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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Narrative Art

Recently, in discussing the passing of the nude figure as a common subject matter in art, it occurred to me that another type of painting has become even more rare. When was the last time you saw a newly created piece of art work done in a narrative mode? The fact is, narrative painting is so rare today I find myself needing to define the term. I guess, to put it into today's vernacular, it's Law & Order or Desperate Housewives rendered in paint on canvas. It's story-telling art, and the very fact that I have to use TV shows to describe it says a lot about why narrative art is no longer with us.

The much-maligned Norman Rockwell was probably the last of the great narrative painters. It's no accident that the end of his career coincided quite closely with the advent of story-telling in the electronic mode. A long artistic tradition dating as far back as cave painting with its wild animal hunts, through Egyptian and Medieval wall painting, to Jan Van Eyck's Marriage of Giovanni Arnofino, Michelangelo's Genesis on the Sistine ceiling, and European/American Genre painting, has come to an end in our lifetime. Worse than that, this type of painting has fallen into such disrepute amongst artists and critics that no one seems to feel the least bit sorry to see it go.

Super Hero Narrative Art
Manga narrative art

There is left remaining only two last vestiges of this art in the world today in two widely divergent and relatively minor areas. One is the highly refined and dynamically imaginative art of the classic comic book, and today's Japanese manga, usually of the super-hero/science fiction variety. The other is a relic of the fine art of history painting in the form of works depicting exploits of military combat.

Narrative combat art today (note the central passenger)
Both of these have to be included in the realm of fine art, given their popularity and their collectibility (albeit narrowly focused) in various archival forms amongst the highly devoted individuals who admire such things. Both genres have long, colorful traditions of artistic development with comic book art stretching back almost one hundred years, and combat artists having painted every conflict from the Crusades to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lybia.  For better or worse, neither of these forms of story-telling art seems in danger of demise.

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