Hey, Kids, Comics! – Vienna Genesis Edition

by John Holbo on April 23, 2017

I have been down my work hole for weeks. Apologies, plain people of Crooked Timber. Also, I haven’t worked on On Beyond Zarathustra for months. Maybe that’s even worse. Gotta get back into the good stuff over the summer. Here is a downpayment. I’ve found the first occurrence of a Dr. Seuss-style tree in Western art. It’s from the Vienna Genesis, which is pretty awesome proto-comics and you should check out all the pages at Wikipedia.

I don’t recall Scott McCloud saying anything about this in Understanding Comics. If you want to read a confusing scholarly discussion, try Franz Wickhoff on Roman Art. I think it’s the earliest occurrence of ‘continuous narrative’, also ‘illusionism’. And his use of the latter is eccentric, so you are sure to be the life of the party discussing his ideas!



Scott P. 04.23.17 at 1:56 pm

It’s not the earliest occurrence of continuous narrative; the historiated columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, among other examples, predate it by centuries. In fact, we art historians use the Vienna Genesis to show that Early Byzantine were still familiar with those artistic traditions (including other classicizing elements such as modeling and foreshortening), despite the general trend towards greater abstraction in late antique art generally. Same with the presence illusionism; Second Style Roman wall painting dates to the 1st century BCE, and the Vienna Genesis represents a reoccurence of some of the perspectival approaches found in that earlier work. (Note that there are a number of intermediate works, such as the Vatican Vergil, among others, that demonstrate the continued practice of these artistic methods in the intervening period).


John Holbo 04.23.17 at 2:12 pm

Sorry, I was unclear. Analytic philosopher using use-mention with perhaps excessive precision. I meant Wickhoff gives us the earliest occurrence of the term ‘continuous narrative’ to discuss the issue. Not that the Vienna Genesis is the earliest occurrence of continuous narrative, obviously not. Nor is Wickhoff the first discussion of the the issue. Lessing complains about continuous narrative technique, for example. But ‘continuous narrative’ has become a standard term of art and I think Wickhoff introduces it to discuss, primarily, the Vienna Genesis.


uair01 04.23.17 at 6:27 pm

Many apologies for an off-topic question – but some years ago someone mentioned an article about “how powerful clan/family/mafia bosses lead, by avoiding all explicit decisions”. It mentioned the Borgias and maffia bosses. They will always try to avoid taking sides in internal conflicts. I haven’t found it and would like to read it again. Any pointers are welcome …


John Holbo 04.24.17 at 1:19 am

Quiet around here. I’ll just follow up with a few Wickhoff notes. As Scott P. says, there are lots of examples of continuous narrative art before the Vienna Genesis and Wickhoff is famous (well, was famous once) for being a champion of them at a time when they were generally regarded as crude or semi-degenerate branchings-off from Greek classical stuff. Wickhoff seriously loves him some Trajan’s column and he sees, say, Pompeian frescoes as marvelous anticipations of modern art. For him there is this binary opposition between illusionism and classicism. Classicism is schematic and idealizing (classical Greece, the Renaissance); illusionism is a matter of catching the individual man, moment, movement (Roman busts, Pompeian frescoes, post-Renaissance painters with loaded brushes – Tintoretto, Hals, Velasquez and especially Rembrandt – and modern Impressionists.) It’s kind of a weird use of ‘illusionism’, as I say in the post. I’m reading all this because I’m writing about Ernst Gombrich, whose “Art and Illusion” is often picked-on for the ‘illusion’ bit. But the critics who do that don’t seem to get what he means. For example, Gombrich actually follows Wickhoff, in a weird way. (He says so.) So … that’s why I’m looking at the Vienna Genesis and finding Dr. Seuss trees.

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