Monday, June 28, 2010

Super Mario Abstract

It began with LACMA, it began with Kandinsky, but — oh, yes, that’s right, I realize now — it really began with Emil Nolde. I saw these amazing postcards at LACMA. Nolde had painted anthropomorphic versions of famous European mountains, but the postcards are rare enough that digitized versions simply don’t exist online, at least where I was looking. Then, somehow, I ended up on this page and found a certain painting — allegedly something called “At Rest,” allegedly by Mr. Wassily Kandinsky.

Instantly, briefly, this painting of mysterious origin became my whole world: Was it just me, or did it look eerily like a stage from a Super Mario Bros. game? Am I the only one who would see this similarity? Could the Super Mario aesthetic, in fact, be an intentional homage to Kandinsky? Consider the geometric qualities of the “hills” and “trees.” Consider the odd assemblage of polygons on either side, some overlapping others to suggest that they extend into the background. Consider the “structures” floating against the background, perhaps suggesting motion but perhaps also meant to be solid objects inexplicably suspended in the air. There’s definitely something in this painting that the old Mario games echoed, intentionally or not.

Points in favor of “not”: First off, I tend to see Mario where no Mario exists. More to the point, Kandinsky (or whoever did the above painting) was doing an abstract landscape, letting basic shapes stand in for the features that would normally decorate a given stretch of land. Similarly, the Nintendo people had to create similar terrain in making Mario games — especially Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World — mostly as a result of the technical limitations of the systems for which they were designing games. It could very well be that a staggered collection of quadrangles is just that, whether in a early twentieth-century painting or in a late twentieth-century Nintendo game.

Still, the resemblance jumps out to someone like me, who likes art but has spent too much time with a video game controller in his hands and will therefore be likely to fuse the two interests into one. I was curious about what other abstract Kandinsky landscapes might look like and looked around online. What I turned up supports at least the simplest conclusion: that there is, in fact, a visual similarity between these paintings and Mario games.

“the great gate of kiev” (1928)

“softened construction” (1927)

“brownish (1931)

“structure joyeuse” (1928)

“composition eight” (1923)

As the paintings get weirder and more surreal, they look particularly like the Wii game Super Paper Mario, a work of art in its own right that forces two-dimensional figures into a three-dimensional world (both in terms of graphics and the game’s plot) and which folds surreal art into a platform game universe. I know most people who read this blog haven’t played Super Paper Mario, but it’s a sight to behold, particularly Flipside, a geometric city that serves as the game’s “portal,” through which the various stages are accessed. (I tried to find appropriate art from the game to post here but found no usable screenshots online.) Looking at these paintings, I can see echoes of them in the game — Flipside especially.

In poking around at art websites, I also stumbled upon an Emil Nolde — not the one that I was originally looking for, but one that looked weirdly like one of the bad guys from Super Paper Mario. It’s a coincidence, I’m sure, but a noteworthy one, given my thought process leading up to it.

I conclude nothing from all this, but I will at least point out that one of the few goals I’d like to accomplish with this blog is to elevate video games as a medium. A lot of people look down of them, even today. They may not see the place of video games in the greater cultural context. A connection like this, however, at least hints that such a connection might be possible — that there could possibly be a connection between the art hung in museums and the games played in our living rooms.

Mario, previously:

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