Dungeons and Dragons in Non-Contemporary Art

After the art and discussion at the excellent “Dungeons and Dragons in Contemporary Art” panel (November 6 at the Allegra LaViola gallery), I couldn’t leave off thinking about fantasy as a kind of (forgive me!) discursive mode.  Looking at Casey Jex Smith’s ‘Lehi’s Vision’, in particular, suggested a mutable fantastic mode as historical artifact; it depicts a Modern, architectural fantastic that calls to mind Albany’s Empire State Plaza, the emblematic colonial (and ancient) fantastic of the Sphinx-guarded tomb, a corporal fantasy reminiscent of the Bosch’s demons and Raleigh’s natives in the 16th century, the environmental fantasies of Hokusai’s water, and a suggestive contemporary fantastic of sublimated video-gamers watched over by smiling Beholders.

Lehi's Vision - Casey Jex Smith

Chris Hagerty also touched on the changeable character of fantasy in history in his discussion of Alma-Tadema’s mythic Greco-Roman history of Victorian England, and Piranesi’s 18th century dungeonesque architectural fantasies. I was still thinking about the panel and show the following week, when I visited two exhibitions at the Morgan Library and Museum.

The first,  “Mark Twain: A Skeptic’s Progress”, is drawn from the NYPL and Morgan collections of Twain material, and includes some of the gouache drawings that illustrated Clemens’s published works.  Many of the drawings are allegorical, and as a group seem heavily influenced by the style of newspaper cartoons.  One was particularly eye-catching: ‘They Passed in Review’ from Following the Equator (1898).  Drawn by Dan Beard, also known for founding the Boy Scouts, it depicts (to borrow from the text) Twain in the “mellow dream-haze of history”: He stands in an attitude of surprise or fright,  confronted by a procession of hybrid creatures.

They Passed in Review - Daniel Carter Beard

Much of Following the Equator deals with Clemens’s travel in the South African Transvaal, his disgust with the effects of colonialism on both the colonists and the colonized, and his frustration with the tolerance of racial oppression.  This all comes to a head in the Boer Wars, and Beard’s drawing foregrounds these events in the drawing in the person of Paul Kruger, presented with the body of a rhino, and a dark-skinned man with the body of an antelope (probably a reference to the Matabele).  They are among a group of regionalized colonial hybrids pushed forward by a parade of aristocratically-dressed centaurs, but also surrounded by a Pinto-Cowboy hybrid and some animal hybrids.  I am tempted to read the drawing as a proposition that colonialism made monsters of us all, but fended off from the claim by the shadowy presence of a herd of caveman-mammoth hybrids in the distance.  The illustration suggests a critical assessment of Clemens’s historical moment, but one attached to a longer view of monstrosity in human history.

The second exhibition, “Roy Lichtenstein: The Black and White Drawings: 1961-1968”, includes some material that gestures back to the specific questions motivating the panel.  In particular, two pieces from the mid 60’s, the drawings for “Temple of Apollo” (1964) and “Diana” (1965), seemed almost like illustrations from the Moldvay rules.

The exhibit notes that, as he perfected his benday dot technique, Lichtenstein deployed the patterns more texturally.  He also drew subjects from material outside of the print forms from which he developed his visual style.  “Temple of Apollo” is based on a photograph for a Greek tourist postcard, the eponymous temple fallen into ruin.  The temple is rendered in a simple line.  The background has a banded appearance created by allowing two fields of very slightly offset dots to overlap.  I found myself comparing the piece to the Moldvay Basic illustrations for the Carrion Crawler and the Skeleton; a reaction partially explained by the formal similarity of the work, but also by the role of the post-apocalypse in D&D’s mode of fantasy.  As Tavis Allison observed in the Escapist: “If you’ve got darkness encroaching, ruins, and fallen empires, then you’ve got the Dungeons & Dragons apocalypse, whether it’s 2008 or 1975.”  I also think back to Zak Smith’s observation that D&D may function as a shared visual lexicon, and wonder to what extent that language is comprehensive as well as expressive.

Lichtenstein and LaForce

“Mark Twain: A Skeptic’s Progress” and “Roy Lichtenstein: The Black and White Drawings: 1961-1968” are on view at The Morgan Library and Museum through January 2, 2011.  The museum is free to the public Fridays after 7pm.

4 Responses to “Dungeons and Dragons in Non-Contemporary Art”

  1. 1 Greengoat
    November 18, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    Good post Charlatan,

    On the similarities between Lictenstein’s temple and the Carrioin crawler of David S. LaForce:

    It is interesting to see how a set method for illustration (the line-work and gradiations) becomes popular for a time and seems to be used across media and genres. The same style of graphic work that is seen on the carrion crawler can probably be dug up on old car dealer advertisements and instruction manuals from the 70’s as well. Just like the digital painting of the last ten years has a similar feel across media into the current D&D illustrations and other images you see for publication.

    Lichtenstein is neat because he used the visual cues of commercial art and projected them onto “noncommercial” subjects or altered the focus of the commercial image.

  2. 2 Charlatan
    November 18, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    There’s something about the use of that style on the carrion crawler that always seemed jarring (and compelling) to me. I think it’s the friction between the genre cues of fantasy (related to the past, pace Tavis) and the visual cues of the graphic work, which are very modern. What I think is really interesting is the subsequent sensation that such combinations (like the Temple drawing) are of the D&D realm. It was very easy for me to imagine those Skeletons on the dotted background swarming out of that temple in some Harryhausen-Lichtenstein fever dream.

  3. 3 Naked
    November 18, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    I like the first image (Casey Jex Smith). It reminds me more of the landscapes of Italian ruins English painters would bring home with them back in the early 1900s. Greengoat mentioned them a bit, IIRC, about how they wound up creating new senses of scale by reducing the size of the human figures. Cheating, in a way, but also kind of true, at least to the longtime Dark Ages notion of living among the artifacts and monuments of giants, but also the kind of deeply impressive vibe these places can have in person.

    I contrast this to the Hieronymous Bosch paintings, which you mention, which are far more active unto absolute chaos. The perspective is similar but these landscapes give no sense of one object spilling into the next; activity and life is drummed out. I think in a good way. The sense of stillness is deeply important to the ruin.

    In that way I think the non-Boschian approach has more of a D&D Sandbox feel to it — each room and each monster group is inorganic and individual… I mean this generally, of course. You encounter a Gelatinous Cube… then a Gnoll… then a Basilisk. But then, I wonder if a party wading through a Bosch phantasmagora could actually gain the attention of every single monster group in the area…

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Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2010

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