I have always found writing about Orientalism in illustration hard. It’s hard, because every picture becomes its own Arabian Nights; threatening to whisk you off into a different realm. Self-contained themes lead you away into another idea—and another, and another. Before you know it, you have leapt so far into a single image, clambering after ethereal motifs, that you cannot see your original starting point and—like a magic carpet that flies only so long as you believe in it—you start to sink.
In writing on fairy tales, there’s often a functionalist bent to the analysis. This means that tend we view fairy tales as fulfilling societal need: they contribute to the stability of a group or culture. In this way, characters and predicaments become allegories: practice for situations we may face ourselves in real life, or a form of ‘safe’ role play. Red Riding Hood is not about hiking in the forest; it’s a warning about wolves, about prostitution, a tale of sexual awakening, and so on, and so on.
I like this kind of analysis. It’s important because it dives under the smooth-looking surface of fairy tales, and stirs up a surprising turbidity. It makes us question unspoken assumptions (why is the youngest child always the special one?), and highlights the significance of story-telling in learning. However, I don’t think it’s always perfect. By our very framing of fairy tales in this waysomewhat didactic way, orientated around adherence and cohesion—I think we sometimes lend them a static quality that they don’t always deserve.
Hi, everyone! Irene kindly asked me if I would like writing about some of the older fantasy-based art out there, an offer I’ve gratefully accepted. So I’ll be focusing on some of the great illustration that has inspired and shaped modern artists we admire.
Irene’s recent trip to the Waterhouse exhibition in Montreal sparked some interesting thoughts for me. Waterhouse’s work is undeniably beautiful—and evocative—but, despite the obvious love of women in his paintings, you can’t help wondering if they’re the subjects of his pictures, or perhaps in fact the objects. The femininity we see in his images is draped with Victorian concerns, and those concerns can be quite sexist.
Waterhouse (and his spiritual brethren in the pre-Raphaelite movement) has been tremendously influential in illustrating the fantastic, but what I’m going to do is look at some of the other artists working around this time. We’ll see how the same stylistic tics and influences emerge, but there’s a sense of interplay—of experimentation and even perhaps levity—that I think makes for more ambiguous, interesting images. Images that have, in my opinion, ultimately shaped just as much contemporary illustration.
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