Superheroes and big-name TV and film franchises dominate San Diego Comic-Con, but one discussion early Thursday sought to elevate the fan-driven bonanza with a look at different art: Curators from the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art hosted a morning panel that gave a peek at the holdings of the $1-billion project coming to L.A.'s Exposition Park.
A 30-minute slide presentation provided a brief snapshot of what will be in the museum — a collection, curators said, that will include the poetic paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the bright and rounded comic art of graphic novelist Chris Ware and the work of celebrated L.A. muralist Judy Baca. The pieces that generated oohs and ahhs from the San Diego audience, however, were of a more pop variety, namely those connected to the “Star Wars” franchise.
Would the museum, one fan asked, sell limited-edition “Star Wars” prints signed by George Lucas?
But how the gift shop will be populated wasn’t the focus of curators Erin M. Curtis, Anastasia James and Ryan Linkof, who instead sought to lay out the mission of the Lucas Museum. The building broke ground in March 2018 and will contain at least two restaurants, two theaters and 11 acres of green space, not to mention plenty of holdings from a galaxy far, far away.
Although the three repeatedly defined “narrative art” broadly as art that tells a story, what became clear during the presentation is that the museum will emphasize nonabstract illustrative works. The museum will seek to connect the comic books of today with early fantasy and sci-fi pulp art as well as creations from “ancient Egypt and classical Greek and Rome,” said Linkof, including a Roman floor mosaic that measures 10 feet by 10 feet.
There will be a through-line, the curators stressed, even as Linkof presented a slide that showed an ancient Greek vase inscribed with a tale of the Pantheon, next to an altarpiece panel telling the story of the Virgin Mary, next to a comic book. “We’re attempting to eliminate the hierarchy between so-called high art and commercial art, placing them on the same plane,” he said. “While many museums pay lip service to this kind of inclusive appreciation of visual culture, we are truly unique and make this central to the museum’s identity.”
They’re ready for criticism.
“We recognize that this type of comparison, flattening distinctions of culture and context, might ruffle the feathers of many art historians and curators,” Linkof said.
Curtis aimed to show how the museum will seek to connect eras and styles. She presented a pair of works that reference Grant Wood’s stoic farmers of “American Gothic,” including “Black Gothic” by Kadir Nelson. Curtis said it’s among her favorite pieces in the collection. “This piece appeared on the cover of Ebony magazine, making it an interesting contemporary counterpoint to many of the illustrations in our collection, which were also disseminated through popular magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and Life.”
Of course, the museum will also showcase plenty of sci-fi, fantasy and American Pop works, including those from Norman Saunders, Malcolm Smith and Jeffrey Catherine Jones, as well as an abundance of European and American children’s book illustrations.
“These pieces represent well-known nursery rhymes, fairy tales, stories and characters such as ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears,’” said Curtis. She showed a slide with selections from Jessie Willcox Smith, who she said was “one of the most prolific women illustrating in the early 20th century and is well represented in our collection.”
The Lucas Museum will have art of characters from Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” an original “Alice in Wonderland” piece from John Tenniel and several “Winnie the Pooh” originals from E.H. Shepard.
The museum also will trace the history of the comic book. Here, the collection will include political satirical cartoons — many from 18th century artist James Gillray — as well as an early strip of “Flash Gordon” from Alex Raymond.
“We also have a large selection of some of the most recognized characters in our history,” said James, noting the museum will have work from Charles M. Schulz, Jack Kirby, Neal Adams and Chris Ware’s “The Last Saturday.” Recently the Lucas Museum acquired art from Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.”
And yes, there will be plenty of props from Lucas films, including the “ark of the covenant” from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Maybe don’t expect everything from the Lucas catalog. When it came time for audience questions, a fan asked about art or props from the 1978 disastrous but cult favorite “The Star Wars Holiday Special.” The long pause from the curators led to a nonanswer that hinted: Don’t bet on it.