Whither Narrative Art? (Comic-Con Edition)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Joan of Arc, 1864. Lucas Museum of Narrative Art
The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art gave a slideshow preview of its evolving collection at Comic-Con (you can watch it here).  Let's take another look at where this narrative art thing stands.

The Lucas collection can be divided into two parts. One consists of extensive holdings of the work of comic book, comic strip, and underground comix artists; magazine, children's book, and commercial illustrators; political cartoonists; cinematic matte painters, model-makers, and costume and prop designers. The Comic-Con panel showed works from the LMNA collection by James Gillray, John Tenniel, Alphonse Mucha, Maxfield Parrish, R. Crumb, Maurice Sendak, Chris Ware, Alison Bechdel, and Kadir Nelson.

The other, much smaller part of the collection is a capsule survey of Western figurative art from antiquity to the 20th century. George Lucas has chosen the label "narrative art" to cover both parts of the collection. But since most art, outside of pure abstraction, tells or implies a story, the term doesn't provide much guidance in building a collection.

Workshop of the Parrish Painter, Campanian Red-Figure Bell Krater, 360-340 BC
The earliest work presently in the LMNA collection is an Egyptian relief dated 2200-2000 BC. There is a large (10 by 10 feet) Roman floor mosaic floor of a grape harvest, and Greek vases. One, a Campanian bell krater formerly in the art museum of the Rugby School, was deaccessioned last year, selling at Christies for a modest £6875.
Tommaso d'Arcangelo Bernabei, Scenes from the Life of the Virgin
Another recent acquisition is a predella from the Assumption of the Virgin altarpiece in Cortona, by the obscure Renaissance painter Tommaso d'Arcangelo Benabei, a follower of Giulio Romano. It sold for $118,750 this past January. A Lucas slide juxtaposed it with a 1953 comic book illustration by Frank Frazetta. The Lucas apparently bought the panel painting, in part, as a precursor of the comic book panel format. (I'm sure there have been stranger routes to the appreciation of Renaissance art, but none come to mind.)
Luca Giordano, Allegory of the Peace Between Fiesole and Florence 
Luca Giordano's Allegory of the Peace Between Fiesole and Florence is the oil sketch for a grand painting in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence. It's said the artist dashed it off in four hours. The sketch sold at Sotheby's London last December for £81,250.
Horace Vernet, The Siege of Saragossa, 1819
Horace Vernet's The Siege of Saragossa (1819) entered the James Lenox collection in 1855 and then that of the New York Public Library. Before the Metropolitan Museum became such a powerhouse, guidebooks put the library's Siege of Saragossa on the bucket list for New York cultural tourists. But tastes change, and in 2008 the New York Public Library sold The Siege in a controversial deaccessioning. More recently (2015) it was flipped for $87,500 at Sothebys New York.

Vernet was a friend of Géricault and once almost approached his esteem. The Siege has cinematic heft, but the gun-toting monks and prisoner verge on camp. Today the larger Vernet paintings (this is 58 by 45-1/2 inches) struggle to find wall space in museums.

At top of the post, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Joan of Arc is a watercolor version of a subject the artist repeated several times at different scales and media. About a foot square, it failed to sell at a Sotheby's London auction in 2012.
Margaret Bourke-White, At the Time of the Louisville Flood, 1937
The Lucas has also acquired Thomas Hart Benton's oil sketch for the Social History of the State of Indiana mural; a quintessential Archibald Motley jazz-age painting; some great, though very familiar, photographic images by Alfred Steiglitz and Margaret Bourke-White; prints by Albrecht Dürer and George Bellows; a group of Judy Baca's watercolor studies for The Great Wall of Los Angeles. 

LMNA Curator Ryan Linkof said the historical survey of "world art before 1950" is "a key area of growth" and that there are plans to expand its geographic scope beyond Europe and America.

My take: The older art the Lucas is buying is a mixed bag. Some of it is the sort of thing a big art museum would deaccession, and did.

They're assembling a collection of prints and photographs, often iconic images by major artists. Of course, half a dozen local institutions have much larger holdings.

At the highest end of interest and rarity are objects like the Rossetti watercolor Joan of Arc and the Archibald Motley painting. They're things any big museum might covet, and there's nothing comparable in any local museum. That said, I wouldn't call them the tentpoles of a great collection.
Chris Ware, The Last Saturday, 2009
I imagine the Lucas is collecting fine art as a way of legitimizing its core collection of "illustration." The gesture shouldn't be necessary. The Lucas collection is already important because it's so different from other museum collections. That most of it isn't art art is OK. That they've got Norman Rockwell, and I hate Norman Rockwell, is also OK. 

The distinguishing feature of the Lucas collection is not "narrative" per se. The collection is rather a chronicle of the 20th-century's explosive emergence of images created for mass reproduction and mass media. These objects were intended as entertainment, not art. That doesn't mean they're unsubtle, or unrevealing of the society that created them. Least of all does it mean that their audiences are dummies. In our world of images, everyone is a visual sophisticate, just in different ways. 

P.S. The Comic-Con panel outed the Lucas Museum as buyer of yet another big-ticket Norman Rockwell, Road Block, which sold for $4.73 million in 2016. It's one of Rockwell's Los Angeles paintings (which never look much like L.A.) Rockwell spent winters in Los Angeles, as an illustrator in residence at the Otis Art Institute. He considered Road Block one of his most complicated paintings, with 25 figures (many Otis faculty and students) posed and directed by Rockwell and photographed for reference. Whereas fanboys liken Shuffleton's Barbershop to Vermeer and Mondrian (give me a break), Road Block reveals Rockwell as the big, bad goof he was. The out-of-proportion reactions are freaking insane.
Norman Rockwell, Road Block, 1949


Anonymous said…
The Lucas will be an interesting counterbalance to museums like the Broad and Marciano. A lot of what places like the Hammer offer may be too esoteric, too hipster-avant-garde-relevant for various people. A gallery like a Hauser & Wirth certainly doesn't cater to that part of the public.

Although critic Christopher Knight is dead-on correct about what's happening with LACMA, he may be too cynical about what he dismisses as a "treacle museum." If only because just as certain people go to the Getty mainly for its setting more than for its collection (the Getty entered the field of acquisitions late in the game), the same may be true of the way people will treat the Lucas.
Anonymous said…
I can see the museum working very well and being relevant by focusing on illustration, film storyboards/concept art, and comics alone. The rest of the stuff isn’t needed. The location is perfect next to CA Science Center and Natural History Museum. Same crowds that this museum would cater to: families, school trips, tourists, rather than those who would typically visit Broad/Marciano/MOCA. But if they juxtapose it with Renaissance art and pre-raphaelite type art, the concept is going to confuse people.