Please scroll down for images from 4 polyptychs in my series PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS. Click on any image for more information and closeup details.
Please scroll down for images from 4 polyptychs in my series PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS. Click on any image for more information and closeup details.
After sending images of my latest Playground of the Autocrats panel, I was delighted to receive the following email (quoted with permission) from Chester Dunning, author of the wonderful Russia’s first Civil War: The Time of Troubles and the Founding of the Romanov Dynasty:
Wow! Thank you for sending me images of your amazing artwork. I have been teaching Russian history for over thirty years, and your art really captures the sad, crazy quilt of Russian history and culture. Congratulations on getting it exactly (insanely) right!
Professor of History and
Murray and Celeste Fasken Chair in Distinguished Teaching
Texas A&M University
Recently, I gave an artist talk at Blue Door Gallery in the Artists’ District of Yonkers, NY. I spoke about the newest painting in my PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS series, which tells stories about Russian history in pictures. Below are some photographs of the talk.
Your Grasping, Scheming V.I.P.s is the first panel in what will become a 5-paneled work – a pentaptych – entitled Darling Godsonny Stalin (Ivan the Terrible Advises the Infant Stalin). The completed pentaptych will playfully tell the tragic story of Russian rulers’ recurring terror against their own people, from Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible) to Stalin, who caused the deaths of upwards of 20 million innocent Russians.
I believe the past is godparent to the present, and that landscape and environment are godparent to all. One way I visualize this in my art is via my fantasy of Ivan the Terrible as one of Stalin’s godparents. You can see Ivan singing to the infant Stalin in the top of the panel above.
Your Grasping, Scheming V.I.P.s is about Ivan the Terrible’s relationship to his nobility before he began his terror against them. (For more, see Ivan the Terrible: Madman or Crazy Like a Fox?)
To become a true autocrat, Ivan had to cut his way free of a “spider’s web” of powerful aristocratic clans.
Sweet dreams, baby Stalin….
A wonderful article about my Playground of the Autocrats Russian history triptychs was published in the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of Terrain.org, A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments. It boasts lots of images and even audio recordings of the original lyrics I wrote to the tune of Kalinka, probably the most popular folksong in Russia.
There are separate hypertext selections about each of my triptychs:
… and other sections about the vast Russian flatland (steppes), which made the Muscovite state vulnerable to Mongol invasions and the massive trade in Slavic slaves, giving rise to a garrison state:
While you’re there, please check out all the other great articles in the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of Terrain.org, whose editor-in-chief is Simmons Buntin. Terrain is, in the words of its wonderful About page,
a twice yearly online journal searching for that interface—the integration—among the built and natural environments that might be called the soul of place.
It is … a celebration of the symbiosis between the built and natural environments where it exists, and an examination and discourse where it does not.
The literary, journalistic, and artistic works contained with Terrain.org are of the highest quality, submitted by a variety of contributors for a diverse audience, including some of the finest material previously appearing in Terra Nova: Nature & Culture. The works may be idealistic, technical, historical, philosophical, and more. Above all, they focus on the environments around us—the built and natural environments—that both affect and are affected by the human species.
Terrain.org strives to be both a resource and a pleasure, a compass and a shelter…
“Home Security At Any Crazy Price”
Long before 9/11, I had written early drafts of lyrics for what would become one of my mixed media artworks about Russia, Home Security at Any Crazy Price.
At the time I thought my theme was very specific to Russian history, a bit too esoteric for most Americans. It was about Tsars building their dictatorship by taking advantage of popular fears from centuries of brutal enemy onslaughts. I planned to paint Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great singing to each other:
Darling Ivan, our Founder (Darling Peter, my Scion),
How fortunate it has been
That the Russian populace is deeply traumatized
‘Cause barbarian onslaughts lay waste their paradise.
Now folks want home security at any crazy price. (Continued below image)
Then came 9/11. Many Americans’ response – their sudden willingness to give up personal freedoms if the government could only keep them safe – revealed that a similar dynamic to Russia’s can play out wherever people come under attack and feel profoundly threatened.
All at once, my planned artwork seemed absolutely current and relevant to the US today. Continued below image
Americans have relaxed a bit since 2001, having experienced no further attacks on the scale of 9/11. We’re no longer as ready to trade our civil liberties for a strong government to protect us from seemingly imminent terror.
But what if the US had had repeated assaults every year since 2001, in which thousands of Americans were killed? And if yearly onslaughts continued indefinitely?
What if we lived in a land so vulnerable that we had a 9/11 every year for over five centuries?
Then what kind of government would we be willing to tolerate? One that abridged our personal freedoms constantly in order to keep us ever-mobilized and battle-ready? Would we accept our entire society being organized like a military hierarchy, with a single tsar at the top commanding us into position to survive our unending state of emergency?
Few Americans are aware that Russia was born and forged in terror: constant devastation by enemies and the kidnapping into slavery of hundreds of thousands of Russians, from the 13th century till the 18th.
First, ferocious, brilliantly-skilled Mongol raiders pillaged, sacked, brutalized, and occupied Russia for a couple of hundred years. For centuries after that, the Mongols’ descendants, the Tatars, swept across Russia virtually every summer, abducting 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 or more people each year to sell in the Black Sea slave market, a straight shot across the steppes to the south.
In fact, our word “slave” derives from “Slav.” No population in the world other than Africans have been enslaved more than Slavs. (For more on the reasons, see “The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth.”)
In short, Muscovites were traumatized by terror, as were New Yorkers on 9/11. But Russians were terrorized again and again for hundreds of years.
Every country in history has been repeatedly attacked. Their people too have had to drop normal life to run inside inside the walls of their local castle for protection.
What was different about Russia was the frequency of assaults. Slave raids occurred not once in 10 or 25 years – but every year. Every member of the Russian gentry was responsible for military duty at the frontier for one half of every single summer to protect the vast southern border against raids.
The frequency of attacks on Russia was partly due to its lack of natural protective barriers along a longer open border with powerful enemies than anywhere else on earth.
The only geographic area comparable with Russia’s southern frontier might be the American Great Plains frontier (north/south orientation) in early US history. But next to the US frontier lay the remnants of native tribes nearly wiped out by disease spread from Europe to the New World. Next to the Russian frontier, in contrast, were large, flourishing, major powers of the day: the Crimean Khanate, the Ottoman Empire.
It would be as if the early United States had had the equivalent of both El Qaeda and Akhmedinezhad’s government living along its frontier.
The tsarist state was military hierarchy writ large (above). The entire society could never relax from war preparations and fighting. Centers of power independent of the tsar couldn’t develop because the military chain of command always had to be in effect society-wide.
Home Security At Any Crazy Price visualizes the impact on civil liberties of the unending threat of attack. Continued below image
Institutions which have been forged over a period of five centuries don’t change overnight. New autocrats make use of earlier institutions – controlled press, secret police, patronage – to maintain and strengthen their power.
Since the fall of Communism, Russia is again becoming more centralized. Putin has asserted control over the media. No non-Kremlin newspaper can garner significant circulation. Journalists who report stories the government doesn’t like are murdered. Real opposition political parties aren’t allowed to run candidates.
Will Russia ever become a fully pluralistic society? I don’t know, but I’m interested in watching to see. Continued below image
The US experience of terrorism on 9/11 can help us better grasp why Russia developed an autocratic state. A nation of people who experienced almost yearly trauma for centuries adapted to their society’s being permanently organized like a military chain of command with no insubordination from the ranks.
We can also learn from Russia’s experience the terrible consequences of sacrificing civil liberties for security over the long term. Russian history can serve as a cautionary tale for what could happen to us if we’re too ready to trade personal freedoms for powerful government. ■
Below image are links to more posts about PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS triptychs.
An introduction to the PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS series is here. Other posts about these triptychs are:
How does an artist portray a grand sweep of centuries?
Russian history is full of high drama. Mongol raiders thundering across the endless steppes toward small Muscovite towns. Human terror and suffering. Tsarist defenses and brilliance, ambition and intrigue. Russian culture’s astonishing splendor and beauty.
It all makes a perfect subject for art.
But how can a painter visualize a grand sweep of centuries? What recipe can be cooked up to entertainingly portray a millenium of Russian history?
That’s the challenge I set for myself in my series of triptychs collectively entitled PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS. The first in the series is The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth.
A detail of my “recipe” to convey this triptych’s story is to the right. I use satire, color, action – and song lyrics (see images below).
But my most important ingredient for each triptych is visualization of a historical process. The centerpiece of my visualization of The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth is a tsar-type figure (above) lifting his skirts to gather in lots of Russians underneath.
Hmm, the viewer might ask. Who is this guy labeled “AUTOCRACY,” and why is he grinning with malevolent glee? And what’s going on with all those frantic people running to hide inside his robe?
Just what historical process am I visualizing here?
Muscovy – later Russia – arose and was forged in an inferno during the 200 years when ferocious, brilliantly-skilled Mongol warriors pillaged, sacked, brutalized, and dominated it – and the centuries following, when the Mongol’s descendants – the Nogay Horde, the Crimean Khanate and others – continually raided and plundered it.
The Mongols’ war organization, tactics, and composite bows were the great military advances of their day. “The level of organization of the Mongol army was not seen elsewhere in the Middle Ages and stands in marked contrast to that of the feuding Russian Princes.”
If Russia was to survive, its fractious princes needed to whip themselves into a unified fighting force under a single central command, and fast.
To portray Mongol attacks, I painted a battle scene filled with fierce Mongols terrifying Russian peasants and nobles. Continued below image.
For the models I needed to paint from, I collected photos of present-day archers shooting Mongol-style bows from horseback, and drawings of Mongol battle-wear.
I painted Russians of all classes running for their lives, and used color to differentiate between them and the invaders: indigos, purple, blue for the Mongols, and warm oranges, reds, yellows for the Russians. This make the two combatant sides immediately “readable” by the viewer.
I wanted to convey the tragedy and terror experienced by individual victims, so I conceived a Russian peasant woman (right) and a noblewoman (above) each holding a wounded child. I balanced color and composition in such a way that the peasant woman stands out from the crowds of people running and shooting.
The necessity for Russians of all classes to unify beneath a single commander presented the tsars with an opportunity to amass vast power and wealth for themselves. Russians of every level of society, desperate for protection against enemies, ceded independent power bases to their defender, the state.
The state leveraged this situation to its own fullest benefit.
So my triptych’s AUTOCRACY character is a satirical visualization of how the tsars as a group took advantage of five centuries of nonstop attacks on the Russian people to secure their absolute rule: autocracy.
Europeans, too, sought protection against enemies from their monarchs. Yet tsarist dictatorships didn’t develop there. What was different in Russia?
Even after the Russians threw off the long Mongol occupation, they were far from safe. The economy of the neighboring Crimean Khanate and other nearby Hordes was based on the slave trade: abducting and selling Slavs. So virtually every summer, Tatar raiders rode north across the steppe into Russia, kidnapping thousands of people to sell into slavery in the Black Sea slave market.
These raids occurred not every 10 or 20 years, but essentially every year. Over several centuries, hundreds of thousands of Russians were seized as slaves.
Our very word “slave” derives from “Slav.” No population in the world other than Africans have been enslaved more than Slavs.
A glance at a map (right) shows why Russia was so vulnerable to yearly attack. There was nothing but wide open steppe between Russia and the Crimean Khanate with its slave market (and Ottoman slave-purchasers directly across the Black Sea). Highly mobile, skilled raiders could pour across the steppes each summer, capture thousands of Russians, and head back to the huge international slave market, Caffa, a straight shot across the unobstructed plain.
Russia is by far the largest wide-open plain on earth. Glance at the world maps toward the end of this post if you have any doubts. No mountain barrier protected the Russians. For their state to survive, they had to build their own human barrier.
In short, Russians lived in the most exposed terrain on earth. They could never stand down from battle-readiness. Their society had to be permanently organized like – indeed it was – a military chain of command.
One way I’ve visually conveyed the relationship between landscape and autocracy is through painting the Mongol battle raging on a flat plain. And I painted AUTOCRACY towering in the midst of this wide-open battlefield, skirts held open to receive the terrorized Russian people.
Another way I conveyed the flatness of Russia’s endless steppes is through song lyrics “sung” by characters I designed for Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible. I wrote these lyrics to the tune of the ubiquitous folksong, Kalinka. Images of the lyrics are above and below. (For more about the characters who sing the lyrics and how I designed them, please see here, here, and here.)
A last way I conveyed the endless, wide-open flatness of Russia – the largest on earth – was through a border around the center panel of the triptych. I created this border from digital images of paintings by the great 19th century Russian painters called the Peredvizhniki. You can find much more detail on my process of building this border here.
* * *
Posts about other tryipychs in the series are here:
PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS is a series of artworks that – like comic books and graphic novels – tell stories through pictures. PLAYGROUND’s tales are about modern Russia, “narrated” in song by the likes of Ivan the Terrible and Catherine the Great.
My whimsical imperial characters sound off through original lyrics I wrote to the tune of the famous Russian folksong, Kalinka. The lyrics are about the “gifts” Stalin received from Tsarist history, the foundation on which he built his country’s most malevolent dictatorship ever.
If viewers wish, they can navigate their way through PLAYGROUND’s arias in sequence by following the numbers I’ve painted on each panel.
My most recent PLAYGROUND triptych, Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes (above), is “sung” by Catherine the Great, one of Stalin’s three “fairy godparents.” In Panel 1 below, Catherine gives her blessing from Russia’s past to the delighted, mustached baby Stalin.
My inspiration for this scene was my childhood memory of a Sleeping Beauty picture book. The story began with an illustration of Sleeping Beauty as a baby princess, her three fairy godmothers flying in a circle above her cradle. Each fairy godmother bestowed a personal blessing for some life bounty for the little princess.
This fairy-godmother memory came to me as I was originally pondering how to visualize Russia’s past as godparent to its present. So I imagined that in each PLAYGROUND triptych, my whimsical Russian “godparents” – Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great – would bequeath historical blessings on the infant Stalin.
I’ll let my character Catherine speak for herself through her lyrics in the following images, beginning with Panel 2 in which she sings:
You’ll want to bring back serfdom quick so you can reign non-stop!
But you can’t call it serfdom, Joe, ’cause that would be a flop!
So dress it up in resplendent clothes to hide the hideous facts.
I know about espousing good that veils your nasty acts!
Catherine advises Stalin (Panels 3 and 4) that new European ideas championing the lower classes can be used to muddy popular consciousness of what the ruler is really doing (a closeup of the Russian peasants is in this post).
You’ll spout ideas from Europe
About the people’s smarts.
In my day it was Montesquieu,
In yours it will be Marx.
Catherine counsels Stalin in panels 5-6 about serfdom, the fundamental economic engine of Russian society – or as Stalin renamed and reinstituted it, “collectivization.”
You’ll dub it collectivization.
You’ll never call peasants serfs.
Just bind them to the land by law
And take all their grain to your turf!
Collectivization was essentially serfdom by another name – with the addition of tractors, as in Panel 6 below.
The last verses:
You’ll promise people’s sovereignty and say that they’ll get rich.
But then you’ll screw the people! It’s one big Bait and Switch!
Don’t call it tsardom! Say their boss is the mighty Workers’ State.
That so-called Worker’s State in fact is JOE, our POTENTATE!
Details of other Playground of the Autocrats triptychs are here and here:
Virtually everyone who sees “Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes,” my new 7-foot triptych about Catherine the Great, asks me which parts are painted and which are digital. The answer to this question is as complicated as the finished triptych looks.
So I’m going to use this post to describe my process, which involves a series of layers:
“Dress It Up in Resplendent Clothes” took over a year to complete.
An experience I had while painting my previous PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS triptych moved me toward this process.
In the detail (left) of that triptych, “Home Security at Any Crazy Price,” notice the row of peasants I painted along the bottom. As my “models” for these serfs, I had collected a lot of old, low resolution black and white photos of Russian peasants. I was in love with their sheepskin coats and bast sandals – but most of all with their profoundly expressive faces. I’d been looking forward to painting them.
But as it turned out, I was under time constraints preparing for an exhibit. And I realized that the tiny size of the peasants (the tallest was under 3 inches high) in this triptych was going to make it impossible to paint them in any detail.
The less-complicated peasants actually work better in “Home Security” than a more detailed version would have. The triptych was selected by curator Nan Rosenthal for her “Contemporary Confrontations” exhibit at the Katonah Art Museum and singled out in the NY Times review of the show.
This made me wonder whether I should let go of my tendency to paint so precisely. A freer interpretation is sometimes better.
But then I kept thinking of those faces gazing out of the past.
So once the exhibit was over, I decided to paint the same row of peasants again, this time larger so I’d be able to convey their expressions and the textures of their clothing more fully. I spent the next two months painting them (you can see and scroll over the entire row of peasants in the finished painting here.)
Three images demonstrate the difference size made. First is the detail above from the the row of peasants as they appear in “Home Security.”
Next is a detail of the same peasants as I painted them roughly twice as large.
If I had then chosen to photograph and digitally reduce the larger painting to “Home Security” size, it would have looked like this (right). As you can see, this way of working generates a lot more detail in small images. It began to make me feel the possibilities of painting images larger and then reducing them digitally to fit into the final triptych.
Whether “looser” or more precise is better stylistically, I have to accept that as an artist, I’ll always tend to be attracted to finding ways to express more detail.
Animation is created from hundreds or thousands of carefully-designed drawings passing in front of your eyes so quickly that they give the illusion of movement. Whether at 24 frames per second or 12, animation requires huge numbers of drawings.
In the days before computer animation (and probably still today to some extent), animation artists cut down on their nearly-impossible drawing work load by using bits and pieces of previous drawings. If Minnie Mouse’s hands moved from one moment to the next but the rest of her body didn’t, her body drawing could be reused and only the new hand position drawn. In the next few frames, if her leg moved but not her hands, the old hand drawings would be merged with the new foot drawings.
In addition, backgrounds were reused through many frames, with characters drawn moving in the foreground.
My involvement with and love for animation as an art form brought this influence to bear on “Dress It Up,” as you’ll see below.
The left panel of “Dress It Up” portrays Catherine and then Stalin each sucking up lofty ideas from Europe and spouting them out over the Russian people in billows. For Catherine, the European ideas were from the French Enlightenment; for Stalin they were Marxism (as the lyrics in the image describe).
The two images below are the final realization of what I saw in my imagination as I began working on visualizing this historical repetition. (For a close-up of all those peasants, scroll down to the last image of this post.)
How did I realize my vision?
I began by painting a roughly globe-like map focusing directly on Russia, with Europe visible around the curve of the earth. Finding a map like this turned out to be impossible: most maps aren’t centered on Russia. None have a peripheral Europe around the bend in the background.
So as my model, I ended up using my actual world globe placed in the position I wanted.
After painting it, I had it photographed so I’d have a digital image.
I pictured Catherine and Stalin speaking to untold numbers of peasants in Russia. How could I convey the effect of so many peasants?
First I imported my digitalized painted map into my computer. Then I began to experiment with various ways of using multiple copies of my paintings of peasants to fill the white “RUSSIA” space. But I just could not get what I wanted. I kept periodically coming back to this problem for almost an entire year, without success.
Finally, as I was playing with manipulating multiple, layered copies of another painting I had done of peasants (see below), I made one of those lucky mistakes – and suddenly had what I’d been struggling to find for so long.
For a close-up look of the peasants in the map, scroll down to the last image of this post.
Why didn’t I just paint those peasants, you might ask? Why did I create this look digitally?
There are two reasons. One is that painting these serfs the first time – finding models for the scythers and other field workers, drawing and arranging them to fit into the composition, working out all those chains (each serf has a chain attached to a specific point at the bottom of the image), and then painting the whole thing – took a couple of months. Painting them all over again would have been prohibitive time-wise. If I’d spent time doing that, I couldn’t have created other parts of “Dress It Up.”
The second reason I worked with my painted serfs digitally is that it enabled me to play around limitlessly with layering of copies of my painting, fades, and color changes. This play is what eventually led me to the multi-layered look in the final triptych.
(Parenthetically, I do almost all the huge amount of planning for my triptychs in the computer. Integrating all the bits and pieces of my artwork into a coherent whole would probably be impossible without this.)
Now that I had my map complete, I needed to create Catherine and Stalin as orators speaking words from Europe to the Russian people.
My process here was similar to classic animation procedure: I used a single background twice, with two different characters in the foreground. Again, the reason was the same as in animation: repainting this very complex background twice would have been prohibitive time-wise.
I had already designed my Catherine the Great character. Now I needed to create a Catherine who looked the same but airily orating. And she needed to face the opposite direction, toward Russia on my map and away from Europe. Both her head and her arms needed to be different.
I created my orating Catherine the same way an animator might. I began with my painted character. I had her photographed so I could manipulate her digitally in my computer. In Photoshop, I flipped her horizontally to make her face toward Russia and away from Europe. I had this version printed. Then I painted a new head and new arms on the print.
I created my orating Stalin as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This design went through a number of iterations along the way as I debated how wolf-like Stalin’s body and posture should be, how he should be clothed, and whether his face would be human or wolf.
A larger image of this design can be seen in this post.
The last element needed for my “spout ideas from Europe” panel was speech bubbles. In fact, the entire composition of map and orators was planned at every step to accommodate speech bubbles that would represent Catherine and Stalin sucking in ideas from Europe and spouting them out again over the Russian populace. (Catherine’s bubble sucked in from France; Stalin’s from Marx’s Germany.)
Below is one of my many, many planning images. In this one, I composited my pencil sketch of Stalin into my map and began to play with how I would shape and size the speech bubbles. I did this to check whether all of Stalin’s parts would fit properly into the map without blocking any crucial bits of it. I also needed to be sure that legibly phrase-filled bubbles could fit from Europe to Stalin’s mouth.
I approached the other panels of “Dress It Up” in the same way.
Once all the images for “Dress It Up” were completed by this process, I reduced their sizes to fit into the 7-foot width of the triptych. I composited them and had them printed on canvas. I then spent roughly six weeks doing additional painting on top of the canvas. For example, I painted the large portrait of Catherine’s face in the center round top panel, replicating her historic portrait. I painted Stalin as a baby directly on this canvas – that character doesn’t exist anywhere except on the final triptych.
This is Part 2 of the description of a creative process. To read it in chronological order, please read Part 1 first.
At the end of my last post, I presented icons and Russian folktale illustrations each of which had a central image framed with secondary images that added to its meaning. Below is a detail of the center panel of my triptych The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth. It shows the way in which I used the image-frame technique to help resolve my own challenge: to convey the endlessness of the flat Russian steppes, 3,500 miles wide.
My frame is a collage of landscapes by 19th century Russian painters. These painters were collectively known as the Peredvizhniki (usually translated into English as either the Wanderers or the Itinerants). Many of their most famous works portray the Russian steppes. Through the repetition of these beautiful images of the land, I hoped to help convey the vastness of Russia’s flatness.
There is a deeper emotional level to this collage than the purely informational one. The Peredvizhniki may not be household names in the US, but they certainly are in Russia. They are to Russian art what the great Russian novelists are to the country’s literature. The Peredvizhniki are profoundly Russian. They are of the land. The Russian people feel their work deeply, and identify with it. These paintings hold all the love and sorrow and suffering of the Russian people over the long course of their history.
My own goal as well with Playground of the Autocrats is to embrace all the aspects of human life: knowledge, pain, joy, satire, humor, suffering. Close examination of many of the figures in the crowd scenes in Playground reveal attention to the many sides of human experience.
I’ve never been able to understand why the Peredvizhniki aren’t better known in the United States. Some of their paintings were shown in the Guggenheim’s Russia! exhibit several years ago. Elizabeth Valkenier, Columbia University’s Russian art expert, has published several books about them, such as the the terrific The Wanderers, Masters of 19th Century Russian Painting. And there’s a wonderful book by Mikhail Guerman, The Russian Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.
But the Peredvizhniki are much less widely known here than are the European Impressionists. My use of their paintings in my frame is my homage to their greatness.
In my next post, I’ll get to the music and lyrics of Playground of the Autocrats.
In “Escaping Flatland,” Edward Tufte describes the challenge faced by people who work in the field of visualizing complex information. These designers invent ingenious ways of portraying multi-dimensional data on the “flatlands of paper and video screens.”
My challenge in the first triptych of Playground of the Autocrats was the same, with a twist. I needed to find a way of depicting 3,500 miles of flat land within the dimensions of my 24″ x 48″ triptych.
Painting a single, particular view of the Russian steppes would not have been so problematic. Many artists have done it magnificently. But what I wanted to convey was that there are 3,500 miles of steppes, and that nowhere else on earth does such a vast open landscape exist. It was a lot of information to visualize in one relatively small artwork!
Maps, of course are one excellent way of conveying information about large areas of terrain. As you may have gathered from my last post, I love relief maps! I included a relief “globe” in my character design for Ivan the Terrible (one of Stalin’s fairy godfathers in Playground of the Autocrats). Ivan is on top of the world, dancing on his playground.
I superimposed the caption “The Nomad Express: 3,500 open miles” across Russia. And I added arrows that marked the Mongol invasions across the vast open land.
In addition, I wanted to layer in a more evocative portrayal of the vastness of Russia’s territory. Along with the map’s analytic information, I wanted to give the viewer a feeling of what it was to live in that wide-open, vulnerable landscape.
My animation script of Playground of the Autocrats had included a sequence of the Russian land as a reclining Mother Russia. As the lascivious godfather Ivan the Terrible conceived it, she was a peasant woman exposed to “rape by barbarian tribes.” Someday, when an animated version of Playground is realized, I think this will be a terrific sequence, as the terrain morphs into a 3,500-mile-long woman in Ivan’s imagination. But when I tried to create the image in a still form, it became too complex. Maybe I’ll tackle that route in another triptych.
Meanwhile, I had thought of another way of visualizing the endless Russian steppes. I drew on another centuries-old technique: many icons’ main images are surrounded by a frame of smaller images that convey additional information. Icons and religious art in general were the way Bible stories were communicated to illiterate populations. Hence, they are a wonderful model for how we can visualize information today. (The famous art historian Meyer Schapiro wrote a revered book about illustration of religious texts, called Words, Script, and Pictures: Semiotics of Visual Language.)
Russian folktale illustration, most notably perhaps the renowned Ivan Bilibin, followed in this tradition. Bilibin loaded up his borders with wonderful supplementary images that enhance the feeling of the central drawing, if not adding to the story. In the example on the right, the main illustration has a full-color border, while the surrounding text has a sepia-toned border with yet more fantastic, complex drawings.
In my next post, I’ll describe how I utilized the borders of “The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth” in this tradition. You can read that post here.