Unreal Nature

September 28, 2015

The Face of Something Familiar

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:56 am

… to examine depictions of the alien for images of oneself — to search the signs of fantasy for signs of life.

Continuing through High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (1990):

… artists can, in the varied threads of their personal experience, find a way to bind together the contradictory pluralities of high and low that define the richness and contradictions of any human community, ancient or modern. No less complex than a wall with the marks of centuries [graffiti], no less encompassing than the city that holds that wall, are the potentials that may coexist within the life of one person.

[ … ]

… Modern art is full of funny faces. Women with both eyes on the same side of their nose; men with ears where their mouths should be; ordinary families with the eyes of desert rodents and the skulls of apes — a mixed-up face is the heraldic emblem of modern art in the same way that the beautiful nude is the emblem of antiquity, or the receding-perspective checkerboard the emblem of the Renaissance.

… We’re now liable to see caricature, like graffiti, as just another raw form that modern art has digested.

Yet even Dubuffet’s willfully crude, scrawled portrait of Fautrier represents — in contrast to the stereotyped, unvarying faces that actually appear in the graffiti on Parisian walls — a sophisticated transformation that is as unique to Western art as linear perspective: the adaptation of grotesque form to the ends of epigrammatic portraiture. For all its ferocious intensity, Dubuffet’s portrait of Fautrier involves a refined orchestration of visual puns and condensed observations — the self-assured head metamorphosing into a spider’s arms, the mad, asymmetrical scowl belied by the oddly delicate and feminine grasp of the cigarette …

Jean Dubuffet, Fautrier with Spidered Brow, 1947

… The story of graffiti and modern art was a chronicle of artists seeing the potential for poetic expression in something as old as writing itself, but always previously thought to lack any significant form. The history of caricature and modern painting and sculpture is a story of evolutionary transformation: a sophisticated and fully developed art form which had previously been allowed to do only one thing was made to do another, and a new kind of social institution grew up around that newly altered form.

… The comic tradition that begins with Leonardo and extends to Bernini and the Carracci and then in a different way to Arcimboldo and his followers is … not a tradition of “looking at” but one of “looking into”: the artist begins to search the fantastic, unnatural, and grotesque for reflections of this world. The birth of mocking portraits and composite bodies involves the invention not of a new kind of grotesque but of a new way of looking at the grotesque. From its birth caricature is not a formal, mathematical invention, like perspective, with rules and models that tell an artist how to construct an artifact; it is instead an exhortation to search for likeness in the seemingly abstract, to look for the individual in the generic, to examine depictions of the alien for images of oneself — to search the signs of fantasy for signs of life.

… It has no essence; its evolution tracks only the growth of extreme self-consciousness about style, and the proliferation of styles through mechanical reproduction. Its emergence as a popular style depended not on its sudden awakening to social responsibility but on a shrewd and essentially conservative parody of high art. Its history shows a fever chart of shifts in social uses, whose one continuous theme is the rationalization of the seemingly irrational. From Leonardo to Gillray, the story of caricature is like a variant of the Narcissus myth: an artist stares into a stream of form that seems completely independent of his own experience, and cries out as he discovers there the face of something familiar staring back at him.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




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