In an earlier post, I commented on Art Spiegelman’s remark that comics are time turned into space. Different moments in time are disposed across the page in separate units, or panels. This idea popped up again in my head as I read what John Ruskin had to say about the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an independent self-styled group of painters who were not “recognized” by the Academy. Ruskin was very sympathetic to their aims.
In a letter to the London Times in 1854, Ruskin praises the PRB by saying, “…[it] has but one principle, that of absolute, uncompromising truth in all that it does..,” and he discusses William Holman Hunt’s painting, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia in detail. Looking at the picture, it’s attention to detail is obvious and remarkable, but it struck me as somehow stiff and unrealistically staged. That’s when Spiegelman’s comment came to mind.
The Hunt painting shows us what we can never see because the elements of the world are always in motion. Not until the development of the strobe light was it possible to “freeze” motion completely, or nearly so, in a photographic image to show us the “reality” behind the blur. Anyone who has been in a disco with a strobe can testify to how bizarre and unreal the dancers look in the light, yet it is their real movement one sees.
Well, what is the real? For the medieval thinker, and those were the ones the PRB would favor, the real, the essence of something was outside of time. A Platonic ideal, not the mere appearance one percieved in everyday life. For an artist, the decision is always, shall I show how things are, or how they appear? In medieval art, the choice was for the former. For the Impressionists and Futurists, to name two, it was the latter. (Of course, each group thought it was depicting the real…)
So, in medieval art, the Idea is the real, and that’s what is shown. Figures are often not to scale – important subjects are bigger, the better to represent what they are. Perspective was not unknown, but not used much, because that was mere appearance. (The renaissance was preoccupied with mathematically precise perspective.) Different moments in time are shown in the same picture, as in my favorite from the apocalypse where we see John both receiving and eating the same book, two chronologically sequential events, in one frame. (To us moderns, it seems he’s eating one book and greedily grabbing for another!)
In later art, the juxtaposition of multi-times is often less explicit. In this famous painting of the Adoration of the Magi by Gentile de Fabriano, the (earlier) procession to seek Jesus is seen in the back of the picture, while the Magi, at their goal, are shown in front. Here, in the detail, we see the three Magi in different stages of adoration: standing, bending to the knee; and on the knees in front of the infant Saviour. It is almost like a sequence of animation frames, and the juxtaposition is intended to refer to motion and the reality of time.
Hunt’s painting shows us one moment, and one moment only. The figures are frozen as if they had been captured in movement by a strobe flash, and the artist achieves this revelation of the reality by his fidelity to truth, and his shunning of mere appearances.
Do comics, with their straightforward acceptance that the artist must depict the idea, and their more realistic way of representing time, direct us to higher truths? Does the matrix of time degrade all ideas to falsity? Is the preoccupation of The Decadents with “the moment” not a decadence, but an aspiration? What do we see?
I think that practically every thought in my muddled head since I was ten years old has been a variation on this merry-go-round of ideas…