On Thursday, Jan 13, 2011, Dan Bashara, PhD student at Northwestern University, gave a talk entitled "Useful in the Abstract: UPA Cartoons and Prewar Modernism." Bruce Jenkins of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago provided the response.
In his talk, Bashara focused on postwar animation’s relationship to Precisionism, an often overlooked strand of American modernist painting that first appeared in the late teens and proliferated in the 1920s, going into decline thereafter until the rise of Abstract Expressionism supplanted it on the national radar. The practitioners of this modernist animation style, among which the most prominent was the United Productions of America, were rooted in artistic sources that were concerned with developing a distinctly homegrown modernism that operated outside the orbit of Abstract Expressionism (the privileged example in most histories of American modernist painting).
Precisionism, and the period in which it flourished, was marked by a search for a uniquely American art, one that could be modernist without being European, and that could address changes in the experience of space and time without merely copying Cubism or resorting to an outmoded, pastoral brand of realism. The loosely-grouped Precisionist painters adapted European modernism to the American landscape, seeking a way to make it relevant their own geography, history and culture, often turning their attention to industrial and architectural imagery. “The essence of the Precisionist aesthetic,” one art historian writes, “was an objectivist synthesis of abstraction and realism, manifested by hard-edged, static, smoothly-brushed, simplified forms rendered in unmodulated colors.” Concepts of order and organization, also hugely prominent in industrial and scientific culture and discourse of the time, were often understood to be the pervasive underlying idea in Precisionist works.
By the early 1950s, the work of UPA was at the forefront of American animation. Its aesthetic was characterized by a basic set of visual stylistic options: hard-edged, simplified forms; bold, unmodulated colors; evacuation of detail; a minimalist environmental surround often reduced to bare-bones geometric lines, regular patterns or flat color planes; the abolition of rounded, centerline character design; and a relaxed – to put it mildly – implementation of Renaissance perspective. The look of the UPA cartoons, along with the aesthetic discourse of their animators, was often strikingly similar to that of the Precisionists, representing a significant engagement with modernity rather than the fashionable appropriation of modernist style by the popular arts that is frequently described in animation histories. The “cubistic” style of the UPA cartoons that resulted, were, like Precisionist painting, based in cubistic forms found in the American cityscape: skyscrapers, bridges, turbines, etc. It is, Bashara, argues, a variation on Precionism’s modernism, the meticulous and ordered engagement with vision and the outer world.
In his response, Bruce Jenkins strongly endorsed Bashara’s account of UPA’s aesthetic origins. He disagreed somewhat with the common characterization of Walt Disney, whose style served as a strong contrast for both Bashara’s argument and for the UPA animators themselves. Disney’s style, Jenkins observed, should not be understood as photographic realism (which is, of course, distinct from UPA’s quasi-abstracted style), but rather as an adaptation of painterly traditions from the 18th and 19th centuries. Jenkins also noted that photography actually played a huge role in Precisionist painting: painter Charles Sheeler was a prominent, prolific photographer (and an early avant-garde filmmaker), but, also, it was photography that actually permitted the aerial perspectives on which key Precisionist cityscapes were modeled. Jenkins additionally noted the importance of Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and the Bauhaus school of design, as well as the influence of animator Oskar Fischinger, on the UPA animators and their sources.