When comics meet great art, the results will surprise you: NPR
There are two graphic novels this summer about Jean-Michel Basquiat, and you’re definitely going to hate one. Which? It’s harder to tell. Julian Voloj and Søren Mosdal Basquiat and that of Paolo Parisi Basquiat: a graphic novel Nothing more different: Mosdal imitates the artist’s choppy lines, while Parisi uses solids of primary colors, in the manner of Basquiat’s mentor, Andy Warhol. Aficionados might not agree which book works, but it was probably inevitable. There is something fundamentally odd about using an artistic tradition to describe the life (let alone the reproduction of the work) of an artist from a different tradition. And yet, not only are more and more designers creating books about famous artists, their approaches are dizzyingly diverse. When is a comic a fitting tribute to an icon?
It’s a question that many publishers and creators are eager to address. Andy Warhol, Salvador Dalí, Jackson Pollock and Francis Bacon have all been commemorated in panel form in recent years. It is no exaggeration to use the quintessential medium of comics to capture the life of a 20th century artist; the fluid Niki de Saint Phalle: The Garden of Secrets, by Dominique Osuch and Sandrine Martin, is a particularly ingenious tribute to an unknown figure. But even Velázquez, Caravaggio, and Goya get cartoon treatments.
The results of such attempts vary widely, but one rule is clear: do not duplicate the artist’s paintings if you can possibly get away with it. This is the faux pas of Monet: Itinerant of Light, by Salva Rubio and Efa. Efa imagines the world around Monet as the artist would paint it, with vivid specks of light and dark smearing every scene. That makes a beautiful book – that is, until you get to Efa’s recreations of Monet’s best-known paintings, which naturally suffer compared to the originals. In It’s Monet, on the other hand, the illustrator Aude Van Ryn does not seek to reproduce the famous works of her subject. Instead, the book intertwines color plates of the actual paintings with Van Ryn’s drawings of scenes from Monet’s life. (In a particularly charming interlude, the Monet family helps carry canvases in a wheelbarrow). Van Ryn’s style is complementary without being imitating – a difficult balancing act that Efa doesn’t pull off.
It’s Monet is part of an unusual series by British publisher Laurence King which combines biographical texts, modern reproductions and illustrations. “I wanted to be able to show, in illustrations, the pop culture that existed around the artists,” explains series editor Catherine Ingram. “Even… the paintings of the great masters, they have a vibrant visual culture to draw upon. This visual culture is absent from art history books. It’s time to come back to it, to involve illustrators.”
Some corners of the art world have always embraced comics, of course. In 1988 David Wojnarowicz asked his friend and fellow East Village artist James Romberger to collaborate with him on Seven miles per second, an adaptation of Wojnarowicz’s autobiographical writings. Romberger, whose depictions of downtown New York City life are in the collections of many museums, had to complete the book on his own after Wojnarowicz died of AIDS in 1992. But he was helped by Marguerite Van Cook, who had shown Wojnarowicz in his gallery, made road trips with him and had long discussions with him about color theory. Van Cook gave the book his explosive palette. (The book was reissued by Fantagraphics in 2013 and is now self-published by Romberger and Van Cook.)
“Marguerite lets things rush outside the lines,” says Romberger. “The color flows, blends in – it’s not that defined. In comics, the lines are generally … meant to contain the color. Daisy does something where the color actually bursts out of the lines, breaking up the limits. What kind of suits David, who is someone who was very against the limits. “
Seven miles per second remains a historical cross between comics and the fine arts. It was a similar desire to bridge the gap between the top and the bottom that led the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston to incorporate comics into its spring Botticelli exhibit. The museum hired Karl Stevens, known for graphic novels like the 2010s The tenant and last year The winner, to create cartoons of the Roman myths behind Botticelli The tragedy of Lucretia and Virginia’s story.
David Matthews / Courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
“I thought that one of the ways to make Botticelli attractive to an audience that didn’t know him was to approach these narrative paintings through the prism of a graphic novel,” says Nathaniel Silver, curator of the William collection. and Lia Poorvu at the museum. Stevens puts it a little differently: “Museums are increasingly limited with cash and they have to find ways to bring in the scum. Stevens believes the mainstream art world will still look down on comics to some extent. Comics, he notes, have “always been seen as an offshoot of commercial art, which it originally was. It was designed for the mass market. It was not designed for the wealthy elitists, which is [who] the fine arts have always been for.
This may explain the fascinating energy that permeates so many graphic art novels. Illustrating the lives of artists through a lowbrow medium detaches them from their lofty creations and places them on a human level. Silver notes that while Stevens’ work on the Botticelli exhibit may seem humble, his stance is not that different from that of Botticelli in his day. Then as now, says Silver, artists struggled to capture the attention of a large and easily distracted audience.
“We tried to show how these stories were reinterpreted by Botticelli in his day to make them relevant to a contemporary Renaissance audience,” said Silver. “Likewise, they can be reinterpreted in our time, to make them relevant to a contemporary audience in 2019.”
Etelka Lehoczky wrote on books for The Atlantic, the Los Angeles review of books and The New York Times. She tweets to @EtelkaL.