Sunday, June 21, 2009

Reading the Picture Writing on the Wall II

O.K. so your kids are smarter than you, and your dog runs the household. In short: your life is a comic strip. But have you ever actually walked into a comic strip?

Although I risk the chance that the Padua Chamber of Commerce may sic a fatwa on my ass, walking into the revered Scrovegni Chapel in Padua is just like walking into a comic strip. Actually it’s like walking into three comic strips with each story cycle wrapping around the interior wall in three ascending tiers with the columns of the architecture separating the panels. As I have said before, I am suspicious of the whole idea of comics on the walls but in this case, if the comic strip was painted over 600 years ago by a guy named Giotto, it turns out to be a pretty good idea.

When in Italy I spend most of my time in Florence where dead artists are revered for their aesthetic contributions to the history of Western Art as well as their hypnotic power to attract tourists and their billfolds to town. Giotto is on the A-List of Dead Maestro Magnets. In Florence you will find the following things named after Giotto: hotels, gellaterias, coffee bars, and I swear that I heard a woman call her precious chow dog, “Giotto” (or maybe she called to her Giotto dog, “Ciao”).

I even rode in a Giotto Bus as part of a marathon hellish travel day configured by that busy, busy travel agent, Satan.

Giotto himself represents a turning point in Western Art (and no I don’t mean the kind of Western Art where broncos are being bucked by grisly guys who look like Gabby Hayes). Before Giotto, human figures were painted stiff and stilted. After Giotto they appear more relaxed and human. Think about the two final candidates in our last Presidential election and you’ll get the general idea.

But the real genius of Giotto is his staging. Take the famous heartwarming story from the Bible so dear to the hearts of many: The Slaughter of the Innocents, a tale that contains both no miracle and no apparent moral. A tale that appears to have been invented whole cloth by “Matthew” for the sole purpose of scaring the wits out of mothers and small children.

Yet many artists have been compelled to paint this story telling of a massacre of babies by the Romans for probably many of the same reasons that “Friday the 13th” keeps getting remade. It touches an archetypal chord somewhere deep in the collective unconscious of humankind and, as we all know, Splatter sells.

Choosing the right moment and staging it clearly is one of the most important tasks of the graphic narrator from Giotto, to Hogarth, to Kirby, to Crumb.

The classic depiction of this chestnut generally comes staged in two different versions: Before (The mothers weep as the Romans enter with swords.), and After (The mothers weep as the Romans leave with bloody swords.). Giotto chooses neither the Before or the After.

So what does Giotto show? His version in the Scrovegni Chapel shows the obligatory and ghastly pile of dead babies but the Romans are not yet leaving because there are two babies left. One is about to get it and the other is being wrest from the arms of his mother. It is not hair-raising (Before). It is not mournful (After). It is the moment just before the end when the last flicker of hope is about to be extinguished. It is chilling.

One could even go further (and believe me I will) to say that the very composition amplifies this chill. Squint your eyes at this painting and you will see an enormous “X” smack dab in the middle of the picture. Constructed from the Roman sword and the wrested baby. “X” for Exterminate.

The common line of rubbish about old fescoes is that they taught Bible stories through pictures to people who could not read. Pardon me, but back then you would not be in that church if you did not already know those stories. My personal theory is that the paintings were there to tell you what to think and how to feel about those stories. Believe it or not, pardner, that is a significant distinction and Giotto makes you feel.

(For more on this point of view I refer you to, “Storytelling in Christian Art from Giotto to Donatello” by Jules Lubbock. It's a wonderful book and I give him full credit here for many of the ideas discussed in this post.)

Monday, April 06, 2009

Reading the Picture Writing on the Wall I

Exterior of "City of Glass" exhibit:

Note windows. When the sunlight comes streaming through they cast these awesome shadows:

When my wife, Marsha, and I told our friends in Florence that we were going to Pordenone in northern Italy they told us we were crazy. “Pordenone?!” exclaimed Luigi, “You might as well go buy yourself a nice firm mattress and a down comforter and hibernate for a few days!”

Gina suggested that if we really had to go to that sleepy excuse for a town we should pack some amphetamines just to keep our eyelids open.

On top of being boring they also said it was ugly.

Let’s face it, Florentines are snobs. They can say with fair certainty that any other city on the planet is boring and ugly and know without even searching Google Images that they are probably correct.

It’s one of those jokes that is really not a joke to say that most Italians consider any other city, town, or bus stop other than theirs is beneath their contempt. According to Florentines I have spoken to (and this is all true), Napolitani are scoundrels, thieves, and ride twelve to a Vespa, Milanese think they know how to dress because Milan is the Fashion Capital of the Planet but they are all slobs, and Pratesi who live exactly 20 minutes away all drive huge cars and drive them all very badly.

Pordenone to these people is a 38.2 square kilometer horse tranquilizer filled with 39,000 ugly people, 24 boring meters above sea level.

Once a year Pordenone holds the Dedica Festival (which, much to my relief, is not a Greatful Deadica Festival), a two-week celebration of the life and work of a single living author. This year’s celebrant was American writer, Paul Auster. The Italians are nuts for this guy.

Because David Mazzucchelli and I adapted Auster’s novel “City of Glass” into a comics story (or what your librarian once referred to as “Trash” and now proudly shelves as a “Graphic Novel”) someone thought it would be a good idea to invite me along, too. Or maybe it was just because my name, in case you missed it, is also Paul.

I had this fascinating fact pointed out to me innumerable times by various chuckling Italians. Imagine! Two guys on the planet Earth have both been named Paul and they’re both, you won’t believe this, Americans! Fortunately they did not continue to note that one of the Pauls is a fabulously talented writer, poet, translator, filmmaker, who himself looks like a movie star and who smokes really cool black Dutch cigars and the other Paul takes his dog for a walk every day rain or shine.

Unfortunately David Mazzucchelli could not attend Dedica because his name is not Paul.

Pordenone turned out to be small but nice and up to date, and remarkably clean. This was especially notable after spending a week in Florence where there is scientific evidence to suggest that cigarette butts actually breed in the gutters. We were even put up in a place called the Hotel Moderne, which it was (although the Internet service and I restaged the Cuban Missile Crisis in Room 313. I played Khrushchev.).

Shortly after arrival we strolled across the piazza (Italian slang for “pizza with an extra ‘a’”) to the theatre for the opening night presentation. 1500 Auster-hungry fans filled the joint to capacity. People were turned away. Teenage girls with Paul Auster haircuts baring signs that read “We LUV You, Austerone!!” (roughly translated as: “We LUV you Biggie Auster!!”) were carried away weeping by grim Polizia.

The presentation began with a surprise short film made by Auster’s pal, Wim Wenders. At least it was attributed to Wenders, but it sure was hard to tell. As a tribute to Auster’s recent novel, “Man in the Dark” (a story I honestly loved and recommend), Wenders got the clever idea to film his tribute …in the dark! It’s a good thing for ol’ Wim that Auster’s recent book was not called “Man in the Shea Stadium with the Mormon Tabernacnle Choir, seventeen trained seals, and the June Taylor Dancers”.

Auster was interviewed and among many of the erudite things he said was, that, “A novel is the only place in the world where two strangers can meet on very intimate terms.” Nice, huh?

Two guys named Paul:

Paul K. admits that despite a lot of head nodding and smiling this is the amount of Italian that he really understands:

The next day we all went to the civic building where they had installed an exhibit of original art from City of Glass. I am suspicious of the very notion of putting comics on the wall but I gotta hand it to the guys who organized this show, Giulio Devita, Andrea Alberghini and their team, this was a smart little show. In fact, here is a video made by Davide Coral of me seeing the thing for the first time. (Warning: It plays very smoothly on a computer with some power but on a computer like my laptop built some time in the previous century it looks all jerky).

Paul Karasik from Davide Coral on Vimeo.

Upon our return to Florence our friends were quick to ask with a knowing smirk, “So how was Pordenone?”

We reflected for a moment. Marsha had eaten what she claims were the best gnocchi she has ever had and she is hard to please in the gnocchi department. I was ego-tripped out. And ultimately we were both charmed by the hospitality of our hosts and by the enchanting tourist-free city itself.

“Well, it sure ain’t Florence,” we admitted.

Swell limited edition (100) facsimile edition of my sketchbook breakdowns for City of Glass: