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Sculpture and Comic Art #4: Framing Motion: Sculpture, the Body and Implied Movement by Paul Atkinson

23 Sep

This is a formal companion piece to Kirstie Gregory’s excellent investigation of the incorporation of comic icons and themes in contemporary sculpture.

To examine the relationship between two art forms it is important to look for fields in common before turning to an analysis of their differences. There is no question that there is a fundamental difference between comics and figurative sculpture in their articulation of the relationship between form and matter and in the obvious fact that one is in two dimensions and the other three, but if we examine both on a slightly more abstract plane, that of movement, there is much that draws the mediums together. Movement might seem to be an odd place to ground a comparison for most figurative sculpture does not move – unlike kinetic sculpture in which there is always movement between parts – and a comic book character is unable to traverse a panel irrespective of the powers they are said to possess. It is, however, this very lack of actual movement that serves as a conceptual link between sculpture and comics. The figures may not move in space but there is nevertheless an implication that they could move, that they are about to move, or indeed that they have reached a point of rest. In each case the figure is not static but rather trapped forever in the act of moving – a distinction that is elided in Zeno’s paradoxes.

When we look at Henri Gaudier Brzeska’s Red Stone Dancer (1913), we see both an immobile piece of sandstone and a living figure in the process of moving. The acute diagonals of the legs and arms indicate that the figure is not at rest, for who could maintain such a posture, but forever re-enacting part of a larger movement, the dance. In a classical work, such as Myron’s Discus Thrower (425 BCE), we know that despite the figure’s rigidity, the discus is about to be thrown. The principle should not be reserved for strenuous forms of physical activity, for even in Ron Mueck’s In Bed (2005), the figure is still caught in a movement, although now it is the much slower and gentler movement of sleep, where the eyes could open at any moment and the chest flutters slightly with each breath. In each of these examples, there is a virtual movement created by gesture, position and activity that exceeds the immobility of the material. In a comic, there is also a virtual movement that surrounds and envelops the immobile drawn or painted figure. In the opening scene of Watchmen, when the comedian is held mid-panel surrounded by shards of glass and the city skyline, we do not see this body as truly immobile for it is in the process of succumbing to gravity and the final journey to the street below.

In depicting movement this way, should we say that the sculpture or the image of a comic book figure describes an instant in time? One way to address the question would be to draw another comparison, between the comic book panel and the photograph. Certainly the photograph can capture a very short period of time in the middle of a larger movement, although the period of time the photograph describes, a fraction of a second, is usually of a much shorter duration than that of the drawn body. If the shutter is left open for longer periods than this, the moving body becomes a blur of movement. The photographic rendition of movement became an aesthetic feature in the work of the Futurists such as Giacomo Balla who painted figures with multiple limbs, and Umberto Boccioni, whose Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) depicts a figure deformed by their own movement. Most comics do not adopt this type of aesthetic and instead depict bodies with clearly defined boundaries, and when photographs are combined with drawings, there is an impression that each comes from a different period – the pastness of photographs in Emmanuel Guibert’s The Photographer – or from different time frames. In Anthony Lappé and Dan Goldman’s Shooting War the photographed backgrounds seem static when set against the drawn figures and explosions in the foreground. This difference may be attributable to the fact that the photograph does not look at the body as a living moving object. It is, in Philippe Marion’s schema, synthetic because it includes all that is before the lens and can be contrasted with drawn image, which builds up the object analytically line by line (97-98). In other words, the act of drawing involves speculation on the purpose and function of the body, and in the case of motion, what it actually means for the body to move.

Another way of thinking of this issue is to turn again to sculpture and ask the counterintuitive question: is a sculpture equivalent to a three-dimensional photograph? The first response would probably be, of course not, as each involves a different process of creation and sculpture uses a much broader range of materials, each of which has some effect on the form. Furthermore, the history of sculpture far exceeds the short history of photography and the sculptural figure is, in most cases, unframed. The question becomes more interesting when it comes to the issue of movement and how this is imagined by the sculptor in the production of the work. Auguste Rodin reflected on this issue in an interview with Paul Gsell, where he argued that sculpture should seek to create the impression of movement as this will also give each work the impression of life (66). Good figurative sculpture should contain some aspect of movement, which he states is the ‘transition from one attitude to another’ and by way of illustration refers to Daphne changing into a bay-tree (68-69). To support this argument, he contrasts figurative sculpture with the images of movement produced by what he refers to as ‘instantaneous photography,’ which, he argues, fail to create the impression of movement regardless of the type of action they represent. It is not that they do not represent movement but that they fail to show ‘progression’ or the ‘transition from one attitude to another’ (73-75). In order to best represent the actual movement of things, the artist should turn away from an accurate rendition of the object and instead try to create an object in which the impression of movement will be completed by the viewer in the act of looking. So in reference to Gericault’s painting ‘Course de chevaux’ (1821), he argues that the position of the legs totally contradicts the information provided by instantaneous photography (76) but ‘his horses appear to run; this comes from the fact that the spectator from right to left sees first the hind legs accomplish the effort whence the general impetus results, then the body stretched out, then the forelegs which seek the ground ahead’ (77). In this example, the body of the horse describes an arc of movement that certainly has a longer duration than the ‘instantaneous’ images produced by photography.

Should such an argument also apply to comics, where the single image must always form part of a sequence? Benoît Peeters argues that the difference between painting and the bande dessinée is in their construction of time. In the painting there is a ‘condensation’ of a series of actions in a key moment or ‘pose’ which is enclosed within the painting’s frame, whereas the bande dessinée’s panels are always incomplete insofar as they are connected to a series of other panels that are ‘à suivre’ (16-18). At first glance it would appear that Peeters’ argument concerning painting should also apply to sculpture in the way envisaged by Rodin. However, it is worth noting that there are actually two forms of time discussed here, the ‘condensation’ of action and the sequence of events that form the narrative, both of which are operative in the comic book. Irrespective of the broader narrative action, there must be the impression of life which is grounded in the implied movement of each figure. This may come to serve the narrative but it is also distinct from it in the way that the vibration of a note can be distinguished from the sequence of notes in a melody. With regard to the issue of gesture, a sculpture should be distinguished from painting because its movement is always open; there is no frame to contain it.

Openness and implied movement are a feature of drawing characters, for the artist seeks the give the impression of movement rather than assuming that the reader will find it in the gutters. The degree of movement will depend on the artist and demands of characterisation. I am currently reading Lorenzo Mattotti and Claudio Piersanti’s Stigmata where most panels depict moments of intense activity. This extends to the cover where the protagonist can be seen running from left to right, pursued by his own nightmares. This movement is implied by the reading direction and the gesture of anguish but also in the manner in which the body is drawn with each curve of his back and arms adding to the momentum of his impossibly wide stance. This is not an image that takes its cue from photography for there is no instantaneous moment, rather we see the complete stride of the running man.

Implied movement and the impression of life in the way that Rodin imagines it can also be attributed to painting, as the reference to Gericault attests, but there is a sculptural aspect to the depiction of bodies in the comic book in the way that the figure is articulated across a number of panels. It is common in comic books to show the body of a character from a range of perspectives when depicting movement and much less common to see figures statically framed in a way reminiscent of Eadweard Muybridge’s studies of motion. Moving bodies are shown in different poses, to indicate different points in the movement, but also in different aspects through varying the angle, magnification and point of view. This changing of aspect augments the character’s movement as well as developing a three-dimensional understanding of the body, which is carved out in space in successive panels. In two pages of Stigmata (40-41), which are indicative of the whole, there are six changes in aspect in six panels: panel 1, a half-profile close-up of the protagonist’s head and shoulders; panel 2, an extreme close-up of his eye; panel 3, a medium shot from behind of his back, right arm and leg; panel 4, a medium shot of his back; panel 5, a long shot of the whole body from behind; finally in panel 6, we see the left profile of the body in an extreme long shot. In each of the partial views we come to understand the qualities of the body in the same way that ‘the sculptor compels, so to speak, the spectator to follow the development of an act in an individual’ as the eye roams across the surface of the work (Rodin 71).

In the presentation of the living body in comic books, the style of drawing is integral to the impression of movement and this varies significantly across works, from the sinuously dynamic Stigmata to the doll like figures in Chris Ware’s work. However each invokes a time that bears some relationship to sculpture and distinguishes the comic book image from the photograph and the comic book from the photo roman. Not only is there the impression of movement but the figure is developed through the spectator or reader’s perspectival navigation.

Bibliography

Marion, Philippe. Traces en cases: Travail graphique, figuration narrative et participation du lecteur: Essai sur la bande dessinée. Academia: Université Catholique de Louvain, 1993.

Peeters, Benoît. Case, planche, récit: Comment lire une bande dessinée. Casterman, Paris, 1991.

Rodin, Auguste. Art. Interviews with Paul Gsell. Trans. Romilly Fedden. Boston: Small Maynard Company, 1912.

Dr Paul Atkinson teaches in the Communications and Writing program at Monash University. His research is broadly informed by the work of Henri Bergson with particular emphasis on the relationship between immanent change and extended movement. Published articles explore a range of topics including Bergson’s vitalism, comic books after 9/11, time and recognition, the relationship between animation and comic books, affect theory and temporal aesthetics. He is currently working on a series of articles that explore the relationship between processual theories of time, aesthetics and narrative.

You can read previous editions of Sculpture and Comic Art in the Comics Forum Website Archive.

Comics Forum 2011 is supported by Thought Bubble, the University of Chichester, the Henry Moore Institute, Dr Mel Gibson, Routledge, Intellect and Molakoe Graphic Design.

 

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