The Art & Science of Kissing

Lorenzo Mattotti, cover for René Aubry's Refuges album

Lorenzo Mattotti, cover for René Aubry’s Refuges album

“A kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.” ― Ingrid Bergman

The first kiss, like a job interview, can be a thoroughly nerve-racking experience. This curious way of passing approx. 80 million bacteria from our lips to someone else’s generates so many anxieties and uncertainties that the internet is flooded with articles dedicated to dispelling fears surrounding it. A blogger, calling himself Dr Nerdlove, writes that  “Outside of “How do I meet girls?”, “when should you kiss her” is easily the most common dating question I get.” But when you’re in a relationship, kissing quickly becomes one of the elements of your everyday physical connection with your partner. Enjoyable, for sure, but no longer as weird, exciting and terrifying as it was before we crossed that physical barrier with someone. Having recently experienced the excitement of a first kiss with a new romantic partner (who is sadly no longer my partner), I had a chance to take a fresh look at kissing, and examine the phenomenon through the eyes of an alien visitor to our planet Earth. A visitor who, as Alain de Botton points out in a great essay on his Book of Life blog, would most likely have a hard time understanding it:

Mutual desire is normally signalled by a pretty weird act; two organs otherwise used for eating and speaking are rubbed and pressed against one another with increasing force, accompanied by the secretion of saliva. A tongue normally precisely manipulated to articulate vowel sounds, or to push mashed potato or broccoli to the rear of the palate now moves forward to meet its counterpart, whose tip it might touch in repeated staccato movements. One would have to carefully explain to an alien visitor from Kepler 9b what is going on.

Why do we kiss? From the biological point of view, the activity stems from our need to identify whether someone might be a good mate for us or not. Contrary to animals, which can detect smell at a distance, our sense of smell is exceptionally poor, so for us kissing is a “culturally acceptable way to get close enough to another person to detect their pheromones.” But not all humans adhere to these methods of analysing chemicals. A recent study which examined 168 cultures from around the world, discovered that as little as 46% of them practice the romantic–sexual kiss, and its frequency is correlated to the society’s relative social complexity. According to anthropologists from the University of Nevada, certain hunter-gatherer groups, such as the Brazilian Mehinaku tribe, consider kissing deeply revolting, while the Oceanic inhabitants pass open mouths over each other, without having actual contact. In order to learn more about each other, they might, instead of kissing, smell their partner’s face, which they are likely to consider more sexual. The Pacific Islanders and The Maori of New Zealand also practice “Eskimo kisses”, i.e. rubbing noses together. And some cultures don’t kiss at all—like Somalis, the Lepcha of Sikkim or the Sirono of Bolivia.

Max Ernst, 'The Kiss' (1927)

Max Ernst, ‘The Kiss’ (1927)

In many countries, especially Muslim ones, kissing in public is considered offensive and often illegal. It is ironic that India, a country where the Kama Sutra originated, is so opposed to kissing and Indian conservatives go as far as charging couples kissing in secluded seaside spots with obscene behaviour, and attacking shops which sell Valentine’s Day cards, as Emily Wax reports for The Washington Post. In the ancient Hindu Vedic Sanskrit texts dating back to 3,500 years ago, kissing was described as “inhaling each other’s soul”, while now it is perceived as a symbol of Western invasion, posing a threat to Indian values. But half of the world does kiss. And we do it for several reasons. Aside of being a way of detecting pheromones, kissing lowers the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. According to Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, New Jersey, kissing can access any one of three primary brain systems used for mating and reproduction: the sex drive, romantic love and long-term attachment. Also, as Alain de Botton points out, it has other important psychological merits: showing acceptance and willingness to take a risk with someone.

The huge meaning of kissing is something we’ve built up by social agreement and its fundamental definition is: I accept you – accept you so much that I will take a big risk with you. (…) Ordinarily it would be utterly nauseating to have a stranger poke their tongue into your face; the idea of their saliva lubricating your lips is horrendous. So to allow someone to do these things signals a huge level of acceptance.

Reinier Lucassen 'De Kus'

Reinier Lucassen ‘De Kus’

There are also other merits. A 10-year study conducted in Germany in the 1980s found that men who kiss their wives before leaving for work live approx. 5 years longer, earn 20-30% more and get into fewer car accidents than married men who don’t. Aside of still being a perplexing phenomenon (why, for example, kissing increases the level of oxytocin in men, but decreases it in women?!) and a subject of continuous study, kissing has also been a subject of numerous paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations and all sorts of art works. I have gathered a number of kissing-depicting images, some by my favourite artists, and some by artists I have only just discovered, which I have scattered around this post. I do not intend to analyse them, for I believe they should be left to interpretation and contemplation by a reader. If I can say one thing, it would be that what makes these works so strong is their ability to escape the clichéd, the kitsch and the obvious. Having researched imagery for this post, I have seen an infinite number of realistic depictions of kissing, which were devoid of any sort of magic, atmosphere and emotion. The paintings I’m showing here are very different.

Obviously, kissing is not only depicted in masterfully executed oil paintings, but it seems to appear absolutely everywhere, from telecom ads, such as Vodafone’s The Kiss, to cigarette ads (see the infamous Don’t Be a Maybe campaign by Marlboro), to giant Benetton billboards, presenting world leaders in passionate lip-locks with their enemies. “What’s more personal than a kiss?”, asks Mark Glaser (Marketing at Google) when explaining the inspiration behind the Mulberry Kisses campaign, aimed at bringing the romantic view of the brand into the internet. So kissing is everywhere and yet we don’t seem to tire of it. An example of just how much excitement kissing can evoke, is First Kiss, a 2014 video directed by   Tatia Pilieva, which had 3 times more traffic than President Obama’s appearance on the popular online comedy show, Between Two Ferns, posted online the same day. The low-budget video was commissioned by fashion label Wren to showcase their clothing line’s fall collection for Style.com’s Video Fashion Week. It featured several couples, straight and gay, kissing in front of the camera, and proved an instant hit on the internet—it was viewed about 42 million times on YouTube. John Koblin in his article for the New York Times quotes Pilieva, who attributes the popularity to the sincerity of the video: “They shed all these layers in front of our eyes and in front of the cameras and that sweetness and kindness resonated with people.”

Another example of is Kiss Me Now, Meet Me Later, a social experiment, in which Toronto-based cinematographer Jordan Oram asked 8 blindfolded strangers to kiss each other after a brief introduction. Unlike similar videos, which focus on merely presenting the act of kissing, Oram’s film is trying to make us ask some questions. The film-maker said: “there had been nothing that really showed the reason why people were kissing… The reason behind the kiss: what if you meet the person you fell in love with from the first kiss? What if it was like your first kiss? What if you met someone, you kissed them, and then you introduced yourself? And then you built chemistry from that.”

Kissing can be truly magical. And it’s worth waiting for the right person to come along to share the magic with.

Marc Chagall, 'Birthday' (1915)

Marc Chagall, ‘The Birthday’ (1915)

The Art of Collage: Paper & Scissors Rock!

Hannah Höch - Mrs To and Daughter

Max Ernst, the author of a collage graphic novel, Une Semaine de Bonté (1934), once said: “Collage is the noble conquest of the irrational, the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them.”

Max Ernst collage

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of seeing an exhibition devoted to the work of Hannah Höch, a German Dada artist, at the Whitechapel Gallery. Höch is one of the major figures in the history of collage, yet the Wikipedia only credits her for photomontage. The exhibition presents approx. 100 works, including collages, montages, and watercolour drawings which were created over six decades. Höch, a bisexual “degenerate artist,” spent the years of the Third Reich living in the outskirts of Berlin, in a tiny suburban cottage, where she stayed for the rest of her life. She was a bold, anarchic, politically engaged woman, a contributor to 1920’s First International Dada Fair but it didn’t take long before she got written out of the movement’s history and labelled a “bob-haired muse of the men’s club in one of obituaries. In her earlier work, such as her Ethnographic Museum series, she used collage to comment on inflation, political tyranny, Nazi ideals of racial purity, and general perceptions of beauty. Later on, she turned to abstraction. Her artistic practice also incorporated graphic design and embroidery – some of those works, like the Rohrfeder Collage (below), I personally find most interesting. With her collage work, I particularly enjoy those complex and carefully arranged compositions of architectural motifs and patterns. But in my opinion some of the cutouts lack precision and appear a little random. I am also not keen on her late semi-abstract work which somehow loses the spirit of her early work.

Hannah Höch - Rohrfeder Collage (fragment), 1922

Hannah Höch, Fremde Schönheit (Strange Beauty), 1929

Having seen the Hannah Höch exhibition, I thought that I’d use this opportunity to write about some other collage artist that I like. The first name that comes to mind, and immediately fills it with sorrow, is the name of a brilliant Polish artist who died tragically in the Tatras Mountains three years ago – Jan Dziaczkowski. He was one of those rare artists with an absolute coherence to his work, regardless of what mediums he used. His paintings, collages and photographs were of equal quality, and really complemented each other. In his first series of collages, Greetings from vacation Dziaczkowski used archival postcards from various places in Europe. In another series, Polish Art of the Twentieth Century, he was altering the reproductions of famous works of art to create a completely new work where those sacred museum pieces got a voice of their own. In the Keine Grenze series, Dziaczkowski created an alternative history of Europe after World War II using postcards from European metropolis: Paris, London, Barcelona. His fantastic cityscapes of famous tourist spots incorporated silhouettes of socialist architecture taken from Russian periodicals. He also did a series inspired by Japanese horror films (Japanese Monster Movies) and a series on the life of Nigeria inhabitants, Black Market of Art (2009).

Jan Dziaczkowski from series Polish Art of the Twentieth Century

Jan Dziaczkowski from series Keine Grenze

Jan Dziaczkowski from series Japanese Monster Movies

Another fantastic collage artist is Terry Gilliam, famous for his work as a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe, and for several films he directed after the break-up of the group. Gilliam began his career as animator and cartoonist. In the beginning of his Monty Python period, he was credited as an animator and it was only later when he was considered a full member. His surreal cartoons provided an important link between the show’s sketches, and defined  Monty Python’s overall visual language and aesthetic. In the collages, he would create backgrounds and moving cutouts from antique photographs, mostly from the Victorian era, and mix them with his own work.

Terry Gilliam collage

Another artist who incorporates collage into her own work is a London-based painter Kirsten Glass whom I discovered many years ago. While studying foundation at the Camberwell College of Arts, I went to see her solo exhibition at One In the Other Gallery which really blew me away. Her large scale collages are a mixture of oil paintings with a range of materials and objects like rabbit skin glue, sand, mannequins and dripping paint. Those complex and striking compositions make one think of film noir, Gothic imagery, fairy tales, as well as pop art, and mass media. From what I have gathered looking at her recent work, she now limits herself to oil paints, though the subjects are still very similar.

Kirsten Glass - Snakeskin (love's a 2 way dream) 2006

Collage is an interesting form, for it lends itself to creative people who have no practical drawing or painting skills such as writers who either create collages alongside their work, or use collage in the actual process of writing.

I’ll begin with Wisława Szymborska – a Polish poet, essayist, translator and recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature. This incredibly talented poet with a great sense of humour created a relatively small body of work, explaining that the reason she hadn’t published more was because she had a bin at home. Described as a “Mozart of Poetry,” Szymborska identified three areas of interest: serious poetry, light-hearted poetry and collages. The thousands of collages she created in her lifetime, were postcard-size minimalist compositions, juxtaposing images with words which resulted in ultra-economical visual poems. She also used to send very humorous collage greeting cards, cutting out letters of words expressing what she was wishing the recipient. (In Poland, unlike the UK, it is considered rude to limit yourself to writing “Happy Birthday” or “Merry Christmas” on a card. Both verbal and written greetings are usually a list of things we are wishing the other person to receive, such as good health, love, joy, success etc. The closer we are to the person, the more detailed and personalized the wishes ought to be.) For those unfamiliar with Szymborska’s literary work, here’s one of her poems:

The Three Oddest Words
 
When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.
 
When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.
 
When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no non-being can hold.

Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

Wisława Szymborska collage ("Thinks too much")

Wisława Szymborska collage

Another writer and Nobel Prize winner (2009) who used collage in her work, albeit in a different way than Szymborska, was Herta Müller. This German-Romanian novelist, poet, and essayist used cut out letters to “write” the poems with and since the subject of her work, like in the case of Hannah Höch, was the political regime, her poems resembled ransom letters addressed at the communist government. According to an article in the Guardian, during Ceausescu’s totalitarian regime in Romania, Herta received death threats after she refused cooperate with the secret police.

Herta Müller

Jiri Kolář, a Czech poet, writer, painter and translator, was another poet who incorporated collage and visual art into his literary work which was very much influenced by the political situation in former Czechoslovakia. In Robert B Pynsent’s obituary in The Guardian (2002), we can read that even though Kolář never learned to draw or paint, he “claimed that his training as a carpenter enabled him to cut the straight lines he needed for his collages, or ‘picture-poems’, as in his 1969 montage Birds For Hans Sachs.” His collages were created by superimposing images over one another using grids, using some elements as windows into other elements, crumpling paper or by placing elements side-by-side to create a narrative. He first exhibited his collages in a theatre corridor in Prague in 1938 and during the war, he was the leader of an avant-garde art and literature society called Group 42. He later exhibited in London (1963), Canada, South America and Japan, and his retrospective exhibition took place at the Guggenheim in New York in 1975. In his poems he expressed disintegration and unhappiness of individuals; in his collages he manifested “both ironic wit (for example, his one-eyed self portrait of 1980), but also his horror at cultural and political disintegration – the best-known examples being his scenes of a distorted Prague.”

Jiri Kolář - Homage to stars of the silver screen

Jiri Kolář - Crumplage newsprint collage, 1971

The great thing about collage is not just the variation of its forms (photomontage, confrontage, froissage, rollage, etc.) but also of the tone and message. The same letters or images cut out from magazine can be put together in a way that makes us laugh, like in the case of Szymborska’s cards, or cry – like Herta Müller’s poems. And there are plenty of shades of grey in between.

Artwives: Eva Švankmajerová, Dorothea Tanning & Lee Krasner

As I’ve been working on the new paintings for last few weeks, I have been reminded of what it is like to be a stereotypical artist – the one whose mood swings, bursts of anger and despair are barely sufferable for anyone in the vicinity. Somehow painting is a much more intense type of work for me than drawing or writing, and I often feel emotionally and physically exhausted at the end of the day. I repeatedly say to myself though how lucky I am to be with a man who not only tolerates the spectrum of my emotional states but also genuinely supports me and offers invaluable feedback which helps if I get stuck. He himself makes music but that seems to be happening in a much saner and peaceful way than anything I do. And then I wonder – what about couples where both people are full-time artists?  A scary vision of piles of unwashed plates and escalating tantrums comes to mind. But those couples do exist and as a matter of fact, there have been quite a few famous duos.

Having recently watched for the second time a superb film by the Czech surrealist master, Jan Švankmajer, The Conspirators of Pleasure, I then went on to reading fragments of his journal from 1999. The following bit made me smile:

Eva [the director’s late wife] spends whole days painting. She is finishing a large series of alchemistical paintings Mutus liber. I consider it to be one of her pivotal works. She doesn’t go out, and her whole time is divided between creative euphoria which she experiences next to her ladder and falling into despair in which everything around her, including herself, is repudiated and condemned. In her “lighter” moments, she yearns for revenge.

I didn’t know much about Eva, apart from the fact that I always saw her name in the end credits. All I knew was that she was a set designer and often worked on her husband’s films. I decided to find out more, and also to look up some other wives of famous artists, whom I’ve labelled artwives.

Eva Švankmajerová (née Dvorakova) was a painter, ceramic and puppetry artist, and a writer, author of Baradla Cave which recently got translated into English. Having grown up in a socialist Czechoslovakia plastered with images of female tractor drivers and other symbols of communism, from early on Eva tackled the issue of gender stereotypes in her art. In Christopher Masters’ obituary in 2005, we can read that her “Emancipation Cycle parodied such paintings as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe by replacing the female characters with men;” later in the 1980s “she constructed a grotesque head from propaganda photographs of female labourers.” She was part of the Czech Surrealist group (one critic later said that she was one of the most widely known Surrealist painters of our time) and many of her paintings and sculptures were laden with eroticism and Freudian symbolism. She and Jan met in 1961 at the experimental Semafor Theatre, where they had their first joint exhibition. Three years later Eva became an art director in his first film, The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzewalde and Mr Edgar. In 1981 the couple bought a derelict château in Horní Stankov, Bohemia, which became home to various puppets from their films, and got turned into a Surrealist palace.

Eva’s input in Svankmajer’s films was invaluable. She was responsible for art direction and created animation and puppets for films like The Lesson of Faust (1994), Conspirators of Pleasure (1996) and Little Otik (2000). In an interview with Jason Wood for the Kamera, Svankmajer emphasized how much he relied on her work: “Eva provides an authentic touch; this was very much in evidence with the puppets she helped create in Conspirators of Pleasure.” She confessed that she wouldn’t want to work with any other director despite the fact that he “made her slog.”

I can very much relate to what she also said in that interview: “The only downside of our working together of course is that Jan gets to see things when I am still in the process of making them and not strictly speaking when they are ready for his inspection.” Working from home (currently in a living room) means that I cannot hide my paintings before they’re finished. It was initially quite a challenge for me, as I don’t usually present unfinished work to people but I’ve learned that engaging Colin in the process helps me evaluate things better. Painting is often like trying different fragrances. After a while your nose is no longer able to assess whether it likes a particular smell or not, and likewise, after a few hours of staring at a painting, I often cannot tell whether I’m pleased with the progress of whether I want to tear the canvas apart.

Another formidable artist-wife was Dorothea Tanning, whose striking paintings from her “prism” period were once called “the Sistine Chapel painted over by Francis Bacon” and whose sculptures were labelled ”some of the creepiest of the 20th century.” Tanning was a painter, sculptor, memoirist, novelist and poet, and – the fourth wife of Max Ernst whom she outlived (she died at the age of 101). The couple met in the late 1942 when Max Ernst was asked to find work for a forthcoming show called Thirty Women, curated by his wife Peggy Guggenheim at her Art of this Century gallery. Having seen Tanning’s unfinished and untitled self-portrait, he named it Birthday and asked her to include in the show, whose name got changed into Thirty One Women. Shortly afterwards, Ernst split up with Guggenheim and moved in with Tanning.

Despite her impressive work, in the eyes of the public Dorothea was always in the shadow of the husband. In The Telegraph obituary, we read that she was

understandably irritated that many interviewers seemed to be interested only in her relationship with Ernst. She once wrote (referring to herself in the third person): “Her existence as an artist was dramatically compromised by her existence as Max’s wife” — though as an afterthought she added: “love triumphs over all”. In a later poem she recalled how “Many years ago today/ I took a husband tenderly/ This simple human gentle act/ Seen as a hard decisive fact/ By all who dote on category/ Did stain my work indelibly/ I don’t know why that is/ For it has not stained his.”

After the death of Ernst in 1976, Dorothea moved from art to writing. She published two volumes of autobiography, two volumes of poetry and her first novel, Chasm, which got described by one critic as “the story of a little girl, a lion and a mysterious fetishistic stash of body parts.”

According to the same obituary, Tanning and Ernst didn’t talk about art, and instead “just had fun. Unlike some critics, Ernst always allowed her independence, never referring to her as ‘my wife’ but always as Dorothea Tanning.” It seems to me that throughout their marriage she managed to preserve her sovereignty and because the couple worked separately, her work didn’t get swept into his.

The third artwife I’m presenting here, Lee Krasner, is probably more well-known than both Švankmajerova and Tanning thanks to Ed Harris’ excellent biographical film Pollock (2000). I am personally not especially fond of either his or her paintings, but I find the couple to be an interesting example of “two artists under one roof”. During her marriage to Pollock, who died tragically in 1956, Krasner was more dedicated to her role as his manager, PR specialist, his “facilitator in the world,” as biographer Gail Levin puts it, than to her own work. Despite the fact that she was far more established in the avant-garde circle when she met Pollock, critics were giving him a lot more attention. Krasner was invisible as a female artist and often treated with ignorance or hostility. The couple’s close friend, Clement Greenberg, would have long intellectual debates with her as opposed to her diffident husband but he always wrote about Pollock’s work, completely ignoring Krasner. After her husband’s death, Krasner started creating large-scale paintings which later finally brought her widespread acclaim. Although closely connected to the Abstract Expressionism movement which Pollock became a champion of, she experimented with a number of different styles and scales, and developed her own style. In the New York Times obituary from 1984, we read that the curator Barbara who organized Krasner’s retrospective exhibition (1983) and the Krasner/Pollock: A Working Relationship exhibition (1981), praised Lee’s work massively: “She was a fabulous draftsman and had an incredible color sense. She did not follow any color rules, and she is one of the very few women who has really expressed violence and aggression in her work.” John Bernard Myers, author of the book Tracking the Marvelous, which includes a section about Krasner, said that “she had a brain like a laser.

So there we have, three different artistic relationships: An intense and successful collaboration in the chateau des Švankmajers with the spotlight shining on Jan; two independent artists having fun in the case of Tanning/Ernst, and a devoted painter wife nurturing a dysfunctional painter husband in the Krasner/Pollock marriage.

There are no rules of what might work and what might not. A relationship between two artists is most certainly a challenge, while a relationship between an artist and a civilian can work only if the latter is prepared for a roller-coaster of emotions and occasional stacks of dirty plates in the sink. Which I do my best to avoid.

Magic in the gutter. A few words on comics and sequential art.

Until very recently, I had been making a conscious effort to separate writing, one of my favourite and most natural ways of expressions, from other areas of my artistic practice. I somehow felt that it was interfering with visual art, my official career path, and that it didn’t have a place in it, besides the “hobby” drawer.

But I have always been writing. When I was about 11 years old, I wrote poems and songs. Not long after that, I started keeping my journal (which I still do) and writing “novels”. I would spend summer afternoons with an old typewriter (alas, a 60s beige one, not the gorgeous black Continental machine) and type away, drinking coffee with a drop of sherry nicked from my parent’s cabinet, which I thought was terribly decadent. A few years later, when I was in high school, I wrote plays, monodramas, and adaptations of works by ancient Roman poets like Lucretius, Virgil and Ovid (mostly to avoid taking grammar exams in ancient Latin.) I wrote for a small cabaret I formed, and “on commission” for school events accompanying national holidays. I did some writing during my academic degrees. I adapted Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye into a script, and wrote BA and MA thesis. But even then I was very much discouraged from writing, not because of its quality (my pieces were usually chosen as exemplary ones) but because it was apparently distracting me from focusing on creating physical narratives.

It took a long time to find a place where my writing and drawing could not merely coexist but work together. It was only when I started exploring the territory of comics and graphic novels, I realised that this is an art form that could help me re-embrace my abandoned passion.

Obviously, it’s not that I only discovered comics at the age of 28. I knew they existed when I was a child, but my parents adopted the attitude which Scott McCloud is arguing against on 215 pages of his masterpiece, Understanding Comics. Apart from a couple of issues of Alf, which was based on an animated sitcom, and Tytus, Romek i A’Tomek by Henryk Jerzy Chmielewski a.k.a. Papcio Chmiel, I didn’t read any comics because my parents thought that they were aimed at lazy children who couldn’t be bothered to read. I associated the term with cheaply printed images in saturated colours of superheroes making hideous sound effects in speech balloons. Scott McCloud’s experience was similar: “Comics were those bright colourful magazines filled with bad art, stupid stories and guys in tights.” I learned to look down on that.

It was the discovery of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman in my mid-twenties which made me realise that comic art can be beautiful, and now, having read both McCloud’s book as well as 99 Ways to Tell a Story by Matt Madden, I fell in love with the genre.

99 Ways to Tell a Story is a fascinating insight into the creative mind of a storyteller – the same “template” comic, as Madden calls it, is retold in many different forms and styles. Some are very humorous, some are quite abstract, and many are references to other artists (such as Duane Michals or Kenneth Koch), or genres (such as manga, anthropomorphic comics, or ligne claire.) One of my favourites is a duo Happy Couple and Unhappy Couple where Madden managed to completely change the tone and punch line of the comic with a few subtle lines on characters’ faces. Below is the “template” (on the left) and Things are queer (after Dunae Michals) (on the right.) The book astounds with the number of ways of, excuse the cliché, thinking (and inking) outside the box, and I will surely be coming back to it for inspiration.

Understanding Comics is visually and intellectually captivating analysis of the phenomenon of comics, and their unquestionable historic roots. The first chapter begins with what its title suggests, “setting the record straight.” One of the pre-millennium examples of comic art, which McCloud defines (with great difficulty, for definitions can be limiting) as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate consequence,” are the Egyptian hieroglyphics. A scene from 32 centuries ago, painted for the tomb of Menna, an Ancient Egyptian tribe, is nothing but a comic read zig-zag, starting at the bottom left. (Image borrowed from A History of Graphic Design blog.)

There are many more. The 230-foot long Bayeux Tapestry, detailing the Norman conquest of England in 1066 (below; more images here); The Tortures of Saint Erasmus from 1460 (“Popular tastes haven’t changed much in five centuries,” as McCloud quite rightly points out); or a pre-Columbian 36-foot long picture manuscript discovered by Cortés around 1519, which depicts the great military and political hero 8-deer “Tiger’s-Claw”. An example of a sophisticated picture story are the works of William Hogarth: Harlot’s Progress and Rake’s Progress from 1731.Both his paintings and engravings were designed to be viewed side-by-side, i.e. in sequence. “Hogarth’s works (…) proved so popular that new copyright laws were created this new form,” says McCloud.

The father of modern comics was a Swiss cartoonist Rodolphe Töpffer (1799-1846) who incorporated panel borders into his work, making the words and pictures interdependent for the first time in the 19th century Europe. A very interesting artist was Lynd Ward, American wood engraver and illustrator (1905-85), and author of six lengthy woodcut novels with one image per right-hand page. These dark woodcut novels, influenced by German Expressionism, weren’t recognised as comics, since the definition of the term was until very recently extremely narrow. (Image borrowed from Mike Culpepper’s blog.)

Same with Max Ernst – his collage novel, Une Semaine de bonté, is one of my most cherished books, though when I bought it, I didn’t think I was buying something from the same shelf as the 80’s Alf magazine. The book, published in 1934, is divided into seven sections named after the days of the week, beginning with Sunday, and it comprises 182 images created by cutting up and re-organizing illustrations from Victorian encyclopaedias and novels.

And what about my dear Edward Gorey and his books? They may not have speech balloons but they’re a wonderful example of a form where words and images go hand in hand to convey Gorey’s ideas which wouldn’t happen if it was either of the two. Below are the first couple of panels from The Object-Lesson.

Chapter Six of Understanding Comics analyses the historical process of separating words from pictures. Pictures predate the written word, an example of which are the prehistoric cave paintings, and the earliest words were stylized pictures. But with time, they started to lose resemblance of the visible world, and began to represent the sound. “The written word was becoming more specialized, more abstract, more elaborate – and less and less like pictures,” says McCloud, whilst pictures were becoming more representational and realistic. It is the early 19th century where the two forms became as apart as it could be possible (McCloud illustrates this using an ingenious iconic abstraction chart with 3 vertices: reality, language and picture plane.) But by the end of that century the impressionists, and later expressionists, futurists, Dadaists, etc. were moving towards abstraction and symbolic meanings, while at the same time, the written language was becoming a lot more direct. This led to the meeting of the two forms, and its exploration in the world of comics. Sadly, in the flux of changes in modern art, comics didn’t get a chance to establish themselves as a reputable form, in which text and images wouldn’t be judged separately.

“The art form of comics is many centuries old, but it’s perceived as a recent invention and suffers the curse of all new media,” with many comic creators viewing an opportunity to work in other media as a step-up, McCloud acknowledges. However, the book was first published in 1994, and a lot has been happening since then. Many people like me get hooked on the magic that happens in the gutter between the panels, which more than any other medium fires my imagination and engages me in the story. A comic artist is a very talented magician whose ability to conjure up wonders rests on very solid skills: drawing in proportions and perspective, excellent composition, understanding of colours, building up narratives, and engaging the reader.

Now, when I am experimenting with comics myself, and discovering how difficult and complex they are, I know that I will never again frown at Spiderman.