Art First at Fumetto

Posted by on May 3rd, 2010 at 1:52 PM

This year’s Fumetto festival in the Swiss town of Lucerne is well under way, after a weekend of healthy programming. Precipitation might have kept some of the crowds away, but especially Sunday saw busy exhibition venues.

First some basics: Fumetto is not a festival like most in comics. Instead of being centered around the commercial exchange at publishers’ tables, it puts the art front and center. It’s the exhibitions that matter, and there are plenty of them. If one feels inspired, books can be sought out in the old corn exchange building in the medieval center of this picturesque town, where a well-stocked store offers the best in contemporary comics in an expansive area that also includes a podium for artists’ talks and panels, a café and a smallish exhibition space.

The latter offers selection of the best contributions to this year’s comics competition, in which over 900 young, international cartoonists participated. The winner in the group aged over 18 was the German-based Dane Adrian Wylezol, with a sobering story about a marriage disintegrating in dysfunction. I thought I knew what was going on with Danish artists, but I’ve never heard of Adrian. I hope to learn more. The winner of the 12-17-year olds was the Swiss Michael Kiener, while the Philippine Milo Danday won that of the under 12s. There were clearly a lot of high-quality contributions to this contest, which is heartening to see, even if one detects the influence of the now-established 90s generation. The great Anke Feuchtenberger, for example, continues to make her formidable presence felt in the work of many of these youngsters.

Original pages for FF#59 by Kirby, Sinnott and Lee

The festival’s major attraction, of course, is the grand Jack Kirby retrospective, The House that Jack Built. Co-organized by Dan Nadel and Paul Gravett, it is — surprisingly — the first of its kind anywhere. It unites a good 150 original pages by the master, spanning his entire career. One room on the first floor is devoted to the 1940s work with Joe Simon. It includes a vigorous page of character sketches, an entire Fighting American story, several splash pages and covers, including a couple of spectacular pencil-only, unpublished ones for Black Magic and Foxhole.

The second floor is devoted primarily to the Marvel Age, with the entirety of Fantastic Four #54 as its centerpiece. It is simply astonishing to experience the fluidity and inventiveness with which Kirby composed his pages at this high point in his career, and it is gripping — and kind of touching — to see the care Joe Sinnott took in inking them in his lush brush line, as well as to parse more closely than one can from the comics as printed the illustrative, slightly romantic embellishment of especially the characters’ face that he occasional contributed.

For contrast, an entire Kamandi story, issue 6’s “The Flower”, inked by Mike Royer is displayed in an adjacent room. Kirby had by this time moved toward greater stylization and Royer’s famously faithful inks impressively carry this through by virtue of being more energetic than any previous Kirby inker besides Simon. The Third floor focuses on the 1970s, with a suite of astonishingly dynamic “Losers” pages taking the cake. Kirby at his most abstract, bringing the emotional energy he had spent a career channeling to a logical end point.

All in all, it is a fantastic show, even if one misses the Golden Age Captain America, some more romance pages, and perhaps an early 60s monster story, and the selection of 4th World pages is a little underwhelming. One might further have wished for a slightly bigger venue than the charming 16th-century building into which it is crammed, and the lighting could be better in places, as could the framing of certain works.

But that’s picking nits — the main problem, really, is one no one can do anything about: the fact that almost all the surviving original pages are inked, essentially presenting the King’s work through the interpretation of lesser hands. The few pencil originals in the show — which also includes some 1907s True Life Divorce pages, with unfinished, partial inks by Vince Colletta — display much more clearly Kirby’s expressive range and force than could any finished page. The photostats of original pencils — taken from copies made by Kirby in the 70s and well-known to reader of The Jack Kirby Collector — hung next to certain pages in the show accentuate this impression further, but they are unfortunately of lamentably low quality.

The exhibition also reminds one of how far comics have to go in their current process of cultural consolidation. These are major works of art by one of America’s great artists of the 20th century, and yet Kirby has never been the object of a similar show in his home country. Why aren’t any of his works in the MoMA or the Whitney? And as a fellow traveler pointed out — why do contemporary hacks like the Swiss draftsman (or cartoonist by any other name) Olaf Breuning get a full museum treatment, in the Lucerne Art Museum, while Kirby’s art is crammed into a charming, but small and inadequate space?

Anyway, good art tends to thrive on the fringes, and Fumetto is as great as any showcase of the best contemporary comics have to offer. Amongst the highlights was an inventively curated exhibition of the work of Nadia Raviscioni, with focus on her new, autobiographically inflected fantasy, Vent frais, vent du matin, ten years on the making. Beautiful, funny and inventive work synthesizing big-nose cartooning and textural illustration in pages that alternate naturally between gag mode and oneiric suggestion, this promises to be a major book.

From the 'Ottological Room'

Thomas Ott and Souther Salazar both offer impressive displays of how comics and installation art may complement each other. The Swiss Ott has created an impressive, immersive piece in collaboration with Daniel Affolter, that they call ‘The Ottological Room.’ It’s an elaborate two-room installation of a gothically inflected doctor’s office and operating theater in early 20th-century style, with anatomical samples, wax models of deformities, a biological experimental suite, etc. An extremely well-articulated three-dimensional representation of the artist’s creative interests, but perhaps also slightly adolescent in its one-note assertion of its own cool post-punk grimness.

In adjacent rooms, Souther Salazar’s show couldn’t be more of a contrast. It combines drawings, paintings and diorama-like installations to present a vibrant, delightful (if perhaps overly cute for some tastes) creative vision of anthropomorphic creatures living in a world where technology merges with the natural world. Apparently some of the many kids visiting the show were swiping some of the little characters, which I would consider indicative of success.

The breakout book was unquestionably Brecht Evens’ Les Noceurs, which will soon see publication in English at Drawn and Quarterly as The Wrong Place. Vibrantly rendered in gouache and watercolor, the book confidently boasts a variety of approaches to storytelling. I haven’t read it yet, but just from seeing the exhibition, with its variety of pages on display and the large, backlit painting at the end wall made especially for it, I would predict it to be one of the books to watch this year.

And these are merely the cream of a wide range of exhibitions that also included a well-considered and quite beautiful presentation of the work of the Hong Kong cartoonist Chihoi, who has had a long connection to the European scene, an hilarious concept-driven show by the Austrian Nicholas Mahler, who shows that one can still do funny superhero satire, and a large, articulate show of Didier Lefêvre, Emmanuel Guibert and Fréderic Lemercier’s masterpiece of documentarism, The Photographer.

Less successful is the gallery-style show by Ben Jones, which seems slapped together in a hurry without much thought and is ultimately unrepresentative of this versatile and occasionally exhilarating artist’s work. Jones admitted as much himself in an otherwise fairly uninformative conversation with a hard-working Dan Nadel on Saturday, pointing to his current exhibition in Texas as a preferable showcase of his art.

While certain aspects of the festival could be handled better — the Corn Exchange space is not ideal for panel discussions, being too bustly and noisy, and the lack of a good venue might in part account for the relative lack of such programming. A better space and more interaction with artists and people who communicate intelligently about comics would help make a good festival even better. Overall, however, Fumetto again shows itself as one of the finest annual manifestations of comics as an art form, and essential on the festival circuit.

From the Salazar show

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