Signs and Narrative in Art: A R Penck – Research

I recently discovered the ArtRabbit app, which tells you about art events and exhibitions in your area. I was excited to get involved in more live art happenings, and a view into the art world outside Brookes. On here, I saw a half-day conference (free for students to attend) at the Ashmolean in Oxford related to their exhibition on A R Penck, and decided I would go along.

Curator Lena Fritsch gives us a mini tour of the A R Penck exhibition at the Ashmolean after the various talks, in front of the Edinburgh (Northern Darkness III) mural.

A R Penck was one of several pseudonyms for Ralf Winkler, which he first used in the 1960s to elude the authorities in communist East Germany (GDR), which has stuck. Self-taught, following an apprenticeship in advertising, he looked to masters such as Matisse and Picasso, prehistoric cultures, as well as popular culture comics and scifi to influence his work and style. He moved to the West in the 1980s, and lived in London for some time.

Shaped by the subversion of his early work (having to operate in secret with scant materials, smuggling his work to the West), his use of symbolism and repeated motifs is of particular interest to me, as is the fact that his work sought to communicate socially relevant narratives.

This exhibition focused on the development of his ‘Standart’ stick figures, which were used expressively as well as to form signs relating to the concept of man and social power systems. Often the Standart took on the form of a hunter, to play on the primal urges and timeless aggression of humans. Below we can see his exploration of this form expressively through various media (pencil sketch, printmaking, sculpture, paint and ink)

I think for me the more interesting executions here are the print and the painting, with the flat layering of colour accentuating this flat essentialised form that we still recognise as human.

I appreciated understanding a little more of the narrative within the Edinburgh mural from the curator Lena Fritsch, though I think a much lengthier talk would be needed to grasp all elements of this large scale work fully. She drew our attention to the elements featured which captured something of the zeitgeist from 1987 (when the painting was created on-site at the Fruit Market Gallery in Edinburgh). The middle image above shows two standarts (each holding a different letter) coming together – symbolising the softening of the cold war, with American and Russian interests meeting to discuss disarmament during this time.

The right hand figure sees a hunter, a dynamic figure covering much of the space, carrying a spear in two hands and a wheel in another (symbolising change/time?). He is breaking about a shape that hangs above the two conciliatory figures, with another letter falling out from it – perhaps to show the new phase coming?

The left hand detail was not mentioned specifically in the talk, but to me appears like figures falling out of a dinghy/life raft – perhaps a warning that this is yet still potentially unstable times?

I think in pictures before I think in speech. Before thinking in pictures I think in abstract motions. The content of such motions is abstract gesture. Such abstract gestures are what interest me.

A. R. Penck as quoted in the Ashmolean exhibition notes

I enjoyed his more abstract work, though I think it was most successful when working with a limited colour palette of only one or two, to help focus be drawn more to the gestural quality. I had not previously come across the art term ‘neo-expressionist’ but this is how his work has been described.

Personal Cartography: Research (pt 2)

Further reading in the You are here book introduced me to allegorical maps, which also seemed to be relevant to my chosen theme of maps with narrative.

As we navigate on the trip that Dante called ‘our life’s way’, we are all creating private maps… we are laying a new set of lines down on a known but changing world… To orientate is to hop back and forth between landscape and time, geography and emotion, knowledge and behaviour.

Stephen Hall, ‘J. Mercator’ in You Are Here 2004

This extract felt especially relevant to the purposes I had in mind for my map – to help me navigate this new chapter in my life amongst a new landscape – to destinations unknown. How to draw a map to a place not yet known that can only be imagined? I must turn to fiction and allegory, with an element of fantasy.

We need some secure oasis of order, even if only a memory (or a fiction), as a home port for our various explorations, our attempts to make sense of the unknown.

Stephen Hall, as above
Example in You Are Here

This complicated visual allegory for the Road to Success seemed highly relevant here. Beginning at the bottom left, we follow the individuals setting out in hopes of success and see them facing many obstacles and distractions along the route which snakes up a tall hill, including ‘bad habits’ and ‘shortcuts’ leading straight to the river of failure. The only assured way to get to the top is to get on the ‘right system’ train at the very beginning. This has some troubling overtones of elitism, but the illustrative representation of the narrative here, with pitfalls and a snaking path to indicate time and toil, are of interest. However, I think it is perhaps over-complicated, ominously dark and perhaps not easily grasped by the casual viewer.

Likely preceding this unknown illustration however was Madame de Scudery, who is attributed as the original creator of allegorical maps with her ‘Carte de tendre’ that features in her 1661 novel Clelie.

Here, Scudery lays out the possible routes and distractions along the course of a woman seeking to journey to ‘Tendre’ from the place of ‘New Friendship’, along the rivers of Recognition, Esteem and Inclination, or along Constant Friendship to the left (past the sea of enmity), and Goodness on the right (past the lake of indifference). Marriage was notably excluded from the map, with Scudery herself believing women should be emancipated from matrimony (as her novel’s heroine is).

As for the previous example, it is noteworthy the map is read from bottom to top, with landmarks used to denote key way markers in progress and/or key obstacles or detours to be avoided in pursuit of the destination. Not unlike a fable or moral tale, it advises the reader and cautions on what to look out for in their own life journey.

Personal Cartography: Research (pt 1)

I was interested in researching maps that form narratives. So that not only allow you to navigate for a journey, but also acts as a sort of documentation of a particular journey. This initially was to do with the maps at the beginning of fiction books, especially children’s books.

The first and most enduring of these for me, is that of the 100 acre wood in A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh

E.H.Shepard’s map illustration of the 100 acre wood in Winnie-The-Pooh 1926 (coloured 1975)

I especially like the illustrative style here, where the landscape appears flattened, distances shortened, and key elements disproportionately large so that we might recognise them when we later come across them. In a playful mode, spelling is intentionally mistaken, as though a child has written it, e.g. ‘piknicks’, and the naming conventions too are child-like and fantastical, e.g. ‘to north pole’, which is fitting for the intended audience.

Here key places, events, descriptions and characters that feature in the novel are highlighted. This is less to help us navigate the space of the 100 acre wood itself but is providing initial summary of the narrative that will unfold.

In consulting You Are Here: personal geographies and other maps of the imagination, Harmon, K., 2004 as referenced on our brief, I discovered in Hugh Brogan’s entry that Arthur Ransome (who wrote Swallows and Amazons) had a similar theory: “That pictures in a tale should be useful, not merely ornamental. They should tell the story, as fully and precisely as possible”

Map for Arthur Ransome’s 1930 Swallows and Amazons by Stephen Spurrier – included in You Are Here: Personal geographies and other maps of the imagination, Harmon, K., 2004. New York: Princetown architectural press

Here too Brogan detailed other authors who had included such maps, Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, Ursula le Guin, L. Frank Baum. It is reputed to have begun with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. What all the works of these authors have in common is the fantasy genre, and the ‘letting loose’ of the imagination to truly transport the reader to the unfamiliar. Though many too root this within the familiar.

Personal Cartography: Peer Critique

Topographical hand map of Oxford Brookes campus 09/19: Unknown FAD student

I was interested in this piece for several reasons.

Firstly – relief shading (a convention in geographical maps) has been used here to good effect, to indicate the ‘hills’ and ‘valleys’ of the artist’s own hands, and can be immediately recognised and visually navigated without need of a key.

This has been applied with perhaps watercolour in careful layering to provide the subdued colour blocking necessary for this style, as is typical in printed maps.

This juxtaposes with the use of biro for the outlining of the hands, and the marking of landmarks and instructions on the hands themselves. The pen itself is central to the depiction, which denotes it’s importance to the narrative of the piece – i.e. that this is a map in two senses. It is a map of the hand topographically, but it is also a map of Oxford Brookes campus as the student learns to navigate this new environment. It is commenting on the common behaviour to scribble crib notes or key routes on your hand to help guide you later on.

Looking closely at the notation, it tells the story of a day spent at Brookes, including the time the alarm will go off, their route in ‘Don’t be late!’ and key landmarks they travel to in their day.

The use of hands as maps is also symbolically interesting for me. As this was created in our first week of the course, it was interesting to situate this early mapping of a new environment on hands, which are typically characterised as something we know intimately per the idiom ‘I know it like the back of my hand’. Hands are also something we naturally look to as one of the key ways we interact with places and objects, and one of the first means by which young children discover.

I would be interested to consider more about the symbolism of hands