Santoro vs. Cocteau Cage Match

December 2, 2008

 The minotaur makes the islands Greek.

Cocteau’s Seaside Orpheus

In Frank Santoro’s comic Chimera, he glides through a dream.  Dream’s myth, and he sees a Minotaur with his girl.  Mythic places: the forest, sea, sex, then they rouse at Rockaway and take the train to the movies (Sirk’s dream).

Printed in black, yellow, and crimson on newsprint, Chimera‘s a startling throwback to Santoro’s Storeyville.  The printing has tooth and grandeur. With a larger canvas, the images breathe. Even though they’re just some lines on fields of color, it’s hard not to linger.

The colors in Chimera, even off-register, almost glow. In the mythic part, they feel sun-drenched; in the New York part, incandescent. I’ve read or listened to a half-dozen interviews by Santoro lately, but it seems like in every one he mentions the not-yet-archaic way he separates colors, with no Photoshop, just overlays. It’s a way rooted in printing, not light; and he has encouraged younger cartoonists to learn this method before throwing a computer at their art.

Mostly, I take away the feel of modern classicism: Matisse, say.  Even more, Picasso, in the 1930 etching “The Death of Orpheus” and the 1933/34 drypoint “Minotaur and Sleeping Woman.” And Jean Cocteau.

Minotaur from Chimera

Cocteau’s Villa Santo Sospir fresco

Cocteau, the painter-poet-filmmaker, used to visit a friend’s seaside villa. And he painted the doors, ceilings and walls, pretty much all of them, with line frescoes drawn from myth. With just contour and a stray patch of color here and there, he calls it “a tattooed villa.”

I’m reminded of Chimera. For the line above all, but also their classical themes.

And their words of advice for young artists:

I have too often advised young filmmakers to use 16mm without taking the risk myself. . . . one shall regret having been too precise and artists will try to provoke intentionally the accidents that chance provides. . . . The Kodachrome contretype* has its own way to transform colors and in the most unaccepted manner. One must accept that it somehow creates something like the interpretation of a painter. One must also accept the surprises. We face a machine that invents.

That’s Cocteau from “La Villa Santo Sospir,” his amateur short about the villa he painted. He embraces the rich colors in his film stock, quite unlike life. The lack of control reminds me of printing to newsprint, where you design the colors in grey and might be surprised at how they turn out– responding to the tools & process rather than pretending to control it.

Seaside peeking from a Jean Cocteau painting

But mostly it’s their line.  Both artists use the sure contour that’s so hard to do.  Kristy Valenti has written on Cocteau the cartoonist, not just for the joys of seeing “a man composed of curlicues.”  She quotes him:

[Line] is life. A line must live at each point along its course in such a way that the artist’s presence makes itself felt above that of the model. … It is, in a way, the soul’s style, and if the line ceases to have a life of its own, if it only describes an arabesque, the soul is missing and the writing dies.

I should write a violent ending in keeping with the title.  Images instead:

Frank Santoro’s Chimera

Rockaway train from Santoro’s Chimera



The artist-critic Derik Badman wrote on Chimera in “3 Appreciations of Frank Santoro,” a sumptuous essay that deserves your attention.


* Cocteau refers to a “Le contretype Kodachrome.”  Kodachrome is Kodak’s reversal (slide) film stock, once made as 16mm cinema film.  The Criterion disc’s subs punt it, and one academic book seems to misunderstand the process. A “contretype” is an intermediary copy of the original print– a negative yields another negative, a positive a positive.  Kodachrome, as reversal film, has no negative. You can see this in the cuts– black lines over the image, rather than white as they would be in a negative. Cocteau’s talking about how reversal film renders color, usually richer than negative film.  Of course, all film stocks (and all digital sensors) alter the light they take.  We just get accustomed to the one we see most as more “realistic.”

Previous post:

Next post: