Saturday, August 12, 2017

NEW REFLECTIONS ON OLD COMBAT ART, part 3

For me, the work of Harry Townsend was among the most impressive art in the Smithsonian's exhibition of World War I art.  Townsend wrote in his war diary, "Only those near to it all can know what endurance and suffering that was."  He was thankful to be there in the battles of the Marne, and of St. Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne,  for the "impressions, spiritual and material, that alone can furnish the inspiration for a convincing pictorial record." 

Here is Townsend's powerful charcoal drawing, "The Hurry Call, Night of May 30, 1918."


It shows two red cross wagons racing to the front in response to an emergency call.  Townsend chose not to detail the mangled bodies they would encounter there, although he certainly saw plenty of bloodshed and wrote about it in his diary.  His approach is more symbolic.  His dread is more abstract.  Whatever his reasons for restraint, I find this to be a formidable drawing, both in form and content.

A number of commenters to my previous post praised the work of fine artist Otto Dix, who graphically showed the mangled bodies and distorted them:


It has been suggested that fine artists such as Dix responded to the horrors of war in a more genuine, meaningful way than illustrators.  He abandoned conventional western realism and clawed out drawings that seem like a howl of despair.  I find Dix's drawing powerful too, but a large part of that is due to shock value.

In one of Townsend's paintings, he captured the vertiginous experience of air combat-- something new in the history of war:



In his diary, Townsend described his first experience with flight:
Higher and higher we went.  What a cubist painting below, and cubist paintings would appeal, if only they could catch some of the beauty of color and design of all those lovely patches on the canvas beneath us.... It was beautiful beyond wild dreams.  Here and there one caught the earth way down there between the clouds, struck now by the sunlight and thrown into a wondrous high key of light, citrons and greens and lavender.  And here and there thrown into shadow by the clouds, one saw it in rich, low tones like music, close and melodious, purples and low greens and earth that were like bass to the high tenor of the sun.
As soon as he landed, he promptly vomited into the gunner's cockpit where he was sitting.

No matter what horrors he had witnessed, Townsend could still be astonished by the beauty of nature. And he gave (in my opinion better than Dix) "a convincing pictorial record" that conveyed both the "spiritual and the material" ramifications of air warfare.  In his drawing of air warfare, Dix again focuses on the mangled bodies left behind...


Powerful, yet I don't find Dix's treatment any more insightful or creative than a drawing by an EC horror comic artist, or a modern graphic novelist who had been nowhere near battle.  For example, compare this war picture by Dix...


...with this Jimbo comic book illustration by Gary Panter:


I guarantee you, Panter had no first hand experience with, or special insights into, war.  Yet, he finds it easy to simulate the horror that Dix experienced first hand.  In my opinion neither of them could do what Townsend did.

The argument seems to be that illustrators, harnessed to a commercial function or purpose (or as Kev Ferrara put it, "faith") are not as sensitive to the true horror of War.  But here we see a hand drawn and lettered poster by Townsend, who was sufficiently sensitive to the horror of starvation to try use art to do something about it:


I suppose a nihilist would argue that such "purposeful" art is oblivious to our existential predicament.  I'm not sure that distinction would impress the starving French peasants.

62 comments:

Grégory Cugnod said...

Hello David,

It is the first time I write to you, although I have been an avid reader of your posts over the years. I am most grateful for the amazing artists you've made me discover, from Cober to Briggs, and from Starr to Fawcett. And I could not agree more with you about Jeff Koons and co.

Having said that, I felt compelled to react to this series of posts, as I profoundly disagree with your view.

To me the problems with the artists you praise here is not that they are insensitive to the horrors of war. The problem is that in pictures such as the Townsend painting you show, the primary goal is to be beautiful, a most unsettling goal considering the topic.

In Otto Dix's works, you get the fear, the utter fear. The comparison you make with Gary Panter is unfair, considering the latter may perfectly have been inspired by Otto Dix or other WWI artists. But back then, it was utterly NEW, like that way of waging war was.

That war was new, yet Townsend makes it look like business as usual... I think his old mindset could not grasp the change. He makes it look eerie.

Best regards,
Keep challenging us !

chris bennett said...

Thanks for these David. I agree with you about preferring Townsend to Dix. My only disagreement is with the idea that Dix's work should be considered as in any way 'powerful' - even that it should be considered at all. His work is nothing but trite platitudes about disgust flagged up by cartooning ugliness or dashing out basic illustrations of a distressing situation which bring no more emotional maturity to bear than the average 12 year old schoolboy - which is why many who have never witnessed warfare first hand are able to do exactly the same thing, and in many, many cases, far better.

The Townsend ambulance drawing and the barrage balloon painting embody, among many other things, redemption; the same reason Gaudier Brzeska carved a woman out of an enemy rifle butt he had picked up from the battlefield. And that's something that is not obvious, because, thank god, I've never had to experience what it means to face the kind of things these men and women had to endure.

Robert Cook said...

"Powerful, yet I don't find Dix's treatment any more insightful or creative than a drawing by an EC horror comic artist, or a modern graphic novelist who had been nowhere near battle. For example, compare this war picture by Dix...."

Perhaps this is because the use of distorted drawing in subsequent commercial art and cartooning--an approach taken from the examples of fine artists such as Dix or Grosz--has diluted the impact and meaning such distortions conveyed in their original context. The artistic revolutions of one age become common and cliched through wider use and over familiarity. (No one today can hear Louis Armstrong or Jimi Hendrix in the way each musician's original listeners did, as they influenced all who came after them.)

As for the Townsend aerial painting, it is a lovely aesthetic object, but it doesn't in the least communicate the devastating impact on human beings of the actions he depicts. Dix keeps the consequences to human beings a focus of his drawing. The Townsend painting could be the cover of a pulp magazine about flying commandos.

Robert Cosgrove said...

This seems like an appropriate place to mention that the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut will be mounting an exhibition this September, Harry Everett Townsend: Illustrations of a World War I Artist.

Anonymous said...

A Dunn ~ https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/1021/8371/products/F5A_317.jpg

A Dorne ~ https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/1021/8371/products/F6A_538.jpg

An Aylward & more ~ http://triptych.brynmawr.edu/cdm/search/searchterm/Peaceways

~ Peace Out

Laurence John said...

David, you must have read somewhere that those wagons are ‘racing’ because they don’t look it. they look like they’re crawling along. i don’t sense any ‘dread’ in the picture either. the low kew misty atmposphere, elegent trees and soft lights in the distance resemble nothing less than late 19th - early 20th century pictorialism.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pictorialism#/media/File:Stieglitz-SpringShowers.jpg

Robert Cook said...

The Townsend poster about starving people lacks any real emotional impact. I can't and don't say that only a distorted drawing a la Dix or Grosz could sufficiently communicate the anguish of a starving populace, but Townsend, at least, fails to do so in this picture.

kev ferrara said...

As for the Townsend aerial painting, it is a lovely aesthetic object, but it doesn't in the least communicate the devastating impact on human beings of the actions he depicts.

Do you have Dix for brains? You seem unable to grasp that there is far more to the war experience than just devastation and horror. Which means war art can do all sorts of different stuff, some of it, god forbid, subtle.

David Apatoff said...

Grégory Cugnod -- Welcome and thanks for writing. People who "profoundly disagree" with my view are always welcome here. It's the only way I learn anything in this process.

You say, "in pictures such as the Townsend painting you show, the primary goal is to be beautiful, a most unsettling goal considering the topic." I understand your point, although I think the term "beautiful" is so immense and multi-faceted it might make more sense to use a term such as "pretty." (There can be terrible "beauty," beauty that is poignant or jagged or sad, and I don't think that's what you're talking about.) I would agree that the Townsend painting has an air of "prettiness" about it-- those pastel colors and plump shapes have a surprising sweetness to them, which I agree is incongruous for a combat painting. That's one reason I included the passage from Townsend's diary. He was clearly besotted by his first experience in an airplane, being out of the mud and the stink and the rotting carcasses and looking down at the world from a totally new perspective (Flight was still new and those vast blue skies were still unsullied). He rhapsodized that the earth was still capable of loveliness-- a perspective that had been lost to him in the trenches. Upon reflection, I still think that's a worthy subject for "combat" art.

In addition, Townsend uses his technical skill-- a skill that Dix apparently lacked-- to show the vertiginous feel of aerial combat. The perspective on that immense dirigible, the dizzying height above the ground below, the swooping angle of the British plane, the tailspin of that flaming German plane-- that was all a revelation to the people on the ground who could not have imagined flying only a few years before. You may dismiss the challenge of conveying this sensory experience as mere "reportorial," but then I don't know how you distinguish it from J.M.W. Turner's efforts to convey what it was like to be on a ship in a storm.

I agree with you (and several others here) that "In Otto Dix's works, you get the fear, the utter fear." That may be the key distinction; Dix has lost control; he doesn't seem to plan his drawings well, to work out a composition, he doesn't attempt to apply classical methods of design or to adhere to perspective or anatomy-- he seems instead to be saying that such formalistic constraints are a trivial distraction when confronted with the horror of World War I.

I agree that sometimes that can be true. I tend to be suspicious because today we seem to be living in an era where artists believe that such formalistic constraints are a trivial distraction when confronted with the horror of what happened in the high school cafeteria today, or the trauma of their adolescence. So tell me: Does Dix abandon all formalistic constraints because the horror is so great or because his temperament is so weak? Does Townsend adhere to those formalistic constraints because "his old mindset could not grasp the change" or because he was tougher and more fearless and more driven by a purpose or a faith that Dix did not have? The answer to these questions is not obvious to me.

To approach this issue from another perspective, many artists who have attempted to make erotic art have tried to make it an utterly abandoned way, to cast off the shackles of civilization and tap into raw passion. Sometimes this means flinging paint in a frenzy, or having sex rolling around in paint on canvas, etc. But when the heat passes, the artistic record left behind is invariably a big mess that means nothing to anyone. The artists who create better erotic art-- more stirring, passionate and inspiring-- are the ones who remain once-removed from the immediate experience, who think about what they are doing and respect the kinds of constraints that Townsend respected in his war pictures.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

It seems to me a primary difference between the 2 is actually subject matter. Townsend's subject was the war, Dix' subject was fear.

I agree it's important to put yourself in the frame of mind of the audience back then. Both these subjects were new for them. Townsend showed them what this war looked like, Dix what it felt like (to him).

We now all know what it looked like, so those pictures lose some of their impact, while the "expressionist" ones that only aim for the gut don't.

I haven't gone through all the exhibit's works on the website, but I eoulf like to see a work that does both. It seems war photography has been so important because it is an ideal medium to combine both. A picture may be well composed but you're still seeing the pain and horror and sorrow in the eyes of actual, individual human beings.

Robert Cook said...

"You seem unable to grasp that there is far more to the war experience than just devastation and horror. Which means war art can do all sorts of different stuff, some of it, god forbid, subtle."

Fine, but Townsend fails in his depiction of aerial combat to replace the sense of devastation and horror with any other worthwhile feeling. It's a pretty picture, another professional illustration. Ho hum. I get a greater sense of feeling, of the ineffable--along with skilled draughtsmanship--from any painting by Andrew Wyeth of his surroundings in Maine. Townsend's painting of a dramatic moment--which results in a human's death--is skilled, but trivial.

chris bennett said...

The Townsend dogfight picture:
We hover above the barrage balloon as if dreaming about surfing a soft green dolphin. A dolphin that flies, a gas whale, a god drifting from Olympus, the aerialist high above the world. Above our cultivated fields, the beautiful patchwork quilt sown unconsciously by our concerns far below. And then the rip of belching smoke, The clotted bruise-coloured trail past the emerald/blue pillow in the sky, the unseen tears as the pilot faces head-on his final slumber; the blackness below the beauty of the world.
All this from looking at Townsend's 'trivial' little picture.

Robert Cook said...

Chris,

This is what you draw from Townsend's picture, and your appreciation of it and reaction to it is valid...for you. It does nothing for me. I get much greater pleasure from the (self?) portrait that serves as your icon. (This is not to damn with faint praise...I do admire and take pleasure from your icon painting, as well as the other paintings at your site...which I've just now looked at for the first time. I see you studied under Euan Euglow. His paintings I adore!)

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- Thanks for introducing me to Gaudier Brzeska. An interesting character to say the least.

As for Dix: just as I try to gain what I can from art brut, or the drawings of children-- their utter lack of guile, their intense sincerity-- I look for what I can gain from Dix. I agree with those here who say that Dix's art was a screech of pain, something so overwhelming he could not digest it or refine it, and something powerful enough that he was able to throw the previous 200 years of art history in the trash, without looking back. That makes him historically interesting , and perhaps an important witness to what transpired back then. To be the first person to do such work, like the first abstract expressionists, took guts. (Robert Motherwell wrote: "Nothing as drastic as abstract art could have come into existence save as the consequence of a most profound, relentless, unquenchable need. The need is for felt experience -- intense, immediate direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic.") The problems arise when the next person in line starts to do it. You find that it's really pretty easy to fake-- not just technically, but in terms of the feelings and spirit too. You don't have to have Motherwell's "profound, relentless, unquenchable need" in order to paint a pretty creditable abstract expressionist painting, and you don't have to feel Dix's fear or pain in order to draw like he does. Gary Panter or a hundred horror comic book artists of the 1950s could draw a creditable Dix using, as you say, "trite platitudes about disgust flagged up by cartooning ugliness or dashing out basic illustrations of a distressing situation." So where does that leave Dix's art object itself? Historically important but aesthetically fungible?

Robert Cook wrote: "Perhaps this is because the use of distorted drawing in subsequent commercial art and cartooning--an approach taken from the examples of fine artists such as Dix or Grosz--has diluted the impact and meaning such distortions conveyed in their original context. The artistic revolutions of one age become common and cliched through wider use...."

I don't disagree with your position (as I suggested in my response to Chris Bennett, above). But where does that take us with Dix? If we agree that Panter or a hundred other comic artists could imitate Dix's approach, then we might still give Dix credit for being an originator and for paying a heavier emotional price for that style than the imitators who came along and did it just because it looked cool. My question for you becomes: do we value Dix's art for the way it looks, or as an historical artifact? It can't be the physical drawing, because anyone with modest technical skill can mimic what Dix did. If we walked into a room and saw a Dix commingled with a dozen Panters, we could not tell who did what, yet you would value the Dix more than the Panters. Is that because we are celebrating the originator of the concept? Or because we value that Dix suffered for his art, the way people value Van Gogh paintings because Van Gogh suffered? If that's the case, then isn't the value in the certificate of authenticity, more than the image?

Robert Cosgrove-- Thanks very much! I had no idea. It looks like Townsend is having his day. Let's hope we don't have to wait another 100 years before these works see daylight again.

Robert Cook said...

"My question for you becomes: do we value Dix's art for the way it looks, or as an historical artifact? It can't be the physical drawing, because anyone with modest technical skill can mimic what Dix did. If we walked into a room and saw a Dix commingled with a dozen Panters, we could not tell who did what, yet you would value the Dix more than the Panters."

One admires the originators for the quality of their work. One can mimic the work of originators, well or badly, but one cannot replicate their feel or sensibility. Despite the armadas of guitarists who have followed Hendrix and who have much greater technical facility than he, including a few who slavishly copy him, (such as the dreary Robin Trower),Hendrix still provides more pleasure to me than the many succeeding guitar virtuosos. Hendrix's playing was not just a stylistic trick, and was not about technique, but was an expression of who he was, just as Lester Young's playing or Thelonious Monk's playing expressed who they were. One values the originators for expressing who they are. I still enjoy Hendrix for his playing, and not because he was an originator. One values the imitators only to the extent they can diverge from and distinguish themselves from those who inspired them. I like more of Panter's work than I do of Dix's, but there is much of Panter's work that leaves me cold. (I can certainly tell Panter apart from Dix, btw.) I'm not really such a huge admirer of Dix, overall; it is particularly his work dealing with the war that I admire. The rest of his oeuvre, not so much. I admire and enjoy George Grosz much more, and no one he has inspired--I'm thinking of Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scarfe--has surpassed or even matched him.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- Thanks, I'm alway happy to see fresh picture (although I'm not too impressed with that Dorne.)

Laurence John-- I used the word "racing" because of Townsend's caption for the picture, which appears on the Smithsonian's web site: "two Army ambulances responding to a 'hurry call' or emergency summons on the night of May 30, 1918, in the Toul Sector of France. " That, combined with what looks to me like dust kicked up behind the wheels, and what I know about Hemingway's experiences as an ambulance driver during the war, made me think these vehicles were moving along at a pretty good clip, or as fast the rutted, cratered, rural roads would permit. I guess discussions like this are why cartoonists draw "race lines" behind speeding cars.

As for the "soft lights in the distance," given the subject matter of the picture I suspect that glow is from battle-- search lights, fires or explosions. I don't think they're from tiki lanterns on a patio for a cocktail reception. But again, viewers can always have these discussions any time an artist chooses to leave meanings open ended and implicit. When Dix draws a bullet hole in someone's head with their face rotting off, we all know that person is dead. But if we keep art on a higher, more oblique level, the Townsend drawing could suggest Orpheus driving into hell to try to bring Eurydice back from the dead.

Robert Cook-- Your comment about the poster for starving French peasants reminded me of the dispute over Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" posters. The intellectuals at the Department of Defense (such as Archibald MacLeish) rejected Rockwell's corny posters because they thought work by fine artists such as Marc Chagall and Stuart Davis would have more emotional impact. The DoD posters were a huge flop and the Rockwell posters, printed privately through the Post, were the most effective fundraising tool of the war. (http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2017/04/05/culture/art/art-post-rockwell-goes-war.html)

chris bennett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chris bennett said...

Robert:
The poetics I drew from the Townsend dogfight picture were not induced by subjective response but by the sensual graphics objectively written into the image.
To take them one at a time:

"We hover above the barrage balloon as if dreaming about surfing a soft green dolphin."
The aquarium-like palette quite literally embodies the sense of floating within water and the viewpoint above the lozenge form of the barrage balloon naturally suggests a metaphor for, say, riding a dolphin. We are not on a skate board here or sitting abreast the tank of a steam train, or standing on a table for example.

"A dolphin that flies, a gas whale, a god drifting from Olympus, the aerialist high above the world. Above our cultivated fields, the beautiful patchwork quilt sown unconsciously by our concerns far below."
The particulars of the painting and its airy facture tells us unequivocally that we are at altitude and drifting at the speed of a swaying balloon - and that's very, very like the standard dream of flying common to all humans; the sense of uneasy, fragile, precarious god-like detachment looking down on the ant heap below.

"And then the rip of belching smoke, The clotted bruise-coloured trail past the emerald/blue pillow in the sky, the unseen tears as the pilot faces head-on his final slumber; the blackness below the beauty of the world."
The grey/black of that smoke is chromatically, tonally and graphically 'out of tune' with the oceanic breadth of forms across the picture and its high-key aquarium palette. It reads almost as if the picture has been scratched downwards to reveal its dark monochrome ground.

All to say this is authored into the picture as physical facts and is precisely why my response was what it was.

Thank you BTW for taking the trouble to look at my website and the kind words about my self-portrait. I'm afraid I haven't updated my website for a loooooong time - my Facebook page does most of that work these days... :)

Tom said...

The Townsend looks like Harding's drawing of the tanks in the pervious post. Except Townsend's picture feels more poetic, (I really don't feel dread) less ruff and tumble. Both subjects are backlit, in similar ways. so you see the subjects dramatic silhouettes.

Wow, Laurence those images are eerily similar to the the Townsend drawing.

In the Aylward's drawing in your second post , it's not the reporting aspect of the picture that strikes me, or it's quality of illustrating events of WW 1, but it's the value and color of the distance hills against the white stone buildings, which reminds me of TVG rides through central France, or even the travel posters of the 1920's and 30's. As well as the wonderful sense of proportion, the scale of the furniture in the ruble and the curve of the road as it heads out of town to the distant hills, the way the wagon becomes and intersection and connects the two sides of the street and the green of the landscape.


I agree with Robert, Laurence and Gregory, it seems Dix reflects Yeat's, "change, change utterly..." the disillusion people must have felt in the face of such self inflicted destruction. Let alone all that was to follow WWI. As Jacques Lusseryren wrote, "By the end of a year in Buchenwald I was convinced that life was not at all as I had been taught to believe it, neither life nor society."

Both Townsend and Dix's art express and exist for different reasons. Artistically Townsend and the others are infinity better artists. As you wrote, "Townsend could still be astonished by the beauty of nature," like Monet painting his dying wife, who became inthralled with the beauty of color arrangement before his eyes and not his personal lost (at least for a little while). Townsend's pictures are more pleasing to look at, which tends to take the affects of the war out of them. I find myself enjoying their visual appeal and not thinking about the horrors of war. Maybe someone like Kathe Kollwitz or Goya would be a better contrast as their artistic skill is so much stronger then Dix's. But even in their work I find myself looking past the depressing subject matter to the beautiful forms and shapes they have created.

But why is the comparison needed? It is really not that much about the content is it? As meaning and content can change through time. Meret Oppenhiem's fur cup seems kinda of funny and off putting now, and could be interpreted in many different ways, but it certainly doesn't feel nihilistic to me. It seems to me your much more interested in how the work was done, it's artistic skill so to speak or it's "treatment," as you wrote. Is it modernity's war on skill at the heart of the matter?








Robert Cook said...

Chris,

I'm afraid I lack the aesthetic sensibility that allows you to see and describe the Townsend picture in such terms, a lack that prevents me even to be able to appreciate your descriptive explanation. I see the Townsend painting as lackluster and dull. I don't like the paint handling, and it all looks a bit like cotton candy to me. (I can't really read or appreciate most poetry, either.)

Tom, I'm glad you mentioned Kollwitz, who had slipped my mind. Her draughtsmanship is strong, and her sensibility more to my liking.

Anonymous said...

Dix's war was a vastly more horrifying experience than what was Townsend's.
While Townsend was sketching, Dix was fighting and being wounded. Dix would
do these pieces in the years after the war, based on his nightmares. They
weren't for the war department. Dix was capable of realism and polish, you
can see many later examples. That these pieces resemble comic panels to some
now, takes nothing away from their impact and importance in their time. They
would have shocked doubly, in their subject and their modern approach. This
was no doubt a deliberate decision and not based on a supposed lack of ability
or a weakness in temperament.
Dix's art was challenging, and the creation of such had great personal
consequences that Townsend had no experience with. Remember, Dix would pay a
great price for his artistic choices, being labelled degenerate and being
forbidden to paint for many years by the Nazis.

Laurence John said...

David: "But if we keep art on a higher, more oblique level, the Townsend drawing could suggest Orpheus driving into hell to try to bring Eurydice back from the dead”

that would be ‘imposing a narrative’ which is what you’re doing with that image already, except without the Orpheus bit: if you didn’t already know the background story (or recognise the cross on the side of the truck) you’d have very little sense of what was going on dramatically in that image… a misty nightime picture of some vague shapes, not disimilar to a Whistler nocturne or a 1900 pictorialism photo of some trees in the twilight by the Seine.

the problem, of course, is that it's impossible not to read things into an image when you recognise elements within it such as ‘soldier’ ‘smoke’ or ‘gun’. this is why Kev’s oft repeated mantra that art should communicate by it’s plastic organisation only and that the referents aren’t important is so problematic. while in theory it sounds correct, it’s virtually impossible not to bring our own personal interest to an image when we recognise the things within it and what they refer to.

RE Dix: sure he can be shrill, hysterical and ugly, but so were his musical equivalents Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. i guess you had to be there, in 1918 to understand the climate. Dix wasn’t exactly a one off. remember this was a war in which men pissed their pants in terror in a trench, saw their best friend’s brains in the mud, or came home with post-traumatic stress disorder, or with half of their face missing. wouldn’t it be odd if at least some of the visual art (and music) of that time wasn’t like shattering glass ?

Li-An said...

Sorry, I did not read everything. Just to give a link to Bofa’s work. He was wounded in 1915 and made a lot of drawings on WWI. His point of view is bitter humour and so are his illustrations - very far from Dix or Harding https://magalerieaparis.wordpress.com/2013/10/09/gus-bofa-baionnette/

Aleš said...

There is an underground comic called Stripburger (and thematic versions like Warburger) in my country, that publishes this kind of crap all the time:

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8

I have met some of the authors and not only they can't draw, they also firmly believe there is no need for them to get acquainted with expressive options that traditional drawing provides. Because they never gained anatomical and gestural knowledge their figures never express an experience of human state of mind. Their figures feel like information graphics from toilet doors wrapped in aggressive, awkward scribbles, their faces have an emotional range of a sad/angry smiley type face distorted with graphical crudeness. Similarly I don't experience fear when I look at Dix war drawings because there is no such content sensually present underneath the brutal superficial graphical style. Look at the drama of gestures in Kollwitz' Mother and Child, the strength of her hug and lifelesness of a heavy dangling head. Sense the desperation and ultimate loss. Now that's scary. Dix's stuff on the other hand shows the unpleasant appearance of something distorted and chaotic, but it doesn't evoke any depth of human sensuality and consequently does not teach me anything.

Aleš said...

I like Townsend's paintings. The poisonous colour scheme, a massive balloon menacingly hovering high above the ground while airplanes around it are dropping like flies, it provides a better sensual perception of an event than Dix's child like scribblings of figures bending under an airplane glued to the ceiling. Chris Bennett's explanations are great. The emergency wagon picture, while there might be pictorialistic conventions present, there is also a sense of something dangerous and critical in the air, there is something powerful about the truck in the night driving through a mass of crippled soldiers towards a fire like light behind the smoke.
When some of you say "Townsend showed them what this war looked like, Dix what it felt like" (Benjamin De Schrijver) I think It's the other way around - Townsend imbued the sensual information underneath the traditional style which bothers you, while Dix just showed what chaos looks like in a form of a graphical style.

Tom said...


Ales wrote and I think it's David's point also,

"...I don't experience fear when I look at Dix war drawings because there is no such content sensually present underneath the brutal superficial graphical style."

I don't think the drawings are about fear and horror or chaos, I think they are more about the insanity of it all. IMHO

kev ferrara said...

Townsend fails in his depiction of aerial combat to replace the sense of devastation and horror with any other worthwhile feeling.

Guess what? You're no arbiter of "worthwhile feeling." (Now you know.)

You seem to be instead actually quite insensitive to a whole swath of moods and feelings that others might find quite effective, enriching and worthwhile. (Including those found in the Townsend.)

Secondly, Townsend need not "replace" what you presuppose all war pictures should express with his own idea. He merely needs to take his own ideas to fruition, ignoring absurd dogmatists like you. (Luckily, you are in charge of nobody's art but your own.)

kev ferrara said...

it's impossible not to read things into an image when you recognise elements within it such as ‘soldier’ ‘smoke’ or ‘gun’. this is why Kev’s oft repeated mantra that art should communicate by it’s plastic organisation only and that the referents aren’t important is so problematic. while in theory it sounds correct, it’s virtually impossible not to bring our own personal interest to an image when we recognise the things within it and what they refer to.

Read Ales' post of 8/15/2017 9:16 AM. He takes a great stab at being sensitive to what is being communicated purely sensually in the two Townsend's pieces. (Chris Bennett's posts are also making sensitive strides at expressing the pictorial feelings Townsend is capturing. However I would argue against how Chris is articulating them as specific metaphors. Also the effects themselves, written in the plastic language of art, as they join to form effect complexes to express the ideas of the picture are severely diminished when converted into words. If somebody can't feel what a picture is doing, then there's no use telling them.)

Of course, I must agree, there are other stages of a viewing experience, where recognition leads to reference leads to memory, etc. But in good art, the first strike is always aesthetic. And the aesthetic moment is full of meaning. And, I believe, the longer a work of art can sustain its aesthetic moment the more every facet of it that is essential to understand it has already been communicated. As T.S. Eliot put it, "Poetry Communicates Before it is Understood."



Benjamin De Schrijver said...

"When some of you say "Townsend showed them what this war looked like, Dix what it felt like" (Benjamin De Schrijver) I think It's the other way around - Townsend imbued the sensual information underneath the traditional style which bothers you, while Dix just showed what chaos looks like in a form of a graphical style."

I agree with this so I think our differences are just semantic. Maybe I can rephrase... Townsend creates a sensual experience of being in the war, while Dix tries to give plastic shape to the inner turmoil and nightmares the war caused in him. Townsend is dealing with something that to a certain extent is an objective reality so his work is more pictorial. Dix is dealing with his mind which bends and stretches and skews reality so he chose to present it that way.

Note I'm not arguing for the benefit of either artist. I think clearly Townsend is more skilled. I just believe the most important difference between the two artists is their subject matter or what they're trying to achieve.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Scratch "the most important difference" and change that to "an important difference"

Robert Cook said...

"Guess what? You're no arbiter of 'worthwhile feeling.'"

Guess what? I'm the arbiter of what passes for worthwhile feeling to me. Your insistence on the excellence of Townsend's painting (and of my philistinism) expresses your opinion, which is valid for you, but does not convince me any more than the painting itself that there's anything in it beyond skilled professionalism.

kev ferrara said...

Your insistence on the excellence of Townsend's painting

My insistence is on the validity of the aesthetic ideas effectively expressed through these works; that the aesthetic ideas, though sometimes subtle, even beautiful, are in fact easily "worthwhile." Such seems so obvious, I have trouble conceding it to be mere opinion.

None of these pictures are refined in the way these artists' studio pictures would normally be. They are quickly executed. Yet, what I find so excellent, is just how strong they are as images given the trying circumstances under which they were executed. The Townsend dirigible picture is clearly dashed off, resulting in some of the drawing being a bit crude. But I've never seen another image like it, with its particular aesthetic ideas expressing that particular experience. So I love it, even with its obvious faults. I feel what he's getting at immediately when I look at the piece. I feel the oceanic grandeur and heavenly float of that moment and find the way he captured it glorious, even in its modest state of finish.

your opinion, which is valid for you, but does not convince me any more than the painting itself that there's anything in it beyond skilled professionalism.

I don't argue over opinions. I have no problem with you not liking these works. One of the fascinating new things for me with aesthetics as a philosophy is the recognition that people have different levels of sensitivity to aesthetic stimuli and so prefer different zones on the blatancy-to-subtlety scale. The problem with arguing with someone who prefers blatancy is that, often, not only can't they experience subtle aesthetic force, but they often can't imagine such exists at all, because they can't actually experience it. I can't fault you for being insensitive. And I certainly understand being skeptical about stuff you can't experience. But what I can fault you for, at this point, is your failure to imagine the possibility that such might be the case.

The point, bluntly put, would be that "just because you, dear sir, can't see it, that doesn't mean it isn't there." So your declaration that "no worthwhile feeling" is present is actually a very arrogant and annoying assumption on your part that you have sufficient sensitivity, let alone taste, to make such declarations. But you don't. You are no "Master Sommelier" of art. If you can't detect the espers and overtones, you simply ain't got the nose for the job. And you should come to accept that.

Robert Cook said...

"The problem with arguing with someone who prefers blatancy is that, often, not only can't they experience subtle aesthetic force, but they often can't imagine such exists at all, because they can't actually experience it. I can't fault you for being insensitive."

Hahaha! How big of you. Thank you for your forbearance.

"And I certainly understand being skeptical about stuff you can't experience. But what I can fault you for, at this point, is your failure to imagine the possibility that such might be the case."

The painting doesn't appeal to me. It's professionally competent. That it doesn't impress me doesn't indicate any lack of imagination in me, only that that I do not share your opinion. Despite your claim that you do not argue over opinion, this is exactly what you are doing, nothing more.

"The point, bluntly put, would be that 'just because you, dear sir, can't see it, that doesn't mean it isn't there.' So your declaration that 'no worthwhile feeling' is present is actually a very arrogant and annoying assumption on your part that you have sufficient sensitivity, let alone taste, to make such declarations. But you don't. You are no 'Master Sommelier' of art. If you can't detect the espers and overtones, you simply ain't got the nose for the job. And you should come to accept that."

Apparently, you do see yourself as a "Master Sommelier" of art. That's fine, if it pleases you. I never claimed anything other than my own dislike of the painting, and I don't presume to be the grand arbiter or "Master Sommelier" of what is good or bad art. (Didn't you learn in freshman comp class that one doesn't need to--and shouldn't--say I think..." or "In my opinion... when making subjective statements? It's self-evident that such statements are one's opinion.) But just because you see "espers and overtones" in the painting that I don't doesn't mean that I'm missing what's there. It could well be you're seeing something there that isn't. Or, more accurately, that you and I have different tastes in art. I don't disregard the painting because it is an illustration--as opposed to fine art--I like illustration. I disregard it because it is not a memorably superior illustration. (Should I add..."in my opinion"?)

David Apatoff said...


Kev Ferrara wrote: "there is far more to the war experience than just devastation and horror. Which means war art can do all sorts of different stuff."

Yes, and even artists for whom "devastation and horror" is the chosen subject usually benefit from adding "different stuff" to the mix. Often the most effective way to make a powerful statement is by using artistic tools such as "contrast" or "proportion" to create a scale for the devastation and horror, rather than trying to squeeze the maximum amount of carnage into every inch of a picture. Painters make colors look darker by contrasting them against light colors, rather than surrounding them with every other dark color they can find. (Nothing but dark colors tend to end up looking like a muddy mess). Similarly, an artist who wants to convey devastation and horror by painting nothing but a field of devastation and horror, without perimeter or boundary of "different stuff," without prioritization or sequence-- in short with nothing to convey the proportion of the devastation and horror-- has made their problem harder. Even an uninterrupted diet of rotting flesh and maggots loses its shock value after a while. The fact that Townsend can find exultation in flight, in being freed from the mud of the trenches and seeing the earth in a new light doesn't mean that he is less sensitive or perceptive.

Chris Bennett and Robert Cook-- I can't help but feel that your two different reactions to the same picture are at least partially attributable to the amount of good will you are willing to bring to the picture. I'm not suggesting that viewers should do the heavy lifting for an artist, filling in important blanks and compensating for his or her omissions with our own imaginations in an effort to make something from nothing. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Chris Bennett has gone pretty far projecting himself into the scene, meditating on what the artist has given us and personalizing the experience to come up with a poetic reaction. Robert Cook, on the other hand, has found nothing in the picture to make it worth his while to exert that kind of effort, and is therefore unmoved. He is willing to analyze the surface qualities of the picture, and analogize it to a flying commandos pulp cover (G8 and his battle aces, perhaps?) just as Laurence John analogizes the charcoal drawing to a misty Stieglitz image with very different content.

I don't disagree with either of these visual analogies-- as a comparison of forms, they seem quite accurate-- and viewers are not under any obligation to give an artist the benefit of the doubt (although it seems customary to invest a little more, or linger a little longer, when an artist has done something heroic, such as suffer or put himself or herself in harm's way for the sake of the picture.) I know that Howard Pyle challenged his illustrious students (Dunn, Aylward, Townsend) to project themselves into their picture and become personally emotionally involved, with the thought that it would inspire some reciprocity of commitment from the viewer. I think that the decision to become emotionally invested in a picture can transform the experience (even if it's nothing more than taking the extra time to read the description of the Townsend ambulance scene and learn that the ambulance is moving fast because it is responding to a night time emergency call, or to imbue it with what you've read independently from Hemingway's exploits as an ambulance driver in World War I .) I've seen surprisingly little written about this phenomenon, but I do think it can play a significant role in our appreciation of a picture.

kev ferrara said...

That it doesn't impress me doesn't indicate any lack of imagination in me

How would you know?

I never claimed anything other than my own dislike of the painting

You stated that the picture had "no worthwhile feeling" that can be sensed. That is a truth claim which is, plain and simple, factually inaccurate. That you believe that to be true, actually shows that you are a faulty judge of such things; that you actually have some kind of deficiency of sensibility.

Aleš said...

Benjamin De Schrijver "Note I'm not arguing for the benefit of either artist. I think clearly Townsend is more skilled. I just believe the most important difference between the two artists is their subject matter or what they're trying to achieve."

Right, but don't you value the informations that you receive? "Trying to achieve" can have an enormous qualitative span because the goal depends on artist's intellectual, sensual, physical capabilities. You acknowledge Townsend's skill which I think already shows that he approached greater goals. Paul Ekman wrote that human face is capable of ten thousand expressions, how do you express such subtlety on a canvas without great skill? You acknowledged that Townsend managed to achieve "a sensual experience of being in the war", but I fear that your previous statement -> "We now all know what it [war] looked like, so those pictures lose some of their impact" shows that you don't perceive sensual experience in an aesthetic sense that Kev talks about. I don't think our knowledge of airplanes diminishes the impact of the artistic sensual communication, I mean after all I'm familiar with the subject matter of most paintings that I enjoy. So are you granting Townsend just an ability to draw recognizable objects (technological novelties) which "lose some of their impact" after we get to know them? (you wrote that to "audience back then" "these subjects were new")

You consider Dix to be less skilled which I think makes him less capable to formulate subtle expressions (that doesn't mean just a light trace of smile on a perplexed face, but also the authenticity of an obvious one like pure sadness). Look at Dix's Wounded soldier picture that David first posted, there is no strength in the grip of his clutching arm that would accentuate the desperation and pain of a man, and the face is just awkward, like the ones comic artists in Stripburger use when they draw zombies, staring eyes and sad mouth glued to a face without muscular tensions. I know, "Dix is dealing with his mind which bends and stretches and skews reality" so it's not fair of me to expect sensual truths that form the world I live in. How am I supposed to find Dix meaningful then? He maybe achieved his goal of presenting nightmares as skilless skews of reality, but what exactly contains the artistic value of his drawings then? To be honest, my nightmares while illogical always contained the same real-life sensual truths (poisonous atmosphere, massive menacing machine excavators, etc), so I don't really think Dix achieved that. His drawings are just crude graphical reminders of a horrible subject matter and I don't think the value of his information is greater than real aesthetic communication.

kev ferrara said...

I know that Howard Pyle challenged his illustrious students (Dunn, Aylward, Townsend) to project themselves into their picture and become personally emotionally involved, with the thought that it would inspire some reciprocity of commitment from the viewer.

The method of "mental projection" (becoming emotionally involved in the reality of the image) revolutionizes how a picture's elements are chosen, as well as how it is composed and the experience of painting it. The result is a picture that has all sorts of aspects; pictorial relationships, qualities, feelings and effects built into it in an organic, natural way that otherwise would not be present. The hope would be that this suggestive richness would then offer a lot more enticement for the viewer to plunge in of their own accord. I would go so far as to say that for a truly powerful picture, a viewer should be practically powerless to prevent being captured and stunned by it.

David Apatoff said...

Benjamin De Schrijver wrote: " We now all know what [the war] looked like, so [Townsend's] pictures lose some of their impact, while the "expressionist" ones that only aim for the gut don't.

I agree with you about the influence of photography, and the surge in mass media since World War I has certainly made war imagery more commonplace today, so we do all know what war looks like. At the same time, don't you think we've been saturated with expressionist pictures as well? Dix's pictures aimed for the gut in their day , but haven't we all seen the same dead bodies in the EC horror comic books, in the Warren magazines (Creepy, Eerie) and every zombie TV show and movie currently on TV? Putrefying flesh with guts hanging out just don't move me the way I assume they moved Dix's audience.


Robert Cook wrote: "I like more of Panter's work than I do of Dix's, but there is much of Panter's work that leaves me cold. (I can certainly tell Panter apart from Dix, btw.) I'm not really such a huge admirer of Dix, overall; it is particularly his work dealing with the war that I admire. The rest of his oeuvre, not so much. I admire and enjoy George Grosz much more, and no one he has inspired--I'm thinking of Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scarfe--has surpassed or even matched him."

I may have started us off on the wrong foot with Panter as the comparison, because he is in some ways inapposite. I picked him because he is a bold, often shrill voice, one with a crude line and a jagged style in place of traditional artistic skills. The two work in a visually similar black-and-white and half tone style. Best of all, I had two similar close up drawings of rotting faces by the two artists. If I was willing to do the work and look for comparable images, I could have substituted a dozen other pen and ink artists who have cast off the manacles of technical skill. Like you, I can tell the difference between Dix and Panter. Perhaps a better way to state my point would be that because of their lack of technical skill, I believe almost anyone could mimic either Dix or Panter. (On the other hand, very few people could mimic Townsend persuasively; similarly, I think very few people could imitate Hendrix or Armstrong well) As I suggested, if a person with basic competence set out to do a dozen Dix imitations, I suspect you'd have a hard time distinguishing the authentic one, which is why I proposed that the certificate of authenticity, rather than the composition or the quality of the line, becomes most important.

I like George Grosz more than I like Dix or Panter, but I do think his good years were relatively brief. If you read his interesting autobiography (A Little Yes and a Big No) or look at his post war work after he moved to America (especially his sexually explicit work) you get the sense that, while the niceties of traditional drawing may have been inadequate for the extreme decadence and corruption of post-war Germany, Grosz had a lifelong, almost biochemical "Big No" reaction toward the world, encompassing many experiences that hardly seem to warrant such a dark reaction. Putting aside his enraged political paintings which he continue to make, even his later paintings of himself alone with a woman suggest a relationship as sour and unappetizing as his earlier drawings of fat predatory bankers with young prostitutes. It makes me wonder how much of his style was principled rage and how much was an indiscriminate lifelong hormonal imbalance.

I share your admiration for Steadman and Scarfe. Their shrillness doesn't bother me in the least. Their scratches and spatters and gouges and distortions still respect what Peter Behrens called "the fundamental principles of all form creating work."

Tom said...

"...although it seems customary to invest a little more, or linger a little longer, when an artist has done something heroic, such as suffer or put himself or herself in harm's way for the sake of the picture.)"

David, that made me immediately think of Chris Burden! (I know he didn't make any pictures ;)

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- Kollwitz and Goya are two superb examples. Each of them experienced terrible tragedies of war and could easily be excused for casting aside the concerns of visual form to engage in the psychologically cathartic exercise that Dix called drawing. Yet, each of them fused their personal torments to incisive, powerful drawings. It can be done.

I can understand why Meret Oppenhiem's fur cup seems funny (not nihilistic) now. Even more than Dix was superseded by horror comics, the famous tea cup, which seemed so controversial at the time, has been superseded by other even more nonsensical works.

Anonymous-- I'm not sure how to measure Dix's horrifying experiences against Townsend's (or against Kollwitz's for that matter-- she was never wounded personally, but her son was killed in World War I and her grandson was killed in World War II and she saw plenty of heart ache in between. Which is worse?) As I tried to suggest, even if we had an objective way of comparing external horrors, that still wouldn't account for the resilience and courage of the artist. Kollwitz worked to help the poor and downtrodden in the slums, while Dix was an alcoholic. Was that because of external trauma or internal character? It's a dangerous game to start comparisons.

Robert Cook said...

"'That it doesn't impress me doesn't indicate any lack of imagination in me'

"How would you know?"


How would you?

"'I never claimed anything other than my own dislike of the painting'

"You stated that the picture had "no worthwhile feeling" that can be sensed. That is a truth claim...."


Must I, or anyone, say, "in my opinion" or "to me" after every subjective personal statement in order for you to not mistake it as an assertion of objective fact, as a "truth claim"? There are very few statements that can be made about any artwork that can be considered objectively true and indisputable. Statements about the beauty of ugliness of any work of art, about its success or failure, must always be seen as matters of opinion.

It's not even that I dislike the Townsend painting. It's professional and skillfully made, as I have said. It just doesn't do anything for me. And this matter of personal preference is really beside the point of David's original question: why did the fine artists of the day react so differently to the cataclysm of the war, compared to the artists assigned to document the war through the illustrations? There seemed to be an assumption that this reflected poorly on the fine artists, a reflection of their lack of skill or their weakness of temperament. My answer remains: the difference has to do with their different purposes and different artistic sensibilities.

Aleš said...

Coaling the Leviathan

Great image by Aylward. I can feel it's monstrous presence in my stomach.

Aleš said...

Robert Cook, you can' t read the stream of sensual information that runs underneath Townsend's representational surface, you said that you "can't really read or appreciate most poetry, either", your own drawings on your blogspot are a Stripburger material and you believe that "forests of words written about art are merely attempts at expressing (or justifying) one's preference". Since everything about art is subjective and relative there is no need for you to learn anything and you can always be right. You demonstrate a complete ignorance, man.

kev ferrara said...

I totally agree about Aylward's Coaling the Leviathan. Only discovered it a few months ago. Huge effect. Love it.


Robert, art is not magic. It is visual signs chosen and structured to be tremendously manipulative. It must be thus in order for a work of art to be effective. All the manipulations of art are actually linguistic in nature; grammatically structured visual relationships. So they can, actually, be "read." Every sensation felt in front of a picture that is not due to an over-interpretive or critical act, or stream of conscious rumination, is actually a readable piece of language.

Thus, if one feels some sensation when looking at a picture, and then one willfully steps out of the belief of the picture and determinedly traces that sensation through the composition to its origin as a simple or complex relationship among pictorial elements, then one has confirmed exactly how the magic trick was done.

And in doing so, the presence of that certain kind of aesthetic structure with a certain kind of effect has also been proven. If some viewer can't feel the sensation of the effect which is provably present, then this doesn't suddenly evaporate the identified structure that causes the effect. It just means the viewer doesn't have the capacity at that moment to experience it in sufficient measure. Just like; if you plug in a broken lamp. Just because the lamp doesn't light, that doesn't mean the power is out.



Robert Cook said...

"If some viewer can't feel the sensation of the effect which is provably present, then this doesn't suddenly evaporate the identified structure that causes the effect. It just means the viewer doesn't have the capacity at that moment to experience it in sufficient measure."

And yet, among painters and critics past and present--persons presumably quite conversant with the "linguistic" and "grammatically structured visual relationships" at play in most any picture they view--there is much individual disagreement, often vituperative, about the success or failure, the excellence or its lack, the "magic" or chicanery, of not just individual painters but of whole schools and styles of painting. Do those whose opinions accord with yours possess this capacity to experience the sensation of the "provably present effect," while those whose opinions disagree with yours lack this capacity? Does a disagreement with you as to the "provably present effect" of any painting prove that those who dispute your opinion are uncultured philistines or enemies of what is good in art?

kev ferrara said...

Robert,

Art Critics and academics have, by and large, been completely ignorant of composition and without talent themselves. And with no actual experience making art, the very thing they claim to have expertise about. Which means they actually have no deep understanding of how art is functioning or made. So they can really only argue opinions. But they then make up rationales for those opinions in order to hide the true origin of their arguments, often from themselves because they really want to think of themselves as big thinkers.

Actually there's lots of different ways that critics avoid or disguise the fact that they actually have no art experience or aesthetic knowledge. Intellectualism is a big one. So many seem to come into any particular viewing experience with only an intellectual agenda to either confirm or deny some theory, destroying the possibility of having a natural aesthetic moment with an image on its own terms. A talentless intellectual might simply transpose the entire aesthetic discussion to a field where they feel they have some fighting chance, like fashion, sociology or politics. Or they might simply change the meaning of art so that it only refers to text or pictographs, languages an intellectual knows all about.

Since people can respond differently to the same stimuli if they have different levels of sensitivity - and almost nobody seems to know this - an otherwise hyper-intellectual thinker may have the visual sensitivities of child and be completely unaware that they are retarded in that way. Or an intellectual might have an asperger's level of antipathy toward powerful stimuli and so they might actually abhor great art, and prefer art that has the intensity of baby food. Some "culture vultures" seem to not even like art at all or much of anything else. They just want to piss on people who do things in life.

I've seen all these situations and more. And I think it may help explain some of the widely disparate critical opinions one sees.

Artists once were taught all about how composition works and the way in which it is a language "complete and distinct from English." I learned about the idea from reading Dean Cornwell, Harvey Dunn and Howard Pyle. I always felt their work had something weird going on it, but it took me twenty years to really put it all together with the aesthetics.

I've seen traces of the same notion of the language of art from The Renaissance to the fall of Golden Age Illustration in the 1930s. Then the notion disappears, although bits and pieces of the old knowledge still ground most decent art schooling. It is quite the rare Artist today to have been adequately, let alone fully, exposed to these ideas. Although many talented artists still feel its existence, without quite being able to pinpoint it. Most artists, also, do not like to be too conscious of anything they are doing, so even if they feel it, they don't want to mess with it or pursue it intellectually. It happened to be something I felt compelled about.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

"We now all know what it [war] looked like, so those pictures lose some of their impact" shows that you don't perceive sensual experience in an aesthetic sense that Kev talks about.

Quite an assumption! You’re jumping to conclusions. I’m talking about historical perspective. You’re telling me that we, in the 21st century, having seen hundreds of WWI films and photographs, having seen dozens of dogfights in movies, living in a time where horrific realities are turned into simple adventure fantasies for entertainment, where we regularly fly in the air ourselves, and even have consumer drones to take our own pictures from the sky on a lazy afternoon, are perceiving that Townsend picture in the same way as the intended audience did 100 years ago, when their friends and family or at least contemporaries were fighting that war, and human flight was a brand new concept? The audience brings more than just their level of aesthetic understanding to the artwork they are looking at.

And once again you took my words to argue for something I’m not arguing about at all. I was actively trying to avoid the quality of the artists in what I wanted to add to the conversation.

The topic of the post was whether Dix “responded to the horrors of war in a more genuine, meaningful way than illustrators.” Whether Dix’s treatment is more “insightful or creative” than Townsend’s. All I’ve been suggesting is that neither can be more genuine or meaningful or insightful about something when they’re not dealing with the same something, regardless of how genuine or meaningful or insightful they are. For Townsend the horrors of war were those happening right in front of him. For Dix the horrors of war were in his mind, his trauma. Townsend’s subject is the blimp, the airplanes, the people inside them, the ground below, the impending death. Dix’s subject is not the dead soldier.

At the same time, don't you think we've been saturated with expressionist pictures as well? Dix's pictures aimed for the gut in their day , but haven't we all seen the same dead bodies in the EC horror comic books, in the Warren magazines (Creepy, Eerie) and every zombie TV show and movie currently on TV? Putrefying flesh with guts hanging out just don't move me the way I assume they moved Dix's audience.

Sure, we’ve been desensitized in those ways, but sometimes, when done well, the shock is still effective. The second and third of Dix’ works you posted don’t do anything for me at all, yet the first one does. He succeeded at kicking me in the gut.

The distinction I was trying to make is that shock doesn’t require the same historical perspective as Townsend’s restraint. I agree a comparison with Goya is much more apt… The Disasters of War uses shock and even distortion not so different from Dix to deal with both his trauma ánd the war, and historical perspective is only a bonus.

chris bennett said...

Thanks Ales for 'Coaling the Leviathan' - I've never seen that before and it just swept me away. Stunned. Fantastic image and your words about it are right on the nail.

And some wonderful, clearly thought out replies from Kev putting forth the case for why art is a language.

Thank you both.

Startin' the day with a skip in my step...

Robert Cook said...

Kev,

You expend much verbiage to argue that there are "right" and "wrong" (or "smart" and "dumb") ways to react to a picture, that pictures are made using a specific language, such that "every sensation felt in front of a picture that is not due to an over-interpretive or critical act, or stream of conscious rumination, is actually a readable piece of language." In other words, if the painter does everything right, the appropriately visually literate viewer cannot avoid feeling the "provably present effect" the painter has put there. By your argument, viewers who don't feel this "provably present effect" are, by definition, "doing it wrong," are too visually illiterate to delight in the painter's skillful technique or composition, or are spitefully resistant to "people who do things in life," or too damaged to be able to read or tolerate the feelings the painter has aroused in them, and which they would enjoy but for their lack of visual literacy or healthy psyche. Those who perceive and feel this "provably present effect," by definition, are "doing it right," that is, have the cultivated knowledge to read and appreciate the language and to get and savor the painter's message. (Sounds like a clique of sophisticates tittering at each other's bons mots and apercus, too clever to be understood by the unwashed masses.)

I say: not all readable language warrants notice or remembering. Skill, technique, careful composition and intelligent intent may enable the painter to make the painting he/she wants to make, but do not ensure the painter will (or can) make a painting that rises above the ordinary.

You say, "Art is not magic." Actually, art is magic, and mysterious. Many thoroughly skilled painters make utterly pedestrian paintings. In fact, most do. Pictures by trained artists can fall flat; pictures by untutored artists can astonish.

You say: "Since people can respond differently to the same stimuli if they have different levels of sensitivity - and almost nobody seems to know this - an otherwise hyper-intellectual thinker may have the visual sensitivities of child and be completely unaware that they are retarded in that way. Or an intellectual might have an asperger's level of antipathy toward powerful stimuli and so they might actually abhor great art, and prefer art that has the intensity of baby food. Some "culture vultures" seem to not even like art at all or much of anything else. They just want to piss on people who do things in life."

This sounds like the whining cry of the unnoticed artist, complaining, "These fools don't recognize my genius!" Sorry, but no artist becomes great or can expect an audience simply by developing all the "right" tools and applying them with skill. The tools are worthy only to they extent they better enable artists to convey what is unique in their personal vision, but if their vision is conventional, so will be their paintings, even if expertly made.

Many people like ordinary paintings, if they're skillfully made. Others prefer something different and out of the ordinary. In the end, each person is the proper and final arbiter for what is meaningful and pleasing to him or her. No amount of rhetoric can demonstrate that any viewer is objectively wrong in his or her response to any painting or drawing.

kev ferrara said...

Robert,

You argue in bad faith by your mistranslations of what I have written. Or presumptions about my motives. If you just want to shoot your popgun at easy targets, include me out. Either that or your reading comprehension is poor; influenced by your negative emotions rather than careful reading and consideration of what I have taken pains to explain. In other words, you are expending an awful lot of verbiage proving you simply don't understand what I'm saying.

Here's the core of what you are missing: There is a difference between aesthetic force and everything else.

Since the dawn of art, artists and philosophers have been after the question of aesthetic force, its nature, its cause, its relation to beauty, truth, meaning, form, structure, mood, composition, suggestion, music, the subliminal, and the sublime. This is not, and has not been, some mere idle investigation.

The great challenge in this endeavor turns out to be that there are disparities in sensitivity to visual stimuli, which may track with differences in maturity, intelligence, exposure to cultural products, psychic fragility and stress, and many other facts, some of which I recently mentioned. So not all investigators are going to be on the same page. (And many intellectuals, of course, are just nerds and dweebs, without real candlepower for the rigors of investigation.)

Now, just because somebody can't experience the aesthetic force of a particular picture, doesn't mean they are wrong. That's absurd. Nobody's experience can be denied. That's rule one. I can't aesthetically experience Cezanne or Rothko. And I'm just as interested in why that is so as to why some people can't experience Walter Everett.

But one's ability or inability to experience a particular picture has no bearing on the actual content expressed, suggested, evoked, or stated by any particular picture. The content, the linguistic content, of any particular work and how it is structured is stable. It is the concrete foundation of any experience of that work, and it takes precedence over the subjective experience of any particular viewer to it. That must be so. Just as, my inability to read Portuguese has no rightful bearing on what any particular Portuguese poem actually expresses to an expert reader of that language with the sensibility to appreciate subtle connotations and tone.

If you don't understand me at this point, you either can't understand me or you don't want to. So I'll sign off here. Take care.

Laurence John said...

David: "I think that the decision to become emotionally invested in a picture can transform the experience (even if it's nothing more than taking the extra time to read the description of the Townsend ambulance scene and learn that the ambulance is moving fast because it is responding to a night time emergency call, or to imbue it with what you've read independently from Hemingway's exploits as an ambulance driver in World War I .)”

David, you make the ‘descision to become emotionally invested in a picture” sound too conscious an act. in reality i think we respond almost immediately to the stimuli of the image and it either draws us in (individually) or it doesn’t.

while i agree with Kev that "in good art, the first strike is always aesthetic” the fact is that we imbue imagery with a ton of subjective meaning which is less to do with the form of the image and more to do with all of the allusions, connections, personal recollections, historical / cultural knowledge etc. that the subject matter sets off within us, and that we bring to the image. but i stress; this happens without conscious effort. it’s not something that should require effort on the viewer’s part. by all means read the backstory of the art / artist in question if you wish, but try to remain aware of the moment when you start subjectively adding content to an image which isn’t there in it’s aesthetic form.

before anyone argues that all art is basically mute until a viewer with a suggestible brain stands in front of it … of course. but i assume we’re interested in how good art achives it’s power via its formal devices, not via highly emotive or politically charged subject matter.

in the case of these posts; WW1 is a very emotionally loaded topic, and that’s why i think there has been a lot of praise for what is a run of the mill set of images (with a few exceptions, mainly Dunn’s). we’re imposing a lot of narrative into the imagery that isn’t there, because we know the backstory of WW1, and are interested in the difficult conditions of the artists.

Aleš said...

Benjamin De Schrijver: "The audience brings more than just their level of aesthetic understanding to the artwork they are looking at.

Of course, but I was talking about the aesthetic understanding because that's where I consider the insightfulness and creativity resides. I don't care about every personal predilection and transient appeal, or fanboyism, imitative judgements (herd instinct), preferences due to nationality or political affiliation, due to novelty or treatments of the conditions of contemporary life, interest in technology, and many other perceptions where visual imagery can arouse emotions for the wrong reasons. I mean I'm glad that people get pleasure out of artworks however they can, but all the viewer-artwork relationships are not necessarly meaningful or insightful.

Benjamin De Schrijver:"For Townsend the horrors of war were those happening right in front of him. For Dix the horrors of war were in his mind, his trauma. Townsend’s subject is the blimp, the airplanes, the people inside them, the ground below, the impending death. Dix’s subject is not the dead soldier."

Yes, Townsend used those objects in the painting to show us a concrete scenario. But he transformed the reality of what happened to express the experience of a man and the truth about war. As I said, as I perceive it, the morbid color scheme evokes a sense of toxicity and decay, there is some sort of grim uninhabitability about the world. The balloon feels like a menacing giant, an oversized monster high above our heads that covers a whole neighbourhood with its shadow (lower left corner). Now, an airplane in reality falls in a curve to its death because of it's unnaturally huge previous speed, while Towsend's airplane falls down like a fly. Even tho we rationally know that both planes are equally dead, the vertical fall feels more dead (at least to me). I don't know why is that, maybe it has something to do with what we experienced throughout evolution, dead flying animals always fell down vertically.

Townsend's image evokes a sense of something general, of how we respond to an overwhelming presence of danger. He uses aesthetic communication to provide us with an experience of "his mind, his trauma". I consider that to be shocking, but in a more subtle way than a straightforward gruesomeness of a primitive drawing. I do sense an unpleasant morbidness about Dix drawing, but it's a superficial type of a feeling. It doesn't feel like a rich, thick, deep experience, It's more like a sense of tensions that come form a disarray of graphical elements and an appearance of screaming/confusion like expression on a crude cartoony human figure with a broken limb.

Aleš said...

Benjamin De Schrijver: "...neither can be more genuine or meaningful or insightful about something when they’re not dealing with the same something, regardless of how genuine or meaningful or insightful they are."

I don't see why a bit different subject matter should exclude Dix from the same criteria of informational meaningness that comes out of a painting. If an artwork communicates in a subtle, multilayered instinctive way, why can't we consider it to be more meaningful than a different subject matter that is composed crudely and communicates superficially? You said that the image shocks you, that it is "kicking me in the gut". I can shock you with a pig and a chainsaw, Hermann Nitsch style. Is being shocked considered a meaningful experience? Please explain to me the nutritional value of Dix's wounded soldier, maybe I'm missing something.

Aleš said...

Chris "Thanks Ales for 'Coaling the Leviathan' - I've never seen that before and it just swept me away"

I just discovered it while searching for combat artists. Here is where I found it:

William James Aylward
Harvey Dunn
Harry Townsend
George Harding
Wallace Morgan
Walter Duncan
Ernest Peixotto
Andre Smith
World War I Art and Combat Artists

chris bennett said...

Thanks Ales, that is fulsomely put, and I like your further take on the aesthetic workings of the dogfight picture.

Tom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom said...

Ales said,
"As I said, as I perceive it, the morbid color scheme evokes a sense of toxicity and decay, there is some sort of grim uninhabitability about the world."

Funny I don't see the color scheme as toxic or the world as uninhabitable. It looks like a clear day in France with airplanes in the sky. The observation ballon is a gently rounded ovoid form and rounded froms rarely feel threatening, if anything it functions much more like a pointer and a foreground to carry the eye into the painting then a monster. A steeping stone so to speak and a leveling contrast to the planes themselves. It's the same word you used describe the ship taking on coals. Again I don't know why you used the word monster to describe the ship, everything is calm about the scene, the calm tonal scheme the insisting horizontal and verticals, the gently lapping water, if anything the picture seems to be about the great stability of things. The stability of great weight.


'Townsend's image evokes a sense of something general, of how we respond to an overwhelming presence of danger. He uses aesthetic communication to provide us with an experience of "his mind, his trauma".'

The viewpoint is so far from the planes (so he can take in the scene) that it puts the viewer in the position of a observer, like at sporting event. One follows the ballon, to the vertical pointing wedge of smoke following the German plane on its descent. That vertical line of descent is contrasted by the generally horizontal shape of the town below and here because the contrast of the vertical and horizontal one feels the power of the tremendous impact the plane will suffer when it strikes the earth. But trauma and a "...overwhelming presence of danger,.." the work is way to cool and detach for that like its cool green color scheme. In fact the terror has past, as the enemy has already been defeated.

kev ferrara said...

I share Tom's experience of the Townsend picture. And I think such jibes with the structural content of the composition; which is also to say, its intent.

I think, Ales, you are starting to get caught up in your interpretations, rather than allowing yourself to recall your direct/wordless first sensual experience of the picture. (Flip it horizontally in photoshop and see if you can feel it anew. I also encourage flipping it upside down.)

The color scheme isn't exactly beautiful, true; I don't think Townsend really worked on it except as a sketch of the color idea he wanted to get across. But I don't think it is in any sense evocative of toxicity or morbidity either, its just a little warm and bilious, a bit stifling in the sense of humid. And while the balloon is gigantic, it is not in a position to menace the viewer. The viewer, rather, is lofted like a bird up above it (the balloon) which in turn is lofted over the countryside.

Stay tuned in to what the picture does to you. Everything else is unaesthetic.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Aleš, I continue to agree with pretty much everything you say, so I genuinely don’t understand why you continue to try to argue with me by quoting me out of context. You continue to act as if I’m somehow promoting Dix in comparison to Townsend. Please try to see the forest through the trees. “Words matter” is a popular phrase these days, but “context matters” often seems to be forgotten.

Of course, but I was talking about the aesthetic understanding because that's where I consider the insightfulness and creativity resides. […] I agree, but that’s not what *I* was talking about, so your counter-argument is misplaced and futile. I was responding to your rash accusation that I somehow can’t “perceive sensual experience in an aesthetic sense” because I’m saying the pictures have lost impact due to our historical context being different from the intended audience. This I dare say is a clear, obvious, and logical fact, as demonstrated above. Just because *you* prefer to look at the picture ignoring such context, does not make it non-existent. I wonder if you were alive in 1917 and family members had died in this new, modern, enormous, gruesome war, you would still prefer to only look at the pictures' aesthetic understanding.

Writing this, I actually find it quite interesting that not only do you ignore the context of my comments, you actively choose to ignore the context of these pictures. Might there be a correlation?

It doesn't feel like a rich, thick, deep experience, It's more like a sense of tensions that come form a disarray of graphical elements and an appearance of screaming/confusion like expression on a crude cartoony human figure with a broken limb. That’s exactly my experience and the “expressionism” I was referring to. I agree Townsend is a better artist than Dix. Not my point.

I don't see why a bit different subject matter should exclude Dix from the same criteria of informational meaningness that comes out of a painting. It shouldn’t. But the post was not about which artist is the most meaningful or insightful. It was about suggestions “that fine artists such as Dix responded **to the horrors of war** in a more genuine, meaningful way than illustrators. In my opinion it’s apples and oranges, because Townsend was treating apples as the horrors of war, and Dix oranges.

The implication being that these suggestions came, perhaps, not from people who think Dix is the better artist, but from people who, like Dix, feel that the most important horrors of war were the traumas of its gruesomeness, not the warfare itself. Townsend’s pictures give no sense of why this war came to be nicknamed “the war to end all wars”. Dix’s do.

Like Kev, I frankly feel tired at this point of repeating myself in myriad ways, so I’m respectfully bowing out of this as well.

Laurence John said...

Tom: "Funny I don't see the color scheme as toxic or the world as uninhabitable”

me neither, but i think it’s a weak composition overall.

the ‘Leviathan’ ship image is suggestive (to me) of a dozing giant. there’s immense size and potential power there, but nothing scary or threatening is happening at that moment.
huge steam powered engines / machinery can often be seen as ‘monstrous’ due to their sheer scale and power, so i think that’s a fair description, even within the context of a more subdued image.

Aleš said...

Tom, maybe I was too enthusiastic, overreacted and got carried away. I hate it when that happens. I spent quite some time looking at the image, trying to make larger sense. Kev is right. Benjamin, I apologize that I misunderstood you. I'll reread the debate and analyze what happened.

Chris, I posted some links where I got the Leviathan image, but I guess it got stuck in David's Spam box. I hope he'll fix it

chris bennett said...

Thanks Ales - he's hoping. :)