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.
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.
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.
“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.