My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In one of the many brilliant parables that occur throughout English artist Dave McKean’s 1990s graphic novel Cages, a character (who may or may not be a cat) briefly dies and goes to two flawed heavens in succession. Both versions of the afterlife are centered on art, and both fail to do justice to art’s real purpose and complexity.
In the first heaven, the soul is encouraged to take pleasure in beautiful paintings, but when it asks the meaning behind the artworks, the moon-, sun-, and star-faced beings who preside over this mindless and sensual eternity argue that the question is foolish and impertinent: “It’s enough to look at the picture and enjoy it.”
Finding this non-explanation inadequate, the soul flees and finds itself in an opposite paradise; in this one, a bespectacled professor-docent exhaustively explicates the work of art with reductionist glosses derived from the painter’s biography and the theory of symbolism, replacing the prior heaven’s injunction to absent-minded sensuality with a commitment to schematic rational certainty. The soul retreats from this sterile heaven as well.
The best way to respond to art, Cages implies, is with open-ended questions and open-minded awareness, neither surrendering the intellect in empty sensuality nor driving out emotion by an arrogant mind. As another character, the jazz musician Angel, puts it earlier in the novel: “If you over-refine, you get lost in de music, if you under-refine, you get lost in de experience. Either one results in going away from who you really are.”
Given its vast scope, beginning with more than one creation myth and encompassing several apocalypses, Cages remains McKean’s masterpiece and one of the masterpieces so far of the comics form: the magical realist and multimedia saga of artists and their creative travails in a London redesigned to the specifications of Central European modernism is the best graphic novel I’ve read about art and creativity.
McKean’s much briefer recent graphic novel, Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash, broaches some of the same themes as Cages and is no less visually ambitious than its precursor, even if its central conceit prevents it from being as philosophically and emotionally capacious.
Based on a real historical figure and commissioned by an organization whose mission is to commemorate the centennial of the First World War, Black Dog recounts through his dreams the life of the English Surrealist painter Paul Nash, an artist whose work reflects his experience of the trenches (you can view several paintings at his Wikipedia page). As Nash lived and worked in the same southeast England countryside where McKean now resides, the book stages a meeting of sensibilities across a century between two English artists committed to the imagination’s right to respond freely to reality.
Dreams are an appropriate vehicle to convey the life of a Surrealist. The graphic novel’s dream-episodes, narrated by Nash, often in rhymed poetry, allows McKean to cover a lot of biographical territory in a brief number of pages, as Nash’s family and friends can be evoked in symbolic imagery without having to be developed as characters in 30- or 50-page increments as was the norm in Cages.
But the peril of this approach is the thin barrier between symbol and cliche, archetype and stereotype. Nash’s distant father and disturbed mother have no specific life of their own, and his bullying math teacher, an ogre who demands answers and offers only physical abuse, oversimplifies into outright hostility the complex relation between art (considered as intuition) and intellect (considered as mathematical reason). Likewise, the dream structure leaves little room for the development of ideas; when Nash, on the eve of the war, debates the need for a distinctly modern art in a London cafe attended by Bloomsbury luminaries Roger Fry and Dora Carrington, the conversation never goes beyond commonplaces about new art for “a new world.”
Black Dog comes into its own in its war sequences. Here McKean attains real insight, insights counter to long-institutionalized academic cliches about modernism as response to the dislocations of the Great War. Like Gabriel Josipovici in What Ever Happened to Modernism?, McKean intimates that modern war, like modern technology, did not bring newness into the world but only revealed what was always there, concealed behind the everyday placidity of the 19th-century middle classes:
If you strip away the accumulated fiction of the war—the mud and the limbs and the jolly old rain, the constructs and stories that constitute an official history—what is left? In war, one lives on the desperate edge of now. War reveals that essential, present-tense creature at the centre of oneself, and once it has been illuminated, even in the most failing of light, you can’t unsee it. That is the only subject worthy of this oil and ink and blood. To reach that essential pulsing life, one must excavate, deep into the paper and the canvas.
The essential subject, then, is not the Great War but the animal chaos (the eponymous black dog) at the heart of existence contingently revealed by violence but better immortalized as art. At the book’s conclusion, Nash’s monologue allows that there will always be war but that art may resist it through its function as “an empathy machine.” This nowadays obligatory empathy-boosterism is Victorian sentimentality all over again, as if there had never been a Great War or modernist art, but the book’s overall tendency is against such pointless moralism.
In the most moving scene, Nash encounters his brother and is startled to find him so matured by the experience of mass violence. His brother explains that drawing has kept him sane, given him an inhuman but humane perspective that has allowed him to retain his own humanity. Later, Nash explains how a friend of his who had survived the trenches dies young of an illness, as if surviving in extremis were rendered moot by going on to die anyway of merely “natural” causes: “In war, and in peace, life is a sniper’s alley.”
McKean’s art throughout Black Dog is a constant surprise. No comics artist that I know has even been so committed to combining different media and modes in his individual works. There are stunning paintings—a hallucinatory fish-shaped zeppelin over London—sequences rendered in an animation-inspired style, photo-collages, colored-pencil sketches, and, I assume, all manner of digital design. McKean’s mixed-media approach may have seemed almost like a gimmick when he first hit the scene 30 years ago, but it now certifies him as a master of the form and an heir to modernism: his projects literally change shape as they proceed. In his works, creativity wells up from the dark heart of experience and inspires in readers and viewers the attentive, open-ended, and fully alive response that McKean had implied in Cages was the true heaven of art.