Thursday, February 24, 2011

Flaneurs @War No. 1

Today in Commercial Modernism we explored shifting cultural and technological frames for visual reportage. Civil War illustrator-correspondent Alfred Waud produced onsite sketches close to the action. Above, a Waud sketch from the first day at Gettysburg, on brown paper in pencil with Chinese white. Waud also produced written accounts to support the illustrations he sent back to the shop:

CULPEPPER, Friday, September 18. Your artist was the only person connected with newspapers permitted to go upon the recent advance to the Rapidan. An order of General Meade’s sent all the reporters back. It was a very wet and uncomfortable trip part of the time. I did not get dry for two days; and was shot at into the bargain, at Raccoon Ford, where I unconsciously left the cover and became a target for about twenty of the sharpshooters...

Above, Waud captures a cavalry unit on reconnaissance at Raccoon Ford. His written account (cited above and below) and the wood engraved translation of his sketch appeared in the October 3, 1863 edition of Harper’s.

The caption below the illustration reads, “Army of the Potomac–General Buford Attacked the Enemy at Raccoon Ford, September 14, 1863–Sketched by A. R. Waud.”

On Sunday, September 13, 1863, soon after our troops advanced from the Rappahannock, they became engaged with the enemy....General Buford made an attack to unmask their force at Raccoon Ford, while another cavalry division was doing the same at Somerville Ford; since which time shelling and sharp-shooting has been constantly kept up on the river banks. General Custer charged right up a hill to the enemy's battery, taking three guns and a number of artillerymen...

The cannon group that dominates the sketch appears bottom left on the printed page.

Wars and conflicts generally mean good business for publications and outlets like these. Above, an auspicious launch for DianShiZhai Huabao, a Shanghai pictorial (previously discussed) which in its first issue (1884) describes a battle in the Sino-French War, then raging; a matter of pronounced public interest.

The Japanese version of war "reportage" wedded the international vogue for illustrated newspapering with the craft tradition of Ukioy-e woodcuts to produce dramatic images of naval battles in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. (When in Shanghai looking through pictorial coverage in FeiYingGe Huabao for 1895, I was curious to see if that conflict–a disaster for China–showed up in its pages. A cursory review suggested no. But I did not have the chance to look through DSZHB in search of the same information.)

The class had been assigned Baudelaire's The Painter of Modern Life as a reading. That essay, written in 1860 and published in 1863, pairs nicely with Manet's Olympia (1863), as the painting captures the frank engagement with the present for which the poet called, and was experienced as such an affront to the civilizing pretensions of art.

But Baudelaire's putative subject was the unnamed illustrator Constantin Guys, who did significant work for the London Illustrated News, particularly in Crimea. The essayist is less concerned with military reportage than with the immediacy and the evanescence of a cultural moment. Of Guys he writes:

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd: For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world–such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito...

"Any man," he said one day, in the course of one of those conversations which he illumines with burning glance and evocative gesture, "any man who is not crushed by one of those griefs whose nature is too real not to monopolize all his capacities, and who can yet be bored in the heart of the multitude, is a blockhead! a blockhead! and I despise him!"

This imperative–to engage what is, who is, how things look–suggests journalistic output. But other modes emerged, too. There are connections to be drawn between American illustrators and American painter-reporters of the Ashcan School, for example in the person of William Glackens. Glackens traveled to Cuba to cover the Spanish American War for McClure's in 1898; later he focused on his painting career, but not without an editorial edge. The Shoppers (1907) above, suggests a point of view on the Gilded Age.

John Sloan, another of the Ashcan Clan, worked for Philadelphia papers but painted New York.

Sloan's political interests led him to work as the art director at The Masses, a socialist publication. His Ludlow Massacre cover is among his best known works.

But let's come back to Baudelaire and Guys. Baudelaire credits the illustrator with prodigious powers of observation, thoroughly attuned to his modern moment.

By 'modernity' I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable. Every old master has had his own modernity; the great majority of fine portraits that have come down to us from former generations are clothed in the costume of their own period...This transitory, fugitive element, whose metamorphoses are so rapid, must on no account be despised or dispensed with.

Toward the end of class we posed questions of our own period. What would the Constantin Guys of our time notice? Which customs and costumes, which artifacts, what speech, what ways of holding oneself, which contemporary textures, would our illustrator note and record? The beginning of that discussion focused particularly on technology: its manifestations and uses. Such an observation might have credibly been offered in any of the last 100 years. Which technology, what manifestations, and which influences upon contemporary life?

Secondly: what's behind the half-and-half formulation of the now and the ancient, the "contingent" versus the "immutable"? How shall we parse that equation in today's terms?

I invite comment on these questions. With more time to reflect, what do you really think about this? What might be the difference between a superficial answer–iPhones!–versus a more searching one?

Presently, a second installment which extends the technological and cultural dimensions of our discussion of visual reporting, from Alfred Waud to YouTube.

Images: Alfred Waud, Attack of the Louisiana Tigers on a Battery of the 11th Corps at Gettysburg, (July 1, 1863) ink and Chinese white on brown paper; Waud, Reconnoisance [sic.] by Buford’s Calvary Towards the Rapidan River, ink and china white on brown paper; Waud, Army of the Potomac–General Buford Attacked the Enemy at Raccoon Ford, September 14, 1863, wood engraving in Harper’s Weekly, October 3, 1863; Wu Youru, Forceful Attack at Bac Ninh, DSZHB No. 1, 1884; Nakamura Shuko, Great Japanese Naval Victory off Haiyang Island, woodblock print, 1894; Edouard Manet, Olympia, oil on canvas, 1863; Constantin Guys, Reviewing the Regiment, inkwash illustration, n.d.; William Glackens, The Shoppers, oil on canvas, 1907; William Glackens, Loading Horses on the Transports at Port Tampa, Inkwash and Chinese white, field sketch on assignment for McClure’s Magazine, 1898; John Sloan, McSorley's Bar, oil on canvas, 1912; John Sloan, Ludlow Massacre, magazine cover for The Masses, June 1914.


Graphic Designer said...

I find that the illustrations that the modern Guys would produce would not be so different from the ones he produced in his day. When you really think about it: how different is the past from the present? Yes-the advancement of technology, changing customs, modes of fashion, etc... differentiate the past from the present..but change isn't really new. While the content in the illustrations will have changed, the subject matter probably would not. Guys produced images of war...we still have war today. Guys produced images of gentlewoman...there are still plenty of those. One could go on about how many exciting things we have in contemporary life...but were there not exciting things in the 20th century?

Jess said...

I agree with Graphic Designer that although our contemporary lifestyle may have changed, important subject matters that affected 19th century lives also affect ours today. However, one important distinction is that we've become more culturally aware and accepting, reflected in our immediate surroundings. Today we live in a true melting pot of diverse religions, ethnicities, social classes, sexual orientations, etc. and we are learning to both coexist and understand what others have to offer. The world has become a global community thanks to technological advancements, and we've been able to take advantage of these opportunities by connecting to different cultures and allowing them to inspire us.

DannyDowd said...

On the matter of the evanescent vs. the eternal, I have two thoughts: first, perhaps both the evanescent and the eternal today are both becoming longer than they were in the 19th and 20th centuries. Was the earth not firmly believed to be about six thousand years old in the 19th century, while today we know it to be almost five billion years old? Was not a crowd milling about to see a hanging gone and forgotten in a moment, while now one can watch the hanging of Saddam Hussein to the hearts content? The meaning of evanescent and eternal has changed as our understanding of our world and our technology has changed.
Second, perhaps the now and the ancient are becoming less separate, with the entire internet at our fingertips. What was once confined to living memory or oral tradition can now be seen by billions in a single glance at wikipedia. The modern flaneur has a much more difficult audience to impress.

Audrey said...

I'm having trouble deciding what Baudelaire meant by the eternal type of beauty. The only thing that I know is eternally interesting and beautiful to us is, well, ourselves: the human figure. Obviously our idea of what constitutes the ideally beautiful human changes with the times. Rubenesque beauty isn't fashionable now. I'm wondering if Baudelaire was upset because he thought artists were confusing the eternal beauty of the human figure with the classical idea of human beauty - that classical paintings and sculptures only seemed beautiful because they reflected the classical conception of human beauty. Modern ideas about what beautiful people look like (fashion) seem too transitory to actually be Beautiful with a capital "B." It almost seemed like he was worried that the modern times would not be leaving a proper legacy of their concept of beauty.

Monica said...

One definite difference I would predict in the way modern Guys would illustrate is the choice of which activities he would select. These days, many common activities have digital alternatives. Would you find the same fashionable ladies shopping in boutiques, or would those ladies now spend all of their time on Many jobs now involve sitting behind computer screens, and even aspects of war, such as unmanned fighter jets, are becoming detached from human interaction. It would be interesting to see what modern Guys would record, what people actually do when they are outside and interacting. In a way, people today are characterized by the types of social activities they pursue since personal interaction is swiftly becoming optional rather than necessary.

Stanford said...

Because I feel the topic of consumer and information technology has been thoroughly discussed here and in class, I'll consider a different topic. That is, the increasing distrust that comes with lack of identity as our social circles have expanded. That was a mouthful. Let's look at some examples.

Your daily life on campus - how many security cameras catch your face? How many times is your student ID card your sole means of identification? No longer do we have doormen who know our names and ask us about our day - we have card swipes that light up green or red depending on our access levels - the most binary form of communication imaginable. The fact that the Wash U community doesn't know who we are - when we take an exam, enter a building, get our mail, or use public transportation, we must show our student ID card - seems significant enough for Guys or Baudelaire to take notice.

It comes down to more than technological advancements. It's about new and efficient ways of running institutions, communities, businesses, and even friends & family.

Jim O'Boyle said...

I respect and admire the artist who is able to make keen observations about the world around them, and repackage those notions into an image. But I think, given certain technological advancements, the role of that kind of work must necessarily change to maintain potency. Images that are strictly documentary in nature are rightly relegated to photography. Illustrated coverage of a war nowadays would likely seem in poor taste; every image, in some way, glorifies its subject. Applying craft to the depiction of dire, real-life situations would be unseemly. Illustration needs to posture itself as something alternative to the documentary, while not abandoning truth. It is Picasso's "lie that tells the truth." In exchange for deviating from pure reality, the artist's craft can afford the image some kind of editorial effect or poignancy that would otherwise not be so clearly articulated by nature. I think that most illustrators working in this field already realize these things, but having a refined, specific sense of identity is always going to help the artform assert itself as significant and communicate effectively.

David Maupin said...

The modern day moves extremely fast. Technologies have made it possible for people to get between two points quickly, allowing them to live secluded lifestyles away from populated areas, while maintaining a connection to the rest of the world. To that, it is interesting to see the affects of instant gratification by way of an internet connection.
Technology has created a generation of individuals unwilling to communicate with the people in their immediate surroundings in order to stay connected to the rest of the world. A modern Guys may find it interesting to see a group of friends out to dinner sitting silently on their mobile phones, inquiring in to what their friends are doing at the same moment.