Saturday, August 12, 2017

NEW REFLECTIONS ON OLD COMBAT ART, part 3

For me, the work of Harry Townsend was among the most impressive art in the Smithsonian's exhibition of World War I art.  Townsend wrote in his war diary, "Only those near to it all can know what endurance and suffering that was."  He was thankful to be there in the battles of the Marne, and of St. Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne,  for the "impressions, spiritual and material, that alone can furnish the inspiration for a convincing pictorial record." 

Here is Townsend's powerful charcoal drawing, "The Hurry Call, Night of May 30, 1918."


It shows two red cross wagons racing to the front in response to an emergency call.  Townsend chose not to detail the mangled bodies they would encounter there, although he certainly saw plenty of bloodshed and wrote about it in his diary.  His approach is more symbolic.  His dread is more abstract.  Whatever his reasons for restraint, I find this to be a formidable drawing, both in form and content.

A number of commenters to my previous post praised the work of fine artist Otto Dix, who graphically showed the mangled bodies and distorted them:


It has been suggested that fine artists such as Dix responded to the horrors of war in a more genuine, meaningful way than illustrators.  He abandoned conventional western realism and clawed out drawings that seem like a howl of despair.  I find Dix's drawing powerful too, but a large part of that is due to shock value.

In one of Townsend's paintings, he captured the vertiginous experience of air combat-- something new in the history of war:



In his diary, Townsend described his first experience with flight:
Higher and higher we went.  What a cubist painting below, and cubist paintings would appeal, if only they could catch some of the beauty of color and design of all those lovely patches on the canvas beneath us.... It was beautiful beyond wild dreams.  Here and there one caught the earth way down there between the clouds, struck now by the sunlight and thrown into a wondrous high key of light, citrons and greens and lavender.  And here and there thrown into shadow by the clouds, one saw it in rich, low tones like music, close and melodious, purples and low greens and earth that were like bass to the high tenor of the sun.
As soon as he landed, he promptly vomited into the gunner's cockpit where he was sitting.

No matter what horrors he had witnessed, Townsend could still be astonished by the beauty of nature. And he gave (in my opinion better than Dix) "a convincing pictorial record" that conveyed both the "spiritual and the material" ramifications of air warfare.  In his drawing of air warfare, Dix again focuses on the mangled bodies left behind...


Powerful, yet I don't find Dix's treatment any more insightful or creative than a drawing by an EC horror comic artist, or a modern graphic novelist who had been nowhere near battle.  For example, compare this war picture by Dix...


...with this Jimbo comic book illustration by Gary Panter:


I guarantee you, Panter had no first hand experience with, or special insights into, war.  Yet, he finds it easy to simulate the horror that Dix experienced first hand.  In my opinion neither of them could do what Townsend did.

The argument seems to be that illustrators, harnessed to a commercial function or purpose (or as Kev Ferrara put it, "faith") are not as sensitive to the true horror of War.  But here we see a hand drawn and lettered poster by Townsend, who was sufficiently sensitive to the horror of starvation to try use art to do something about it:


I suppose a nihilist would argue that such "purposeful" art is oblivious to our existential predicament.  I'm not sure that distinction would impress the starving French peasants.

32 comments:

Grégory Cugnod said...

Hello David,

It is the first time I write to you, although I have been an avid reader of your posts over the years. I am most grateful for the amazing artists you've made me discover, from Cober to Briggs, and from Starr to Fawcett. And I could not agree more with you about Jeff Koons and co.

Having said that, I felt compelled to react to this series of posts, as I profoundly disagree with your view.

To me the problems with the artists you praise here is not that they are insensitive to the horrors of war. The problem is that in pictures such as the Townsend painting you show, the primary goal is to be beautiful, a most unsettling goal considering the topic.

In Otto Dix's works, you get the fear, the utter fear. The comparison you make with Gary Panter is unfair, considering the latter may perfectly have been inspired by Otto Dix or other WWI artists. But back then, it was utterly NEW, like that way of waging war was.

That war was new, yet Townsend makes it look like business as usual... I think his old mindset could not grasp the change. He makes it look eerie.

Best regards,
Keep challenging us !

chris bennett said...

Thanks for these David. I agree with you about preferring Townsend to Dix. My only disagreement is with the idea that Dix's work should be considered as in any way 'powerful' - even that it should be considered at all. His work is nothing but trite platitudes about disgust flagged up by cartooning ugliness or dashing out basic illustrations of a distressing situation which bring no more emotional maturity to bear than the average 12 year old schoolboy - which is why many who have never witnessed warfare first hand are able to do exactly the same thing, and in many, many cases, far better.

The Townsend ambulance drawing and the barrage balloon painting embody, among many other things, redemption; the same reason Gaudier Brzeska carved a woman out of an enemy rifle butt he had picked up from the battlefield. And that's something that is not obvious, because, thank god, I've never had to experience what it means to face the kind of things these men and women had to endure.

Robert Cook said...

"Powerful, yet I don't find Dix's treatment any more insightful or creative than a drawing by an EC horror comic artist, or a modern graphic novelist who had been nowhere near battle. For example, compare this war picture by Dix...."

Perhaps this is because the use of distorted drawing in subsequent commercial art and cartooning--an approach taken from the examples of fine artists such as Dix or Grosz--has diluted the impact and meaning such distortions conveyed in their original context. The artistic revolutions of one age become common and cliched through wider use and over familiarity. (No one today can hear Louis Armstrong or Jimi Hendrix in the way each musician's original listeners did, as they influenced all who came after them.)

As for the Townsend aerial painting, it is a lovely aesthetic object, but it doesn't in the least communicate the devastating impact on human beings of the actions he depicts. Dix keeps the consequences to human beings a focus of his drawing. The Townsend painting could be the cover of a pulp magazine about flying commandos.

Robert Cosgrove said...

This seems like an appropriate place to mention that the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut will be mounting an exhibition this September, Harry Everett Townsend: Illustrations of a World War I Artist.

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Laurence John said...

David, you must have read somewhere that those wagons are ‘racing’ because they don’t look it. they look like they’re crawling along. i don’t sense any ‘dread’ in the picture either. the low kew misty atmposphere, elegent trees and soft lights in the distance resemble nothing less than late 19th - early 20th century pictorialism.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pictorialism#/media/File:Stieglitz-SpringShowers.jpg

Robert Cook said...

The Townsend poster about starving people lacks any real emotional impact. I can't and don't say that only a distorted drawing a la Dix or Grosz could sufficiently communicate the anguish of a starving populace, but Townsend, at least, fails to do so in this picture.

kev ferrara said...

As for the Townsend aerial painting, it is a lovely aesthetic object, but it doesn't in the least communicate the devastating impact on human beings of the actions he depicts.

Do you have Dix for brains? You seem unable to grasp that there is far more to the war experience than just devastation and horror. Which means war art can do all sorts of different stuff, some of it, god forbid, subtle.

David Apatoff said...

Grégory Cugnod -- Welcome and thanks for writing. People who "profoundly disagree" with my view are always welcome here. It's the only way I learn anything in this process.

You say, "in pictures such as the Townsend painting you show, the primary goal is to be beautiful, a most unsettling goal considering the topic." I understand your point, although I think the term "beautiful" is so immense and multi-faceted it might make more sense to use a term such as "pretty." (There can be terrible "beauty," beauty that is poignant or jagged or sad, and I don't think that's what you're talking about.) I would agree that the Townsend painting has an air of "prettiness" about it-- those pastel colors and plump shapes have a surprising sweetness to them, which I agree is incongruous for a combat painting. That's one reason I included the passage from Townsend's diary. He was clearly besotted by his first experience in an airplane, being out of the mud and the stink and the rotting carcasses and looking down at the world from a totally new perspective (Flight was still new and those vast blue skies were still unsullied). He rhapsodized that the earth was still capable of loveliness-- a perspective that had been lost to him in the trenches. Upon reflection, I still think that's a worthy subject for "combat" art.

In addition, Townsend uses his technical skill-- a skill that Dix apparently lacked-- to show the vertiginous feel of aerial combat. The perspective on that immense dirigible, the dizzying height above the ground below, the swooping angle of the British plane, the tailspin of that flaming German plane-- that was all a revelation to the people on the ground who could not have imagined flying only a few years before. You may dismiss the challenge of conveying this sensory experience as mere "reportorial," but then I don't know how you distinguish it from J.M.W. Turner's efforts to convey what it was like to be on a ship in a storm.

I agree with you (and several others here) that "In Otto Dix's works, you get the fear, the utter fear." That may be the key distinction; Dix has lost control; he doesn't seem to plan his drawings well, to work out a composition, he doesn't attempt to apply classical methods of design or to adhere to perspective or anatomy-- he seems instead to be saying that such formalistic constraints are a trivial distraction when confronted with the horror of World War I.

I agree that sometimes that can be true. I tend to be suspicious because today we seem to be living in an era where artists believe that such formalistic constraints are a trivial distraction when confronted with the horror of what happened in the high school cafeteria today, or the trauma of their adolescence. So tell me: Does Dix abandon all formalistic constraints because the horror is so great or because his temperament is so weak? Does Townsend adhere to those formalistic constraints because "his old mindset could not grasp the change" or because he was tougher and more fearless and more driven by a purpose or a faith that Dix did not have? The answer to these questions is not obvious to me.

To approach this issue from another perspective, many artists who have attempted to make erotic art have tried to make it an utterly abandoned way, to cast off the shackles of civilization and tap into raw passion. Sometimes this means flinging paint in a frenzy, or having sex rolling around in paint on canvas, etc. But when the heat passes, the artistic record left behind is invariably a big mess that means nothing to anyone. The artists who create better erotic art-- more stirring, passionate and inspiring-- are the ones who remain once-removed from the immediate experience, who think about what they are doing and respect the kinds of constraints that Townsend respected in his war pictures.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

It seems to me a primary difference between the 2 is actually subject matter. Townsend's subject was the war, Dix' subject was fear.

I agree it's important to put yourself in the frame of mind of the audience back then. Both these subjects were new for them. Townsend showed them what this war looked like, Dix what it felt like (to him).

We now all know what it looked like, so those pictures lose some of their impact, while the "expressionist" ones that only aim for the gut don't.

I haven't gone through all the exhibit's works on the website, but I eoulf like to see a work that does both. It seems war photography has been so important because it is an ideal medium to combine both. A picture may be well composed but you're still seeing the pain and horror and sorrow in the eyes of actual, individual human beings.

Robert Cook said...

"You seem unable to grasp that there is far more to the war experience than just devastation and horror. Which means war art can do all sorts of different stuff, some of it, god forbid, subtle."

Fine, but Townsend fails in his depiction of aerial combat to replace the sense of devastation and horror with any other worthwhile feeling. It's a pretty picture, another professional illustration. Ho hum. I get a greater sense of feeling, of the ineffable--along with skilled draughtsmanship--from any painting by Andrew Wyeth of his surroundings in Maine. Townsend's painting of a dramatic moment--which results in a human's death--is skilled, but trivial.

chris bennett said...

The Townsend dogfight picture:
We hover above the barrage balloon as if dreaming about surfing a soft green dolphin. A dolphin that flies, a gas whale, a god drifting from Olympus, the aerialist high above the world. Above our cultivated fields, the beautiful patchwork quilt sown unconsciously by our concerns far below. And then the rip of belching smoke, The clotted bruise-coloured trail past the emerald/blue pillow in the sky, the unseen tears as the pilot faces head-on his final slumber; the blackness below the beauty of the world.
All this from looking at Townsend's 'trivial' little picture.

Robert Cook said...

Chris,

This is what you draw from Townsend's picture, and your appreciation of it and reaction to it is valid...for you. It does nothing for me. I get much greater pleasure from the (self?) portrait that serves as your icon. (This is not to damn with faint praise...I do admire and take pleasure from your icon painting, as well as the other paintings at your site...which I've just now looked at for the first time. I see you studied under Euan Euglow. His paintings I adore!)

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- Thanks for introducing me to Gaudier Brzeska. An interesting character to say the least.

As for Dix: just as I try to gain what I can from art brut, or the drawings of children-- their utter lack of guile, their intense sincerity-- I look for what I can gain from Dix. I agree with those here who say that Dix's art was a screech of pain, something so overwhelming he could not digest it or refine it, and something powerful enough that he was able to throw the previous 200 years of art history in the trash, without looking back. That makes him historically interesting , and perhaps an important witness to what transpired back then. To be the first person to do such work, like the first abstract expressionists, took guts. (Robert Motherwell wrote: "Nothing as drastic as abstract art could have come into existence save as the consequence of a most profound, relentless, unquenchable need. The need is for felt experience -- intense, immediate direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic.") The problems arise when the next person in line starts to do it. You find that it's really pretty easy to fake-- not just technically, but in terms of the feelings and spirit too. You don't have to have Motherwell's "profound, relentless, unquenchable need" in order to paint a pretty creditable abstract expressionist painting, and you don't have to feel Dix's fear or pain in order to draw like he does. Gary Panter or a hundred horror comic book artists of the 1950s could draw a creditable Dix using, as you say, "trite platitudes about disgust flagged up by cartooning ugliness or dashing out basic illustrations of a distressing situation." So where does that leave Dix's art object itself? Historically important but aesthetically fungible?

Robert Cook wrote: "Perhaps this is because the use of distorted drawing in subsequent commercial art and cartooning--an approach taken from the examples of fine artists such as Dix or Grosz--has diluted the impact and meaning such distortions conveyed in their original context. The artistic revolutions of one age become common and cliched through wider use...."

I don't disagree with your position (as I suggested in my response to Chris Bennett, above). But where does that take us with Dix? If we agree that Panter or a hundred other comic artists could imitate Dix's approach, then we might still give Dix credit for being an originator and for paying a heavier emotional price for that style than the imitators who came along and did it just because it looked cool. My question for you becomes: do we value Dix's art for the way it looks, or as an historical artifact? It can't be the physical drawing, because anyone with modest technical skill can mimic what Dix did. If we walked into a room and saw a Dix commingled with a dozen Panters, we could not tell who did what, yet you would value the Dix more than the Panters. Is that because we are celebrating the originator of the concept? Or because we value that Dix suffered for his art, the way people value Van Gogh paintings because Van Gogh suffered? If that's the case, then isn't the value in the certificate of authenticity, more than the image?

Robert Cosgrove-- Thanks very much! I had no idea. It looks like Townsend is having his day. Let's hope we don't have to wait another 100 years before these works see daylight again.

Robert Cook said...

"My question for you becomes: do we value Dix's art for the way it looks, or as an historical artifact? It can't be the physical drawing, because anyone with modest technical skill can mimic what Dix did. If we walked into a room and saw a Dix commingled with a dozen Panters, we could not tell who did what, yet you would value the Dix more than the Panters."

One admires the originators for the quality of their work. One can mimic the work of originators, well or badly, but one cannot replicate their feel or sensibility. Despite the armadas of guitarists who have followed Hendrix and who have much greater technical facility than he, including a few who slavishly copy him, (such as the dreary Robin Trower),Hendrix still provides more pleasure to me than the many succeeding guitar virtuosos. Hendrix's playing was not just a stylistic trick, and was not about technique, but was an expression of who he was, just as Lester Young's playing or Thelonious Monk's playing expressed who they were. One values the originators for expressing who they are. I still enjoy Hendrix for his playing, and not because he was an originator. One values the imitators only to the extent they can diverge from and distinguish themselves from those who inspired them. I like more of Panter's work than I do of Dix's, but there is much of Panter's work that leaves me cold. (I can certainly tell Panter apart from Dix, btw.) I'm not really such a huge admirer of Dix, overall; it is particularly his work dealing with the war that I admire. The rest of his oeuvre, not so much. I admire and enjoy George Grosz much more, and no one he has inspired--I'm thinking of Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scarfe--has surpassed or even matched him.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- Thanks, I'm alway happy to see fresh picture (although I'm not too impressed with that Dorne.)

Laurence John-- I used the word "racing" because of Townsend's caption for the picture, which appears on the Smithsonian's web site: "two Army ambulances responding to a 'hurry call' or emergency summons on the night of May 30, 1918, in the Toul Sector of France. " That, combined with what looks to me like dust kicked up behind the wheels, and what I know about Hemingway's experiences as an ambulance driver during the war, made me think these vehicles were moving along at a pretty good clip, or as fast the rutted, cratered, rural roads would permit. I guess discussions like this are why cartoonists draw "race lines" behind speeding cars.

As for the "soft lights in the distance," given the subject matter of the picture I suspect that glow is from battle-- search lights, fires or explosions. I don't think they're from tiki lanterns on a patio for a cocktail reception. But again, viewers can always have these discussions any time an artist chooses to leave meanings open ended and implicit. When Dix draws a bullet hole in someone's head with their face rotting off, we all know that person is dead. But if we keep art on a higher, more oblique level, the Townsend drawing could suggest Orpheus driving into hell to try to bring Eurydice back from the dead.

Robert Cook-- Your comment about the poster for starving French peasants reminded me of the dispute over Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" posters. The intellectuals at the Department of Defense (such as Archibald MacLeish) rejected Rockwell's corny posters because they thought work by fine artists such as Marc Chagall and Stuart Davis would have more emotional impact. The DoD posters were a huge flop and the Rockwell posters, printed privately through the Post, were the most effective fundraising tool of the war. (http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2017/04/05/culture/art/art-post-rockwell-goes-war.html)

chris bennett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chris bennett said...

Robert:
The poetics I drew from the Townsend dogfight picture were not induced by subjective response but by the sensual graphics objectively written into the image.
To take them one at a time:

"We hover above the barrage balloon as if dreaming about surfing a soft green dolphin."
The aquarium-like palette quite literally embodies the sense of floating within water and the viewpoint above the lozenge form of the barrage balloon naturally suggests a metaphor for, say, riding a dolphin. We are not on a skate board here or sitting abreast the tank of a steam train, or standing on a table for example.

"A dolphin that flies, a gas whale, a god drifting from Olympus, the aerialist high above the world. Above our cultivated fields, the beautiful patchwork quilt sown unconsciously by our concerns far below."
The particulars of the painting and its airy facture tells us unequivocally that we are at altitude and drifting at the speed of a swaying balloon - and that's very, very like the standard dream of flying common to all humans; the sense of uneasy, fragile, precarious god-like detachment looking down on the ant heap below.

"And then the rip of belching smoke, The clotted bruise-coloured trail past the emerald/blue pillow in the sky, the unseen tears as the pilot faces head-on his final slumber; the blackness below the beauty of the world."
The grey/black of that smoke is chromatically, tonally and graphically 'out of tune' with the oceanic breadth of forms across the picture and its high-key aquarium palette. It reads almost as if the picture has been scratched downwards to reveal its dark monochrome ground.

All to say this is authored into the picture as physical facts and is precisely why my response was what it was.

Thank you BTW for taking the trouble to look at my website and the kind words about my self-portrait. I'm afraid I haven't updated my website for a loooooong time - my Facebook page does most of that work these days... :)

Tom said...

The Townsend looks like Harding's drawing of the tanks in the pervious post. Except Townsend's picture feels more poetic, (I really don't feel dread) less ruff and tumble. Both subjects are backlit, in similar ways. so you see the subjects dramatic silhouettes.

Wow, Laurence those images are eerily similar to the the Townsend drawing.

In the Aylward's drawing in your second post , it's not the reporting aspect of the picture that strikes me, or it's quality of illustrating events of WW 1, but it's the value and color of the distance hills against the white stone buildings, which reminds me of TVG rides through central France, or even the travel posters of the 1920's and 30's. As well as the wonderful sense of proportion, the scale of the furniture in the ruble and the curve of the road as it heads out of town to the distant hills, the way the wagon becomes and intersection and connects the two sides of the street and the green of the landscape.


I agree with Robert, Laurence and Gregory, it seems Dix reflects Yeat's, "change, change utterly..." the disillusion people must have felt in the face of such self inflicted destruction. Let alone all that was to follow WWI. As Jacques Lusseryren wrote, "By the end of a year in Buchenwald I was convinced that life was not at all as I had been taught to believe it, neither life nor society."

Both Townsend and Dix's art express and exist for different reasons. Artistically Townsend and the others are infinity better artists. As you wrote, "Townsend could still be astonished by the beauty of nature," like Monet painting his dying wife, who became inthralled with the beauty of color arrangement before his eyes and not his personal lost (at least for a little while). Townsend's pictures are more pleasing to look at, which tends to take the affects of the war out of them. I find myself enjoying their visual appeal and not thinking about the horrors of war. Maybe someone like Kathe Kollwitz or Goya would be a better contrast as their artistic skill is so much stronger then Dix's. But even in their work I find myself looking past the depressing subject matter to the beautiful forms and shapes they have created.

But why is the comparison needed? It is really not that much about the content is it? As meaning and content can change through time. Meret Oppenhiem's fur cup seems kinda of funny and off putting now, and could be interpreted in many different ways, but it certainly doesn't feel nihilistic to me. It seems to me your much more interested in how the work was done, it's artistic skill so to speak or it's "treatment," as you wrote. Is it modernity's war on skill at the heart of the matter?








Robert Cook said...

Chris,

I'm afraid I lack the aesthetic sensibility that allows you to see and describe the Townsend picture in such terms, a lack that prevents me even to be able to appreciate your descriptive explanation. I see the Townsend painting as lackluster and dull. I don't like the paint handling, and it all looks a bit like cotton candy to me. (I can't really read or appreciate most poetry, either.)

Tom, I'm glad you mentioned Kollwitz, who had slipped my mind. Her draughtsmanship is strong, and her sensibility more to my liking.

Anonymous said...

Dix's war was a vastly more horrifying experience than what was Townsend's.
While Townsend was sketching, Dix was fighting and being wounded. Dix would
do these pieces in the years after the war, based on his nightmares. They
weren't for the war department. Dix was capable of realism and polish, you
can see many later examples. That these pieces resemble comic panels to some
now, takes nothing away from their impact and importance in their time. They
would have shocked doubly, in their subject and their modern approach. This
was no doubt a deliberate decision and not based on a supposed lack of ability
or a weakness in temperament.
Dix's art was challenging, and the creation of such had great personal
consequences that Townsend had no experience with. Remember, Dix would pay a
great price for his artistic choices, being labelled degenerate and being
forbidden to paint for many years by the Nazis.

Laurence John said...

David: "But if we keep art on a higher, more oblique level, the Townsend drawing could suggest Orpheus driving into hell to try to bring Eurydice back from the dead”

that would be ‘imposing a narrative’ which is what you’re doing with that image already, except without the Orpheus bit: if you didn’t already know the background story (or recognise the cross on the side of the truck) you’d have very little sense of what was going on dramatically in that image… a misty nightime picture of some vague shapes, not disimilar to a Whistler nocturne or a 1900 pictorialism photo of some trees in the twilight by the Seine.

the problem, of course, is that it's impossible not to read things into an image when you recognise elements within it such as ‘soldier’ ‘smoke’ or ‘gun’. this is why Kev’s oft repeated mantra that art should communicate by it’s plastic organisation only and that the referents aren’t important is so problematic. while in theory it sounds correct, it’s virtually impossible not to bring our own personal interest to an image when we recognise the things within it and what they refer to.

RE Dix: sure he can be shrill, hysterical and ugly, but so were his musical equivalents Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. i guess you had to be there, in 1918 to understand the climate. Dix wasn’t exactly a one off. remember this was a war in which men pissed their pants in terror in a trench, saw their best friend’s brains in the mud, or came home with post-traumatic stress disorder, or with half of their face missing. wouldn’t it be odd if at least some of the visual art (and music) of that time wasn’t like shattering glass ?

Li-An said...

Sorry, I did not read everything. Just to give a link to Bofa’s work. He was wounded in 1915 and made a lot of drawings on WWI. His point of view is bitter humour and so are his illustrations - very far from Dix or Harding https://magalerieaparis.wordpress.com/2013/10/09/gus-bofa-baionnette/

Aleš said...

There is an underground comic called Stripburger (and thematic versions like Warburger) in my country, that publishes this kind of crap all the time:

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8

I have met some of the authors and not only they can't draw, they also firmly believe there is no need for them to get acquainted with expressive options that traditional drawing provides. Because they never gained anatomical and gestural knowledge their figures never express an experience of human state of mind. Their figures feel like information graphics from toilet doors wrapped in aggressive, awkward scribbles, their faces have an emotional range of a sad/angry smiley type face distorted with graphical crudeness. Similarly I don't experience fear when I look at Dix war drawings because there is no such content sensually present underneath the brutal superficial graphical style. Look at the drama of gestures in Kollwitz' Mother and Child, the strength of her hug and lifelesness of a heavy dangling head. Sense the desperation and ultimate loss. Now that's scary. Dix's stuff on the other hand shows the unpleasant appearance of something distorted and chaotic, but it doesn't evoke any depth of human sensuality and consequently does not teach me anything.

Aleš said...

I like Townsend's paintings. The poisonous colour scheme, a massive balloon menacingly hovering high above the ground while airplanes around it are dropping like flies, it provides a better sensual perception of an event than Dix's child like scribblings of figures bending under an airplane glued to the ceiling. Chris Bennett's explanations are great. The emergency wagon picture, while there might be pictorialistic conventions present, there is also a sense of something dangerous and critical in the air, there is something powerful about the truck in the night driving through a mass of crippled soldiers towards a fire like light behind the smoke.
When some of you say "Townsend showed them what this war looked like, Dix what it felt like" (Benjamin De Schrijver) I think It's the other way around - Townsend imbued the sensual information underneath the traditional style which bothers you, while Dix just showed what chaos looks like in a form of a graphical style.

Tom said...


Ales wrote and I think it's David's point also,

"...I don't experience fear when I look at Dix war drawings because there is no such content sensually present underneath the brutal superficial graphical style."

I don't think the drawings are about fear and horror or chaos, I think they are more about the insanity of it all. IMHO

kev ferrara said...

Townsend fails in his depiction of aerial combat to replace the sense of devastation and horror with any other worthwhile feeling.

Guess what? You're no arbiter of "worthwhile feeling." (Now you know.)

You seem to be instead actually quite insensitive to a whole swath of moods and feelings that others might find quite effective, enriching and worthwhile. (Including those found in the Townsend.)

Secondly, Townsend need not "replace" what you presuppose all war pictures should express with his own idea. He merely needs to take his own ideas to fruition, ignoring absurd dogmatists like you. (Luckily, you are in charge of nobody's art but your own.)

kev ferrara said...

it's impossible not to read things into an image when you recognise elements within it such as ‘soldier’ ‘smoke’ or ‘gun’. this is why Kev’s oft repeated mantra that art should communicate by it’s plastic organisation only and that the referents aren’t important is so problematic. while in theory it sounds correct, it’s virtually impossible not to bring our own personal interest to an image when we recognise the things within it and what they refer to.

Read Ales' post of 8/15/2017 9:16 AM. He takes a great stab at being sensitive to what is being communicated purely sensually in the two Townsend's pieces. (Chris Bennett's posts are also making sensitive strides at expressing the pictorial feelings Townsend is capturing. However I would argue against how Chris is articulating them as specific metaphors. Also the effects themselves, written in the plastic language of art, as they join to form effect complexes to express the ideas of the picture are severely diminished when converted into words. If somebody can't feel what a picture is doing, then there's no use telling them.)

Of course, I must agree, there are other stages of a viewing experience, where recognition leads to reference leads to memory, etc. But in good art, the first strike is always aesthetic. And the aesthetic moment is full of meaning. And, I believe, the longer a work of art can sustain its aesthetic moment the more every facet of it that is essential to understand it has already been communicated. As T.S. Eliot put it, "Poetry Communicates Before it is Understood."



Benjamin De Schrijver said...

"When some of you say "Townsend showed them what this war looked like, Dix what it felt like" (Benjamin De Schrijver) I think It's the other way around - Townsend imbued the sensual information underneath the traditional style which bothers you, while Dix just showed what chaos looks like in a form of a graphical style."

I agree with this so I think our differences are just semantic. Maybe I can rephrase... Townsend creates a sensual experience of being in the war, while Dix tries to give plastic shape to the inner turmoil and nightmares the war caused in him. Townsend is dealing with something that to a certain extent is an objective reality so his work is more pictorial. Dix is dealing with his mind which bends and stretches and skews reality so he chose to present it that way.

Note I'm not arguing for the benefit of either artist. I think clearly Townsend is more skilled. I just believe the most important difference between the two artists is their subject matter or what they're trying to achieve.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Scratch "the most important difference" and change that to "an important difference"

Robert Cook said...

"Guess what? You're no arbiter of 'worthwhile feeling.'"

Guess what? I'm the arbiter of what passes for worthwhile feeling to me. Your insistence on the excellence of Townsend's painting (and of my philistinism) expresses your opinion, which is valid for you, but does not convince me any more than the painting itself that there's anything in it beyond skilled professionalism.

kev ferrara said...

Your insistence on the excellence of Townsend's painting

My insistence is on the validity of the aesthetic ideas effectively expressed through these works; that the aesthetic ideas, though sometimes subtle, even beautiful, are in fact easily "worthwhile." Such seems so obvious, I have trouble conceding it to be mere opinion.

None of these pictures are refined in the way these artists' studio pictures would normally be. They are quickly executed. Yet, what I find so excellent, is just how strong they are as images given the trying circumstances under which they were executed. The Townsend dirigible picture is clearly dashed off, resulting in some of the drawing being a bit crude. But I've never seen another image like it, with its particular aesthetic ideas expressing that particular experience. So I love it, even with its obvious faults. I feel what he's getting at immediately when I look at the piece. I feel the oceanic grandeur and heavenly float of that moment and find the way he captured it glorious, even in its modest state of finish.

your opinion, which is valid for you, but does not convince me any more than the painting itself that there's anything in it beyond skilled professionalism.

I don't argue over opinions. I have no problem with you not liking these works. One of the fascinating new things for me with aesthetics as a philosophy is the recognition that people have different levels of sensitivity to aesthetic stimuli and so prefer different zones on the blatancy-to-subtlety scale. The problem with arguing with someone who prefers blatancy is that, often, not only can't they experience subtle aesthetic force, but they often can't imagine such exists at all, because they can't actually experience it. I can't fault you for being insensitive. And I certainly understand being skeptical about stuff you can't experience. But what I can fault you for, at this point, is your failure to imagine the possibility that such might be the case.

The point, bluntly put, would be that "just because you, dear sir, can't see it, that doesn't mean it isn't there." So your declaration that "no worthwhile feeling" is present is actually a very arrogant and annoying assumption on your part that you have sufficient sensitivity, let alone taste, to make such declarations. But you don't. You are no "Master Sommelier" of art. If you can't detect the espers and overtones, you simply ain't got the nose for the job. And you should come to accept that.