Monday, September 26, 2011

golden age masters


Longer ago than I prefer to remember my parents acquired all 51 volumes of the original Harvard Classics, works of literature that were considered by the then president of the university to be essential reading for an educated person circa 1909. In the late '50's I was far too young to be fascinated by Aristotle, Dante, Hobbes, Shakespeare, or Voltaire, to name but a few, but Volume 17 was a different story. In it were all of the original stories of Aesop, The Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen which I got to read before stories like Snow White or Beauty and The Beast were Disneyfied.

It's quite likely nobody reads them anymore but even after all this time I still remember Andersen as one of my favorite writers of children's literature. Unlike Aesop and the Grimm's collected fairy tales he actually wrote the stories published under his name. Many of them are just a little too ironic to be labeled as classic fairy tales with the pre-supposed happy endings the term implies. His stories are more complex and the resolutions don't depend on the type of magic fairy stories usually rely on. Rather than spells and transformations Andersen allows readers to draw magic from the edges of our own imaginations.


Among my favorites is the Little Mermaid, a coming of age story about a mermaid princess who discovers the world above the waters and becomes obsessed by a human prince she saves from drowning. Tragically, she discovers that her current form makes her unsuitable to love a prince and, worse still, that she has no soul. To satisfy her dreams she must become human but only by winning the love of the prince will she gain an immortal soul. (The 'Christian' in Andersen's name was not without meaning.)

A sea witch crone gives her a potion that will change her fish tail into legs but irony dictates her every step is at the cost of continuous pain. The potion has also made her mute - a tragic loss for a siren whose ability to sing defines her identity. Her grace and beauty attracts the prince to love her as a sister, but not enough to recognize her as the girl who saved his life. Now she experiences a double irony since her sacrifice allows her to be close to him but unable to close the gap between them.


Meanwhile, family politics arrange for the prince to be betrothed to another princess, a girl so beautiful that when he meets her he becomes convinced it was she who rescued him. The little mermaid now has come to a dilemma. She has neither union with the prince nor can she she return to being a mermaid. Doomed to spend the rest of her life in pain, she will eventually die without an immortal soul. Andersen doesn't let it happen by supplying a twist wherein the mermaid’s sisters sacrificed their beautiful hair in exchange for a knife she can use to kill the prince and end the sea witch’s spell. In the end, Christian morality wins and the mermaid, who can't bring herself to murder the man she loves, kills herself by jumping into the sea and merging, as mermaids do, into its foam.

In the original story Andersen let it end there, but his editors wouldn't allow such a tragic conclusion to a story meant for children. He introduced air spirits. By becoming one, the little mermaid can serve as a guide for the proper behaviour of children and if she does her job well, will be able to earn an immortal soul. I don't know about you but I prefer the irony of the original ending.

Edmund Dulac, my favorite of the Golden Age illustrators, created some very beautiful paintings for this classic story. I hope you've enjoyed seeing them as much as I always do. Now I'm going back to re-read The Snow Queen which I once thought of illustrating myself just to see if I could.

22 comments:

Lisa said...

I think you should try your hand at The Snow Queen.

Dulac's paintings make such great use of the ocean by illustrating its vastness in relation to the creatures that inhabit it and its shores.

marja-leena said...

As Lisa said, for you are a master with waves, I remember.

Like you, I love fairy and folk tales but dislike the prettyfied, Disneyfied versions that change the originals (how dared he, I always thought?!). A lot of them did not have happy endings, like Little Mermaid and could be quite terrifying for young children. I do love the old illustrations. Have you seen those by the Russian Ivan Bilibin? My daughter stole my copy.

Randal Graves said...

Vive Dulac!

Hate to sound (not really) like some getoffmylawn type, but imagine the Hans's original being filmed, all the uproarious arm throwing and chest beating.

And a mention of Bilibin, too? I'm all swoony here.

Vincent said...

I quite agree that the original version is better. I don't think young children should be protected from unhappy endings, but introducing the option of suicide to a very young mind may not be a good idea. If I had been Andersen's editor (a job to be relished) I'd have insisted that the ex-mermaid's drowning in the sea be depicted ambiguously, as a kind of reckless accident or miscalculation. I wonder if the original version is viewable on the Web? Then in merging back to the sea, she could have become a water-spirit, with no particular duties for the guiding of children into proper behaviour.

The illustrations are fabulous!

Vincent said...

The entire book is available on Project Gutenberg http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17860/17860-h/17860-h.htm#THE_MERMAID, complete with illustrations!

It looks as though the original story ended with the paragraph "Once more she looked at the prince, with her eyes already dimmed by death, then dashed overboard and fell, her body dissolving into foam."

--which does not evoke suicide in the childish mind. There it could end, but the rest is as you suggest, a bit too goody-goody moralistic.

Andersen's compatriot Kierkegaard didn't have to compromise in such a manner. He could afford to publish at his own expense. I've often wished he had the benefit of a good editor.

Spadoman said...

Out of all the stories you mention, I am familiar with the mermaid. I have a distinct fascination with these beautiful sea creatures and know that somewhere, either in my past life as a Pirate or just being an old soul, I had a run-in with a Selkie.
You have no idea how my heart raced this morning when I came here to see these paintings and hear your recap of Andersen's story. I'll be buzzing all day. I'd love to see any type of illustration for any story if you decide to undertake the project.

Peace

jams o donnell said...

Ooh the illustrations are superb Susan. I love them.

I also love Arthur Rackham's illustrations too... and lets not forget Dore!

Steve Emery said...

When I saw the first painting in this post I thought of you, and some of the atmospheric effects you create in your watercolors. These are beautiful and more watery than just about any other illustrations I can recall.

We love several of Oscar Wilde's fairy tales in this house - like the Happy Prince and the Selfish Giant. Like Anderson's, Wilde's stories are often ironic and frequently sad.

My childhood favorite was The Arabian Nights, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish. And like you, I have been tempted to illustrate or retell my favorite - Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

susan said...

lisa - I'm tempted and it's never really been done but The Snow Queen is very long as well as most strange.

Dulac's ability to paint the sea in watercolor surpasses anyone else I know. I look and I don't understand how he did it.

marja-leena - I'm getting better with painting water but Dulac is incredible.

Yes, I remember being offended by the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty and the new myth that the prince awakened her with a kiss when in reality he arrived the day the curse ended. I've seen some of Bilibin's work online but never in reality or even good book plates. I do like what I've seen.

randal - I once got to see a special collection of Dulac's work and had to be dragged away.

Yes, it really doesn't bear thinking about how most studios would handle the story.

Bilibin's costumes and horses are amazing.

vincent - Thanks for the link to the wonderful Gutenberg version which does continue the story as I described it after her purposeful drowning. I imagine fewer children considered the idea in those days as life was probably hard enough as it was; the Christians have always had Purgatory as a handy middle ground when the circumstances of a death were questionable.

I read that Kierkegaard thought that at a certain stage of development, children need the horror and tension of fairy tales to work through and release their fear. His opinion was that Andersen's stories were too naive and sentimental. In my opinion there's an emotional and artistic power in Hans Christian Andersen's stories that stay long after you've forgotten a lot of the inexplicable violence of the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. Having read it first more than 50 years ago I still recall The Little Match Girl, abandoned on the street to freeze to death as she dreamt of her grandmother.

spadoman - Hans Christian Andersen wrote a lot of stories but there are are only a few that are really familiar these days. It wouldn't surprise me at all that in some previous time you met a Selkie. I'm glad you enjoyed seeing the illustrations.

jams - Aren't they wonderful? Arthur Rackham and Gustav Dore are both favorites of mine too.

susan said...

steve - Oops, you came by just as I hit the button to publish.

I can't tell you how much I still admire Dulac's work. Like all watercolorists of that period he mixed his own pigments and painted on a kind of clayboard he prepared. Of course, I could try such a thing as well and still never manage to replicate his results. There's a tenderness in his rendering of characters that takes my breath away and his color sense is perfect.

My husband recently bought the new Penguin edition (in three volumes) of the Arabian Nights and has read a few of the much lesser known stories to me. They are all very different from European fairy tales and are often quite ribald. I'd love to see how you would choose to approach illustrating Ali Baba.

linda said...

susan, this is such an interesting post and i thought the first painting was one of yours at first.....the art has such a quality of innocence and mastery at the same time...much like your own.....these are exquisite, thank you for sharing such a wonderful volume! how lucky to have grown up with these classics and parents who saw their value for you...

i too prefer the ending not fit for disney consumption...so many of the fairy tales are actually something quite different, it is fascinating. xxx

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Susan,
Mystery and magic remain favorites amongst young people – but hopefully a sense of that awe can stay with us for the rest of our lives. Great picture of Crow previously/ and your sketches.

Today it sems to me little is talked about in relation to ethical thinking and living in the here and now for the inner autonomous individual- rather sway is evident in the compulsions of external authorities / ideologies.

The reaffirmation of balance between spirit and nature is what seems to be lacking. I'm not talking about any utopianism or naivety in idealism but rather in recognizing human nature but holding a reverence for all life – not just human.

In that way those ethics/values naturally will flow on from such a corollary.

Best wishes

gfid said...

!! we had these books!!! the illustrations are so familiar! odd, really, as i come from the most blue collar family you can imagine, and i don't think anyone but me read the books, but we had them. a bookshelf full of the harvard classic fairy tales... no Dante, etc - just the fairy tales. and i read and re-read them for years. the little mermaid was one of my favorites. the disney version is hardly recognizable as the same story, though i have to admit my weakness and confess that i do love the music. and the snow queen! another favorite of mine. i made a snow queen costume years ago for a local production. i gave her cape this high-backed collar thing that framed the actress' face with elaborate sharp edged cutouts and glitter. the cloak bit was overlapping layers of ragged sheer fabric, hand painted in icy blues and silvers, that moved like a living thing. i was madly in love with it, and died a small death when i had to deliver it to the purchaser.

gfid said...

and YES! please do illustrate the snow queen!

Gina said...

Oh, I love Dulac!

xxoo

susan said...

linda - If I could paint one picture like the first of these I might just hang up my brushes to declare I'd reached the pinnacle of my life as an artist. I'm really flattered you could even have imagined that for a moment :-)

It was a pretty strange experience reading some of the truly gory fairy tales collected by the Grimm brothers. Do you remember that Cindarella's stepmother made one of her daughters cut off her big toe to fit inside the slipper and a bird called out to the prince, 'turn around, turn around, there's blood on the ground'? Then she made her other daughter cut off her heel with the same result. I can see why Disney dismissed that part but it really was a good lesson about the reckless pursuit of riches. I'm glad you liked them too.
xoxo

lindsay - Hello again and I'm glad to see you liked the recent drawings.

Earlier today I read a passage about the Tibetan people of Ladakh and how when they first met westerners in 1970 they described themselves as rich because they had enough to keep them as well as a deep spiritual connection to their land. Thirty years of exposure to television and all the other trappings of modern life found them complaining of poverty. I believe you're correct in what you say about reaffirming a balance between spirit and nature being something that's missing in our technological culture and I hope it's something that will come.

Best wishes

gfid - I'm delighted to know you were able to read these stories in their earlier forms and that you had the opportunity of drinking in the fabulous illustrations of the magical artists who illustrated them. The Snow Queen is very long and quite fascinating - it also has some of the best descriptions that allow a fertile mind to see the characters and costumes. The Queen is quite marvelous and I'd love to draw her sleigh with young Kay in the back but my favorite character is the little robber girl. How totally cool you made a Snow Queen costume; I wouldn't have wanted to give it up either.

I may try to illustrate some of the scenes because if I'm not good enough to try them now, then when?

susan said...

gina - He really is my favorite of all the watercolorists although others have made some very fine paintings.

linda said...

omg, no i didn't remember that about the cinderella story at all!! i did not have access to these as a child to read or would have had them memorized...there were and still are right up my (twisted) alley and the art would have captivated me even as a child........ i devoured my little house books and nancy drew and betsy something or some such but nothing like this...however money was not something we had tho it is doubtful that these volumes were enormously expensive as say, my father's chevy he polished until the fender fell off....
xx

susan said...

linda - The punishments for the wicked in those old stories was pretty intense to be sure but mostly everyone else got along okay. The 50 or so volumes of the Harvard Classics were meant for families to have access to classical literature and probably weren't all that expensive. Ours was a hand me down. They also weren't illustrated so an active imagination for my beloved #17 was essential. I found the Golden Age artists much later on.

That's pretty funny about your dad polishing his chevy. A decent running car was a necessity then and now :-)
xoxo

gfid said...

"I may try to illustrate some of the scenes because if I'm not good enough to try them now, then when?" 'good enough' is a subjective and comparative thing.... and we're always growing & changing. a fellow i know here is an amazing artist, whose work i admire tremendously. in a conversation about art he once told me, "nothing i do is original. it's all been done before" ...which was so NOT true, but he was referring to subject matter, etc. and couldn't see value in his own interpretation. he didn't think he was 'good enough'. his work was, and continues to be brilliant, but it's not the same now as it was then. so we talked about the concepts of 'good' and 'best'. i believe our best is always good enough, though it's never the same. today's best is not last year's best, nor next year's best. but if it really is our best, it is sufficient.

gfid said...

.... didn't mean to hit publish just yet..... wanted to finish with something profound about the beauty and power of your art..... i think it's dangerous to compare ourselves to others, with 'best' in mind. it's all so subjective, and ever changing.

susan said...

gfid - I appreciate what you're saying about how useless it is to compare ourselves with others, even someone as obviously skilled as Dulac. There was a time, a long time, when I was always excited about the next project and images of other possible paintings would pour through my imagination faster than I could draw the hints they left behind. Lately, I'm always surprised when I come up with anything worth looking at more than once. I think it's partly because I'm having trouble focusing for the time I usually need to get deeply involved in a painting project.

Your compliments are very generous and I'm grateful to know you enjoy seeing the few things I manage to do these days.