish drawings or symbolic images that represent concepts instead. They have skeletons walking (or flying) around, performing functions in a way that Meltzoff or Sweerts never would. These symbolic pictures contribute an additional element, but at a cost. You've all noted the cost, but on the other hand, the Hendrix gives us concepts like "The Axe of God" splitting the ground or the "The Pride of Man" in the form of bridges and trains hurtling headlong into the chasm. Bocklin gives us unsettling, weird creatures flying through the streets, which could never fit into the world depicted in the first post, which respect the laws of time and space. I don't know how you could preserve both.

kev ferrara said...

As far as I know, Böcklin made 3 different versions of Isle of the Dead. While each is unique, there are also many similarities between them, including that, in the boat, there is a rower and a standing man in white, neither of whose faces can be seen. Does that mean there is a fourth version of the painting where the identity of the widow's dead husband is evident?

I don't dislike the Hendrix picture, but it doesn't really symbolize 'calamity' as it says. It symbolizes 'silly calamity.' In other words, it's an ironic, self-contradictory statement that makes a joke of the serious subject; we read it like a sprawling tour through an amusement park. But we shouldn't be amused, given the indicated subject. So rather than offering symbolic catharsis about calamity, it encourages us to be delusional or sociopathic about it instead. I think this kind of infantile ironic detachment from reality has been endemic in western culture since the 1960s, from Andy Warhol and Adam West to Psychedelic Drugs and The Ultra Violence.

What makes images (like the Böcklin) so special is the poetic concision, the lossless reduction of the idea down to a single concentrated sensual symbol densely radiant with meaning. The image-ness of images is wholly due to just how much meaning is being intertwined, superposed, and synthesized into the elements. This is why subtlety is so much more powerful than blatancy.

Wes said...

Kev noted:

"I don't dislike the Hendrix picture, but it doesn't really symbolize 'calamity' as it says. It symbolizes 'silly calamity.' In other words, it's an ironic, self-contradictory statement that makes a joke of the serious subject; we read it like a sprawling tour through an amusement park."

You might be making too much of our modern meaning of "calamity", a word apparently a bit obscure in origin and therefore it might have been the right (mystical) word if the artist knew that. (I'm not sure he did.) We have a built in view of calamity is somewhat comical -- derived (probably) from myths like "Calamity Jane" and the use of the word describing pratfalls and keystone cops, etc., or simple clumsiness like spilling our coffee "What a calamity!). But as a serious mystical term, it might have suggested a more mysterious and profound event. If the illustration was less cartoony (as you say, bubblegum-like), the word might have had greater power. I would have liked the use of the word more if the illustration was darker in tone, etc., as it might have turned the mind more from comedy to tragedy.

Tom said...

David wrote, "The last post suggested that when it comes to depicting a plague, a literal, realistic approach usually falls short."

I don't know who the artist is your first example but its funny no matter how horrific the image is or the sense of doom one is supposed to feel when viewing these pictures something else starts to happened as I look at the pictures. In that first image it becomes intriguing because of the drawing itself, the solidity of the skull the clear simple plane break between the top of the shoulders and the front plane of the chest, the curve of the skull, the clarity of the drawing of the bones is what holds my attention more then any concern of fear or death.

I don't think the more conceptual approach of the Hendrix drawing gains any advantage over the older works. His drawings just feel confused and frustrating, it feels like I have to decipher them. The words come first and what are all the little shapes in the background about. In the older works the immediate topic is obvious as groups of bodies, even if I'm not sure of the narrative. I am not frustrated by the question of what is happening in the picture. Which leads to my point, I just don't feel the narrative of creepiness or horror in the new images you posted is that profound there seems to be more of an effort to sensationalize while in the older works it seems closer to real experience. The older pictures may lack horror but there is lots to look at in terms of form and drawing. There is lots there to see if your interested.

I like Laurence's description of the Bruegel painting. But before mass media I'm sure it's obsessiveness would be intriguing for the viewer with the picture's rich complexity and it's varied of individual stories. It's detail draws you in, it wants you to come in close and really examine the picture and spend some time with it, like a model railway.

The Plague of Manchuria feels like it is a turn of the century newspaper illustration where there was still an exception that one would linger over a picture and so to speak look Into all the nooks and crannies of it. The thing is when one starts to look at a picture the narrative subsides and the beauty of the world comes through. Perhaps this is the reason artist are often capable of making what people consider banal things interesting.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I don't think the features of the dead husband were ever identifiable. The version of the painting I'm describing is In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1880 Marie Berna, the widow of a German diplomat, went to Böcklin and commissioned a copy of Isle of the Dead as a memorial to her late husband. She wanted Bocklin to paint her in the boat, wearing a shroud and mourning her husband, who was apparently in his coffin. I gather that Bocklin's answer was "Yes, ma'am."

The Metropolitan web site suggests that, "prodded by his dealer," Bocklin made three OTHER versions of the subject, which implies a total of five.

I agree that the Hendrix has an element of silliness to it, especially contrasted with Bocklin's solemnity. On the other hand, the Hendrix drawing does things that Bocklin's painting does not. It is a veritable catalog of calamity, an end-of-days list of everything that could go wrong: not just the spotted devil plague hunched over the village, but also earthquake, tsunami, fire, etc. this is an exercise very different from what Bocklin was attempting.

Wes-- I don't know how much Hendrix knew about the word "calamity" but I do know that he is deeply religious and draws religious subjects a lot. I agree with you that the drawing is cartoony, although for me part of its charm is that it depicts the worst possible end of the world in a cartoony format. As I started to say in my response to Kev, I don't know how an artist could catalog all those different horrors, which are ludicrous in the aggregate, in a single illustration that was "darker in tone." If you want to show the earth opening up and a tidal wave coming over the horizon along with the ten plagues of Egypt, you really have to resort to light diagrams, don't you? Imagine trying to do that with a consistent light source, a single vanishing point, no words, etc.

Tom-- In that first drawing, I agree that the solidity of the drawing is a major factor, especially because it's a realistic treatment of an unrealistic subject. But more than that, I like that the skeleton is playing a fiddle made of bones while the revelers march off to their deaths. For me, it's not just the solidity, but what the artist does with it.

I agree with you about the Plague of Manchuria, and it definitely suffers from the coloring of a turn of the century newspaper illustration. Still, I think the artist didn't know when to stop when it came to the detail department.

It's interesting that you like the dozens of little vignettes in the Bruegel piece ("the picture's rich complexity and it's varied of individual stories") but you find the dozens of stories in the Hendrix piece "confused and frustrating." No model railroad there, huh? Well, I don't think the Hendrix picture was planned nearly as well as the Bruegel, but on the other hand I like the feeling that the world is coming apart in the Hendrix work. The plane of that train blowing up and catapulting into the chasm makes no sense in terms of formal perspective, but it does add to the pandemonium which you find "confused and frustrating," but which I kinda like.

Laurence John said...


I find Bruegel (and many other early renaissance painters) fascinating, but i almost never think 'I'd like to paint like that' and I've noticed they almost never make it onto the lists of 'painter's painters'. There's clearly something about sable brush / small detail work that doesn't get most modern painters excited. I recall Thom Fluharty calling the physical practice of doing detailed work 'writing letters to grandma' (or similar) meaning that it lacked the vigour of brushwork done while standing at the easel and using the whole arm.

Manqueman said...

I'm sure I missed it, but who drew that first image in the post?
Also I'm not sure that better than an image of people suffering (cartoonish or otherwise), an image of empty streets is pretty chilling IMO.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- That Fluharty is a funny guy.

Manqueman-- My fault for omitting the artist, a 19th century German graphic artist named Alfred Rethel. The engraver, who deserves some of the credit, was Gustav Steinbrecher. The subject is the outbreak of cholera in Paris in 1831. That's cholera himself in the background to right, dressed in Egyptian fancy dress seated on the stairs.

Seb Bégin said...

Much like beauty, creepiness resonates more suggested than detailed. In both cases imagination is the fuel for emotion!
Unrelatedly, I still can't believe Stephen Gammell drew his pictures for children's books.