MADRID – The Spanish capital’s prestigious Reina Sofia Museum opened its doors on Wednesday for a special retrospective on the work of George Herriman, a pioneering cartoonist who created the cult comic strip “Krazy Kat” and became an enduring influence on countless artists and intellectuals.
Herriman (New Orleans, 1880 – Los Angeles, 1944) is best known for his daily strip featuring the antics of the titular anthropomorphic “kat” and his companions in a dreamscape version of Coconino County, Arizona.
“This is the largest exhibition on Herriman to date,” said co-curator Brian Walker during the presentation of “Krazy Kat is Krazy Kat is Krazy Kat,” adding that the Reina Sofia’s retrospective was a great leap forward for the recognition of comic strip art.
Rafael Garcia, also a co-curator, explained that the main aim of the exhibit – which includes more than 160 works, most of them original drawings – was to dilute and even erase the boundaries between what had traditionally been considered “high art” and “low-brow art,” reclaiming comics as much more than just an artistic sub-product aimed at children.
The museum’s director, Manuel Borja-Villel, came up with the idea for the exhibit in 2015. He said that one of the objectives was to “bring museums down to comics.”
Krazy Kat had an uninterrupted run between 1913-44, living through two world wars and a depression. It was published mainly in newspapers owned by magnate William Randolph Hearst, who apparently held the strip in high esteem despite it never becoming a major commercial success.
Instead, it established itself as more of a niche favorite of the intellectual elite of the time, something Hearst no doubt saw as a boost to the repute of his papers, which were often accused of sensationalism and catering to the lowest common denominator.
The strip’s running gag was a fairly simple premise: Krazy, a cat of undetermined gender – Herriman said he thought of his creation as a “kind of sprite, an elf” –, was at the epicenter of an unusual love triangle: his unrequited love interest, a grumpy mouse named Ignatz, regularly lobbed a brick at his head, which Krazy took as a sign of affection.
Ignatz’s aggressions – a comical role reversal of the cat-chases-mouse trope – were either thwarted or punished by a canine “kop,” Offissa B. Pupp, who – also contrary to stereotype – was himself infatuated with the carefree feline.
Or, as eminent poet E.E. Cummings succinctly put it in 1946: “Dog hates mouse and worships cat, mouse despises cat and hates dog, cat hates no one and loves mouse.”
The main trio was accompanied by a secondary cast of characters that included Joe Stork, the “purveyor of progeny to prince and proletarian” who had debuted as a prime minister in another Herriman strip (“Gooseberry Sprig”); Kolin Kelly, a brick-making dog who provided the missiles that routinely creased Krazy’s cranium, and Mrs. Kwakk Wakk, a nosy duck who often informed Offissa Pupp of Ignatz’s shenanigans.
But Herriman’s genius lay in his combination of a complex, often lyrical prose – filled with obscure dialects, puns, alliteration, malapropisms, pop-culture references and phonetically-transcribed argot – with a dynamic artwork featuring eerie, ever-shifting desert landscapes that heralded the advent of European avant-garde artistic movements such as surrealism and dadaism.
In his 1938 essay “The Krazy Kat That Walks By Himself,” art critic Gilbert Seldes called the not-so-popular strip “the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art in America” in his day and compared its qualities of irony and fantasy to those found in the oeuvre of Charles Dickens and Miguel de Cervantes.
Seldes was not the only one dazzled by Krazy Kat’s genius.
“We were especially interested not only in his talent as an artist, but as an influence on other artists,” Garcia said when asked about what distinguished Herriman from his peers.
Maestros like Pablo Picasso, Willem de Kooning and Öyvind Fahlström, as well as literary giants such as T.S. Elliott, Jack Kerouac or Gertrude Stein, count among Krazy Kat’s better-known fans.
Furthermore, multiple cartoonists and graphic artists of later generations, such as Bill Watterson (known for “Calvin and Hobbes”), Chris Ware (“Acme Novelty Library”), Charles M. Schulz (“Peanuts”), Art Spiegelman (“Maus”), Patrick McDonnell (“Mutts”), Robert Crumb (“Fritz the Cat) or Will Eisner (“The Spirit”), have all claimed Krazy Kat as a major influence on their work.
According to Walker, Herriman’s mixed-race Creole ancestry was a unique feature that later became a theme subtly explored in the Krazy Kat strip. His father moved the family from segregated Louisiana to a mixed L.A. neighborhood and for the rest of his life, Herriman’s ethnicity was concealed, as he would have never been able to work as a newspaper cartoonist for Hearst had it been known that he was African-American.
In a sense, Krazy Kat became an outlet that allowed Herriman to examine his true identity. Walker pointed out several elements that seem to indicate that Krazy is black, such as his patois dialect and recurrent use of a gourd banjo.
Assembling the collection was no easy task: over the course of nearly two years, Garcia and Walker had to contact many private collectors from around the globe who readily loaned their treasured Herriman originals, as well as numerous institutions such as the United States Library of Congress and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.
The exhibit starts with a look at Herriman’s pre-Krazy Kat work – they were fairly conventional strips, lacking some of the groundbreaking qualities of Krazy Kat but nonetheless displaying hints of Herriman’s distinctive style: they include more obscure titles such as “Baron Bean,” “Major Ozone’s Fresh Air Crusade,” “The Family Upstairs” and “Embarrassing Moments.”
It goes on to present highlights of Krazy Kat’s three-decade run, with some outstanding black-and-white exemplars of both dailies and Sunday strips, along with a handful of rare ones hand-colored by Herriman and intended as gifts to friends and admirers.
At the end, a projector plays an animated short produced by the John R. Bray studio – the only adaptation Herriman approved of – in the same room that contains six unfinished Krazy Kats that were found on Herriman’s desk upon his death.
The temporary exhibit, located on the third floor of the museum’s Sabatini building, is set to last until Feb. 26, 2018.