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StoryBook: Narrative in Contemporary Art

August 16, 2014 – May 31, 2015


StoryBook explores how stories are communicated in contemporary art. To illustrate the diversity of narrative methods, the exhibition draws upon works from MMoCA’s permanent collection by such artists as Robert Barnes, Richard Bosman, Roger Brown, Warrington Colescott, Todd Hido, and Erik Weisenburger, among others. Like the contemporary novel and related literary forms, contemporary art has sustained, challenged, and expanded traditional narrative structures.

From the beginning of human society, telling stories has been fundamental to cultures worldwide. It has essentially defined the history of art, dating back to Paleolithic cave paintings. However, with the emergence of Modernism in the late nineteenth century a premium was placed on diminishing, even eliminating narrative content. During much of the twentieth century, it was set aside for an emphasis on more abstract, formal, and conceptual concerns. Yet, narrative remained an option for artists, especially in contemporary art after 1980, when personal, political, and social issues were increasingly approached through storytelling, often in documentary or confessional formats.

Visual artists have “told” stories in a -variety of ways. Those who work in a more traditional narrative mode sometimes create compositions centered on a familiar story that is a part of a particular community’s ingrained collective consciousness. These works of art necessarily depend on the viewer’s knowledge—from myth, religion, history, or literature—of the oral tradition or text that the image references. In the etching Nous, C’est en sa mort que nous avons été baptisés (1921), for example, Georges Rouault repeats a standard composition of Jesus Christ’s baptism that dates to the Renaissance. The standing Christ faces forward with hands held up in prayer. John the Baptist sprinkles water from the Jordan River on his head, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends from above in blessing. Although there is more detail and action in the Biblical narrative, this particular presentation has historically stood for the entire scene.

Artists employ alternative visual methods to capture, in a single composition, a complete narrative with multiple events, as seen in Ellen Lanyon’s lithograph Six Episodes/Monarch (1979). In six squared compartments, the artist traces the life of a caterpillar as it evolves into a butterfly, with the fantastic touch of a human hand gradually drawing closer to it.

Another format to visualize a series of actions in a single story is a sequence of separate panels, as represented by the great fresco cycles of the Renaissance. In Giotto in Chicago (1981), Roger Brown updates this mode of storytelling by creating two registers of joined panels in a single-sheet lithograph that pays homage to the celebrated 14th century Florentine fresco painter Giotto di Bondone. The subject matter, however, is modern as it traces the trials and tribulations of the young artist making his way through the art world.

StoryBook also looks at contemporary innovations in storytelling. Warrington Colescott’s Dark Gondola, an etching from 1971, is taken from a portfolio of ten prints that illustrates Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice (1912). Although the artist had a readymade narrative, he took liberties in visualizing the story. The protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach, an aging German author, is shown being rowed in a gondola, prone in Colescott’s rendition. Mann likened the narrow, flat-bottomed boat to a coffin and linked it to death. The author had traveled to Venice to seek emotional release and rejuvenation. He became infatuated with a young boy only to find his love unrequited. At the end of the story, he dies alone of a horrible plague that has ravaged Venice, but from which the young boy escaped with his family. Dark Gondola does not offer a literal depiction of a textual passage. Instead, it stands as a poetic suggestion of an important moment that also references a previous episode in the story, thereby creating a fragmented narrative in a single image.

Erick Weisenburger’s painting Ursus Memorium (1998) draws upon biographies of Christian saints for its inspiration. A forlorn bear, clearly in pain, has been tied to a tree and shot with arrows. The traditional portrayal of Saint Sebastian, an early Christian saint, is called to mind. For refusing to acknowledge the Emperor, Sebastian was bound and forced to endure a barrage of arrows. Weisenburger alludes to this story and uses it for poetic resonance in his imaginative and sad fantasy. He brings the notion of martyrdom to a noble but restrained creature of the wild. The artist laments the tragedy unfolding and titled it Ursus Memorium—Latin for “In Memory of a Bear.”

Artists have also adopted more unorthodox means to create images whose meanings do not depend on pre-existing narratives directly quoted or alluded to. Storylines may be implied or ambiguous, prompting viewers to create or complete the story in personal terms. For example, what exactly are the circumstances surrounding Richard Bosman’s falling man in his woodcut from 1984? What led to this scene? What will the aftermath be? The viewer must decide the story. A similar situation confronts the viewer in Robert Barnes’s painting Ragno’s Place (1981). What is the man fleeing from? Has he caused or is he the victim of all the wreckage around him? In another instance, the viewer is put on call to interpret Todd Hido’s color photograph Untitled #2154 from the series House Hunting (1998). Is there a story here? Lights come from windows on the first and second floors of a suburban house at twilight. Or is it dawn? If there is human activity, what is it? The shadow of a tree branch falling across the house suggests possible danger. Whatever the story is, it must be imagined by the viewer. And, the story will change from one person to the next.

These works of art, and others included in the exhibition, illustrate the great range of storytelling in contemporary art. As a whole, StoryBook suggests that the ancient art of telling stories in images continues in the twenty-first century as a vital tradition.

Exhibition Support

Exhibitions in the Henry Street Gallery are generously funded through an endowment established by the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation.