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Journal Article (Refereed)
October 2013

Alternative Traditions: Flat as a Way of Visualising Space

Walker, A 2013, 'Alternative Traditions: Flat as a Way of Visualising Space ', Association of Illustrators Varoomlab Journal .


 Alternative Traditions: Flat as a Way of Visualising Space



Two narrative traditions are analysed in this critical examination of 19th Century images from Japan and the Plains Indians of North America. Although at first glance comparison between such different cultures seems unlikely, both have long histories of making visual chronicles and areas of common ground emerge in their treatment of subject matter and pictorial space.


Plains Indian drawings were traditionally produced as winter accounts of events in the life of the tribe in relation to warfare, hunting, religion and courtship. Following increased contact with soldiers and settlers during the mid-19th Century, the Plains Indians began to use bound ledgers drawing on the military or trading inventories using pencil, ink and watercolour. In Japanese woodblock prints, the influence of European perspective had been absorbed in the 18th Century and the 'opening up' of the country during the Meiji Period ushered in a period of frenetic print production using the foreigners as subject matter. Despite this, the contemporary artist Murakami considers that the defining quality of Japanese art and culture is the feeling of flatness.


This study compares the treatment of space in two examples from these cultural traditions and provides insights into the construction of graphic flatness in narrative art. Both artists have created highly versatile surfaces on which to convey representational and symbolic meaning and there are many similarities relating to the composition of space and depiction of movement. Contrasts also emerge principally in the application of orthographic and other systems for representing space in two dimensions. Although the influences of American Indian and Japanese art on Western art have been well documented, the physical and psychological dramas revealed in these examples identify relevant vocabularies for contemporary picture-making in the graphic arts and it is hoped, the study will enable practitioners to see and ‘read’ these images afresh.


Key words:

Comparative Investigation, Plains Indian, Japan, Graphic flatness, Orthographic system, Visualising space, Movement





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Publication Details

Journal Name
Association of Illustrators Varoomlab Journal