Friday, March 26, 2010

Sequential Art Finds At The Cincinnati Art Museum

I spent the afternoon today at the Cincinnati Art Museum. All of the design guys at work got together to do some team-building, and just get our eyes focused on some design materials that aren't housed in beige cubicles. As usual, I spent most of the time trailing behind the others in my group, as I have a tendency to get fixated on particular pieces and study them in depth. In fact, they had a Kara Walker exhibit, which was absolutely stunning, and I stopped long enough to do a quick sketch or two. (That particular exhibit runs through May 2, and I might have to go back before then! Brilliant work on several levels!)

But, on to comics! Or, rather, sequential art.

There were really only two pieces I found today that struck me from a comics point of view. The first was in a special exhibit on color photography. I didn't see any sequential art pieces per se but there was this piece...
It's by Eve Sonneman and entitled Photo Novellas. Although you can't really tell from the photo on the left, the one on the right shows a hand paging through a black and white photo comic. The pictures were shot in Bordeaux, France in 1980.

Many of the other photos from the exhibit were slice-of-life pieces, depicting a wide swath of people and places from the 1970s. (Including a gathering of Star Trek cosplayers from 1976.) While the photos were all excellent, their subject matter also reminded me why I dislike that era. The pop culture elements of the 1970s were good, but there was a heavy dose of escapism involved to get away from the depressed state people had to deal with in the real world.

The other piece of "sequential art" I found was more intriguing, though. It's actually a series of three plates dating from the late 1800s...
The plates depict, from left to right, "molding pottery", "decorating pottery" and "filling the kiln" at Rookwood Pottery here in Cincinnati. These were decorated by Kataro Shirayamadani and are part of the Museum's permanent collection.

What strikes me as interesting is that each plate shows several images or panels depicting a portion of the action. They're not necessarily sequential -- one can't really tell, for example, if the pottery is being put into or taken out of the kiln. Which makes sense, given the circular nature of the format. The end process looks much like the beginning and the two blur together within the framework of these images.

But that these three plates were created AS A SERIES makes this that much more interesting to me. The order in which the plates are supposed to be presented is self-evident -- you wouldn't fire your pottery until it had been decorated, and you couldn't decorate until it's actually made. The artist here clearly doesn't go into enough detail as to be a manual for making pottery, but the same general idea is present. The viewer can tell -- using only the illustrations at hand -- what the basic process used at Rookwood is. There are three main steps, and each step has several parts. Three "issues" with several "panels" in each.

Bear in mind that this is still several years before Richard Outcult's Hogan's Alley and Shirayamadani has created multiple pieces of sequential art with recurring characters. Granted, we're not talking The Rake's Progress here in terms of either depth or technical ability, but where Shirayamadani goes that William Hogarth didn't was putting smaller sequences WITHIN the larger sequence.

I'm not about to claim Shirayamadani was the originator of this idea -- far from it. I think it's more likely that he picked up the idea from someone else, and simply applied it to these plates. That it happens to have been years before the Yellow Kid debuts reminds me that this notion of a recurring character in sequential art -- what we now generally think of as comics -- was around well before Outcult's newspaper success.

Just something to think about the next time you read a history of comics.

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