Into the Jungle, this spring’s first gallery exhibition, is a collection of a young boy’s touchingly human comic book illustrations commenting and reflecting on WWII. Influenced by news and propaganda on the active war, Jimmy Kugler (late father of Northwestern’s own Dr. Michael Kugler) drew hundreds of these illustrations.
With the help of NW Art Professors Scorza and Flynn, Dr. Kugler has brought them to the public with new insight and life. The exhibition consists of a plaque explaining the installation, a plaque providing the historical backdrop for Jimmy’s work, walls lined with comics and a massive mural reproducing a
cacophonous battle scene from one of Jimmy’s comics.
The series depicts the “Famous War of the Frogs and Toads” (stand-ins for the ally and axis powers). Each comic is marked by gruesome violence, insights on the futility of war and pitch-black comedy. One comic depicts a frog’s harrowing execution by iron maiden for the heinous crime of the theft of a slice of bread. Another comments on the endless cycle of violence with a frog brawling with a toad exclaiming, “Now we’re even” the toad retorting, “Are we?” Peeling back each comic, it seems as if we see the mind of the young artist attracted to exciting depictions of war yet also wrestling with its atrocities.
Into the Jungle is certainly an exhibition about the artistic merit of young Jimmy’s work, but it is equally about insight into its author – insights we can never determine to be completely true. It is no coincidence then that this collection, so notable for its careful interpretation of artistic perspective and intent, was curated by historian Michael Kugler. Jimmy Kugler died when Michael was just eight years old, never discussed his comics with his family. Any insight on his artistic motivations has come from his son’s careful historical analysis.
Kugler postulates on a number of influences for Jimmy’s work, ranging from his strong German-American upbringing, WWII propaganda, an overbearing school system and the impact of mass media. Distilling his thoughts, Kugler concludes that his father’s work is of the immortal lineage of artists whose muse is the evocative visual of war. Of course, Kugler establishes division between fascination with the visuals and fascination with the content of war. He stresses, “You have to make a distinction between art and the world we want to live in. The art is the art. It exists on its own terms.” It is unlikely that great artists – Jimmy Kugler included –
depict war to revel in it. In fact, most famous works on the subject speak out against it. However, Dr. Kugler does not eliminate the possibility of malicious intent and brings to attention the impact such potent imagery has on the minds of young artists like his father.
Jimmy Kugler’s understanding of war in his art was influenced by comics, movies, news and propaganda. For this reason, Into the Jungle is a prime example of the perennial juvenoia surrounding media’s influence on the youth. New forms of media are initially met with suspicion and special concern for their impact on children: from novels, to movies, to video games. And so, the question becomes whether these mediums help children build informed opinions on heavy subjects or whether they force upon them a monolithic narrative.
In conclusion, Into the Jungle poses two questions: 1. Can we objectively understand artistic intent outside of our own personal interpretation? 2. Can we definitively say whether media negatively impacts the young and the credulous? To both, the answer is a clear no. We cannot see inside the mind of the author nor escape our own mind. However, the jungle of artistic reference and interpretation is not without its beauty. The differing interpretations art elicits form a complicated jungle of artistic thought, yet this accentuates the beauty of the art itself. Additionally, in Jimmy’s art and Dr. Kugler’s impeccable historic analysis, we see the dance between the artist and their subject matter – Their identity and influences waltzing together in a beautiful jungle.