Saturday, December 8, 2012

Sequential Art: Early Iconography

As part of a theoretical presentation on iconography given to a search committee for a teaching job, I originally intended to cover some examples of how the medium of comics can be traced back throughout history. That was preempted by the previous posted series on iconography, but here's another aspect of the discussion. As per the definition of iconography, I thought it an appropriate topic to dovetail with the growing popularity and academic analysis of sequential art not just as a field of visual arts, but also cross-discipline of media studies, anthropology, cultural studies and art history. That, and as usual, any excuse to evangelize about comics.
Here's a sampling of images culled from the many slides that I've collected over the years, plus updated with material from contemporary on-line sources. They also help tremendously when I feel like my jokes are getting old, as there certainly is a deep and long vein of comics to mine for inspiration. And aside from connecting the dots, nothing helps establish the lineage and legitimacy of a medium than examples of antiquity. 

Cylinder seals: Mesopotamian (3,000 BCE, Tell Billa, Iraq), Sumerian (Tell Asmar, Iraq) and unknown (1250 BCE).  Not just telling stories with images + text, stamping out editions of these "strips" into clay can arguably serve as one of the earliest examples of mass-producing material as a sort of a pre-printing press.

Vignette from the Papyrus of Ani scroll (20th Dynasty, 1180 BCE). Above and beyond using non-traditional mediums like woodcuts and painting, it'd really make for a fun exercise in a comics class to experiment with trying different materials such a clay or stone tablets, tapestries, and on parchment or silk scrolls. Probably a bit too steep of a materials fee to charge in a semester-long studio course, but maybe as one hell of a thesis project?

Giotto's "Last Judgement," Scrovegni Chapel, Italy (1304). From church frescoes to subway graffiti, the urge to express oneself over a public canvas is a creative instinct that started back on a prehistoric stage on the wall of a caveman's studio.

Left: "Porta del Paradiso," 17' tall bronze doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti in Baptistry, France (1424-52), and Right: The Bronze Doors of Bishop Bernward on Saint Mary's Cathedral, Hildesheim, Germany (1015).

Detail from the Bronze Doors of Bishop Bernward depicting the scene of the expulsion from Paradise. God points the finger at Adam, who points back at Eve, who in turn blames the Serpent. "The Original Sin Setup," this scenario pretty much sums up what's behind every sitcom since.

As evident even with such a cursory overview, narratives can use any medium to tell any story, and  there has always been a rich history of people spinning tales and sharing everything from epics to jokes. Just as it's insightful to remember for every big-screen blockbuster there was first a humble beginning in somebody's mind initially transcribed onto paper, the roots for this particular branch on the creative tree reach even farther back than we suspect. 

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