From the Newspaper to the Gallery: How Comics Entered the World of Fine Art

The history of comics (sequential drawings depicting narratives)
is often traced to the first markings found on cave walls
dating as far back as 32,000 years ago, at the Chauvet Cave
in the Ardeche region of France. Were the creators of these
cave paintings trying to communicate to future generations?
Were they merely decorating their living environment with
familiar scenes? Or did these paintings play a role in religious
ceremonies? Although we may never know the exact nature of
the cave paintings, it is not difficult to imagine their evolution
into the pictographs of civilizations coming thousands of years
later, including the cuneiform of the Sumerians, Egyptian hieroglyphs,
Greco-Roman friezes, the illuminations of the Book
of Kells and other similar manuscripts, Renaissance narrative
paintings in large public and private spaces, and finally, with
the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press in the late fifteenth
century, the emergence of political and satirical illustrations and
the pamphleteers that made them accessible.
 
Dating back to the eighteenth century, William Hogarth
is credited as the grandfather of modern sequential art. His
series A Rake’s Progress comprises what began as eight
paintings on canvas focusing on the debauched life of Tom
Rakewell, the son of a London-based merchant. The series
was later turned into prints published in a 1735 newspaper,
providing the artist more popular appeal – an indispensable
element of modern comics.
 
hogarth_william_arakesprogress_11
William Hogarth, Plate 1 of A Rake’s Progress,
“The Young Heir Takes Possession of the Miser’s Effects,” 1735
 
As experimentation with new ways of creating sequential
art continued, elements of current iconography, such as speech
bubbles, started entering the comics lexicon. With these innovations
emerged the concept of the “comic strip” in the early
part of the nineteenth century, especially because of the satirical
nature of the majority of drawings. Important artists of the
period who contributed enormously to the promotion and
evolution of the medium include Rodolphe Topffer, George
Cruikshank (illustrator of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist), and
later Wilhelm Busch and Richard F. Outcault, who established
the standards of the medium that are still followed today.
Rodolphe Topffer, a professor of literature who also painted
in his spare time, combined his two passions to advance the
sequential art form even further into what we now call graphic
novels, with the 1842 publication of The Adventures of Obadiah
Oldbuck, a 30-page book with six plates of drawings on each
page, and captions under the drawings. He wrote the first treatise
on what he called “picture stories” in his 1845 “Essay on
Physiognomics,” where he described the technique:
“To construct a picture-story does not mean you must
set yourself up as a master craftsman, to draw out every
potential from your material – often down to the dregs! It
does not mean you just devise caricatures with a pencil
naturally frivolous. Nor is it simply to dramatize a proverb
or illustrate a pun. You must actually invent some kind of
play, where the parts are arranged by plan and form a
satisfactory whole. You do not merely pen a joke or put a
refrain in couplets. You make a book: good or bad, sober
or silly, crazy or sound in sense.”
 
topffer2

Topffer, The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, 1852
 
And yet the early nineteenth-century picture stories or
cartoons were masterfully rendered in the mimetic realistic
style of the era’s fine artists. Tracing the meaning of the word
“cartoon” to its origins – i.e., a preparatory drawing for a painting
or tapestry – one understands why fine art and the first
cartoons, or comics, were so closely connected. Aesthetically
they did not differ from other artworks – it was their satirical
subject matter that set them apart. In fact, most of
the cartoonists of that period were academically
or professionally trained as fine artists, and their
etchings were works of fine art in their own right.
As mentioned above, Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress
started as a series of paintings, now housed in the
Soane Museum in London.
 
As the boom in newspapers and magazines took
hold, with a reading public that needed entertainment,
the comic strip medium became more established,
and its form more stylized. With Wilhelm
Busch’s Max and Moritz, a comic book set to the
author’s rhymes and published in 1865 in a German
newspaper, the sketch style that became so popular
with the newspaper “funnies” was launched.
But it was with the 1895 publication of Richard
F. Outcault’s The Yellow Kid in Joseph Pulitzer’s
The New York World, and with the 1897 publication
of The Katzenjammer Kids by Rudolph Dirks in a
supplement of The New York Journal – a competing
newspaper owned by media mogul William
Randolph Hearst – that the newspaper comic strip,
which combined speech bubbles with images and
a caricature style, really took off, opening a new
chapter in the history of sequential art: comics as
popular or “lowbrow” art.
 

180px-yellowkid2
Richard F. Outcault, The Yellow Kid, 1895
 
However, the fact that we are now seeing
a re-emergence of sequential art and the appreciation
of cartoonists as fine artists brings us full
circle. Remember Hogarth? How have we gotten
here from the Sunday funnies? Painter Lyonel
Feininger, who was associated with the German
Expressionists, was also an accomplished cartoonist
for the Chicago Sunday Tribune and brought us
The Kin-der-Kids and Wee Willie Winkie’s World,
beautifully drawn stories of the adventures of young
kids and their keen observations of the world.
Art Spiegelman, author of Maus and the first
modern cartoonist to create a graphic novel as
we understand it today, considers Kin-der-Kids
Feininger’s best work:
 
“Feininger’s visually poetic formal concerns collided
comically with the fish wrap disposability
of news print [...] The cartoonist…became a celebrated
second-generation cubist…but his handful
of Sunday pages – testing the uncharted waters
between the high and low arts, between European
and American graphic traditions – remains his
greatest aesthetic triumph.” (Spiegelman, In the
Shadow of No Towers, 2004).
 

kinderkids2
Lyonel Feininger, The Kin-der-Kids, 1906
 
Maybe it is here that we see the path of cartoons
bifurcating into that of lowbrow illustration and fine
art. Beginning in the second decade of the twentieth
century, the comics of superheroes and comical
caricatures of events and people which appealed to
the masses marked one direction for comics; the
other included those that combined visual images
with narrative to create literature, which appealed
to a more select group.
 
The latter was an artform that, at its core,
kept alive the tradition of the hand’s role in the
creation of the print, as master woodcut artists
like Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, and even Max
Ernst created novels out of images and text. For a
few decades, sustained by hig art’s extreme contempt
for commercial and popular illustration, comics
were associated with youth and the masses.
But the 1960s saw fine art embrace mass culture
– especially the iconography in popular comic
books and kitschy illustrations – and thus eliminate
the elitism of abstract expressionism, while collapsing
the distinction between low and high art.
 
The most obvious examples of artists who based
their practices on incorporating lowbrow culture
into their fine art are Roy Lichtenstein and Andy
Warhol. They were probably the first artists to
exhibit paintings featuring comics in galleries and
museums, thus setting the stage for the convergence
of these two types of previously opposed genres.
 

inthecar2

Roy Lichtenstein, In the Car, 1963
 
With the visual power and popularity of the Pop Art
movement, the art public became more accepting of
the language of comics, and grew to understand the
art of the cartoonist.
 
In the 1970s the market for collecting comics
boomed, and publishers encouraged this by printing
in small editions to appeal to this new group of
collectors. Carl Hammer, a Chicago gallerist who
represents many cartoonists, attributes the enthusiasm
of the collector base for this type of work
to “the demographics of collecting, [which] have
certainly changed over the years, both with the
aging of the ‘boomer’ collecting base as well as the
cultural diversity which it now represents.” Also in
the 1970s, the term “graphic novel” was adopted by
cartoonists and graphic artists who wanted to differentiate
themselves from the mainstream illustrators
who worked for newspapers and other popular publishing
houses. This helped promote the idea of the
“precious” in the medium, as well as re-establish
this form of comics as fine art.
 
It is no surprise, then, that most successful
contemporary graphic artists are trained as
fine artists, and have been embraced by the fine
art community. Excellent examples of these
types of artists from Chicago are not only to
be found in the centerfold of this newspaper,
featuring a remarkable collaborative work by
Onsmith (Jeremy Smith) and John Hankiewicz;
they also include the likes of Jeffrey Brown,
Ivan Brunetti, Lilly Carre, Linda Barry, Dan Clowes,
Paul Hornschemeier, and of course Chris Ware.
Reflecting the sentiments of Topffer, made
avant la lettre in the mid-nineteenth century, Carl
Hammer describes the phenomenon of the graphic
artist: “It is not enough just to produce a humorous
tale or a soap opera drama of crime, cowboys, or
super heroes. The artists who have achieved the
status of being placed in, for example, exhibitions
like Chris Ware’s inclusion into the 2002 Whitney
Biennial, are doing far more than telling an entertaining
tale. Like any other powerful piece of contemporary
art, they are making statements about
our humanity in a manner which disguises itself
like a cartoon, but ends up effectively dissecting the
very essence of who we are as individuals and as a
people overall.”
 
chris-ware1
Chris Ware, “Building Stories – Day, Part 5” (original drawing), 2007.
From the Acme Novelty Library series. Image courtesy of Carl Hammer Gallery.

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2 thoughts on “From the Newspaper to the Gallery: How Comics Entered the World of Fine Art

  1. Pingback: From the Newspaper to the Gallery: How Comics Entered the World of Fine Art | artensuite.ch

  2. Pingback: Fumetto Comix Festival In Luzern « Correspondences

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