Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Ugly Duchess Update

A friend rather better than I am at following the news just alerted me to this article, which presents a new theory on Massys' Grotesque Old Woman. The article suggests that Massys' modelled his Duchess on a real person: an old woman with a severe form of Paget's disease.

The drawing attributed to Francesco Melzi (above) could be a copy of a Leonardo drawing, which is now thought not to be an original. The theory is now that Leonardo, or possibly Melzi, copied Massys, not the other way round. This does seem possible, since the drawing is not as detailed.

Though this may initially seem to solve the mystery, it actually adds to the mystery by raising a couple of questions. First of all, who is Leonardo's drawing (above) of? It appears to have been done quickly, so could have been an observational sketch. Unfortunately the top of it is chopped off, so we can't tell if Leonardo's old woman had the distinct headdress or if she was the same as Massys'.

The painting is displayed next to the old man painting (shown in an etching above) for the first time in a while, in the exhibition 'Renaissance Faces' at the National Gallery.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Ugly Duchess; from Leonardo to Tenniel

I find Leonardo's grotesque drawings very interesting, as, even though they are weird and distorted, they somehow look as though they could exist. Most of them were not drawn from observation but from imagination, and Leonardo used the same sort of precise principles in their design - such as dividing the head into lines of latitude for the brow, the nose and the lip - that he was applying to his (far more numerous) drawings of beautiful and youthful faces.

This drawing, attributed to Francesco Melzi, is a faithful copy of a lost original by Leonardo (c. 1490). It shows a rather ugly old woman in a somewhat unflattering costume. Her weird, distinct headdress emphasises her oddly-shaped head and sticky out ears, and her revealing costume displays bits of her we would probably rather not see.

A surviving, but unfortunately trimmed, drawing by Leonardo himself, from the same year, seems to have been a preparatory sketch for his ugly old woman. Many of his facial studies, both beautiful and grotesque, were done in profile, Leonardo believing such an angle to be the best way to show the features of the face.

Leonardo's old woman is not grotesque simply because she is old; it is the woman's vanity and ostentatiousness, reflected in her costume and bearing, that make her ugly. An extract from Erasmus' Praise of Folly (1511) is included in Leonardo da Vinci: The Divine and the Grotesque to suggest a similar message to that illustrated in the drawing:

It is even more amusing to see these old women, so ancient they might as well be dead... They pay a good price for the services of some handsome young Adonis. They never cease smearing their faces with make-up. They can't tear themselves away from the mirror... They show off their withered and flabby breasts... Everyone laughs at these things as utterly foolish (and indeed they are), but the old bags themselves are perfectly self-satisfied.

Quinten Massys of Antwerp may have seen several of Leonardo's grotesque faces, as he used similar designs in a few of his paintings. One of the gypsy faces in the sketch at the top of this post appears in his Grotesque Betrothal and, famously, he painted his own Grotesque Old Woman (c. 1520), which can be seen in the National Gallery in London:

This is certainly one of my favourite paintings in the National Gallery, because it's one of the few paintings that actually puts a smile on people's faces - the laughter is a welcome change from the respectful, decorous hush generally found in museums and galleries. There's also something inherently charming about the old woman's naive ignorance of her own ugliness. The dreamy eyes and coy mouth rally add to the humour.

While Erasmus accuses vain old ladies of having their eyes on 'some handsome young Adonis', Massys depicted his grotesque old woman as seeking the affections of a man of a similar age, who rejects her offer of a rosebud. The idea may also have been inspired by Leonardo, who drew a Satire on Aged Lovers (c. 1490, above); however, Leonardo's old man is much more keen on his admirer than Massys' is.

Massys' narrative was later depicted in an etching (above) by Wenceslaus Hollar around 1645, under the title The King and Queen of Tunis, with the old man (not exactly in a position to be fussy, it must be said) rejecting his admirer's advances. The painting of the old woman still works on its own, however; the rosebud she is holding, along with her wistful gaze into (apparently) nothing could be seen to allude to a youth long since lost.

Sir John Tenniel is more likely to have used Massys' old woman as a source for his Ugly Duchess in Alice in Wonderland, because the Leonardo version's headdress does not feature the embroidered pattern seen in the Tenniel illustrations, and the Hollar version does not give the headdress such a distinct shape. The Punch cartoonist could have seen it in the collection of Alfred Seymour; alternatively he may have used an engraving (above) of the painting by Gilles-Antoine Demarteau.

But there may have been other sources as well. Tenniel had depicted medieval women with similarly shaped headdresses in several of his Punch cartoons (above), and these women have completely different faces. Furthermore, Tenniel's Duchess' face doesn't really resemble that of Massys'.

After Gordon Brown, who wasn't around in Lewis Carrol's day, the closest facial resemblance to the Tenniel Duchess can be found in an engraving (above) by F. W. Fairholt for Thomas Wright's History of Caricature and Grotesque in Literature and Art(1865). The illustration is of a misericord, which often featured grotesque faces. The thuggish face shown quite closely resembles Tenniel's Duchess. It is likely Tenniel had come across the book in his earlier days.

This perhaps accounts for the Duchess having a big bulky chin, in contrast to the 'sharp little chin' described by Lewis Carrol. Nevertheless the Tenniel Duchess' chin does at least end in a point, the better to dig into Alice during a conversation. The Tenniel Duchess and her distinctive headdress have been an influence on many of the Alice illustrators, including Gwyneddm Hudson:

Friday, 31 October 2008

Some appropriate images for the occasion

Some of my favourite 'gothic horror' images - by some of my favourite artists - to get you in the right mood for the occasion. In a sense this is a taster of things to come; I will soon try to do a few posts about Anderson, Delacroix and Clarke's Faust, Ernst's Une Semaine de Bonte, and (as always) Dore.











Thursday, 2 October 2008

Bateman: The Possibilities of a Vacuum Cleaner

One illustrator/cartoonist I'm always surprised to see getting no attention from animation fans is H. M. Bateman. His drawings are always full of movement and character, and often depict comical and complex sequences that would be well suited to the medium.

One of his very best pieces is the bizarre 'The Possibilities of a Vacuum Cleaner' of 1921, probably the weirdest cartoon he ever drew.

I will post much more about Bateman's life and work in the near future.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

David Hall and Alice in Wonderland

News of the upcoming 'Alice in Wonderland' adaptation from Tim Burton has brought me back to Disney's 1951 animated version. Though not the best Disney film, it is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and probably my favorite of Disney's 50s output - it does not work together cohesively as a whole, but showcases a great deal of imagination as far as style and staging are concerned.

Disney's history with alice began with Walt's own interest in the material, which he claimed was his favorite piece of English literature. Thoughts of a direct adaptation were in his mind as early as 1931, when he purchased the rights to Sir John Tenniel's illustrations.

I fully believe Tenniel must be given as much credit as Lewis Carroll himself for the endurance of Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and the images the material conjures up. Just as mention of Sherlock Holmes automatically brings to mind the image established largely by illustrator Sidney Paget, so is Tenniel so irremovably linked to the denizens of Carroll's imagination. Though the collaboration was not an easy one - Carroll disapproving of a number of Tenniel's creative decisions - it is extremely difficult to read the text without thinking of these events taking place in the world specifically depicted by the Punch cartoonist.

In 1938, Al Perkins, a story-man at the Disney studio, was appointed to research the material, resulting in a 161-page analysis of the book, suggesting possible approaches to adapting the book. This coincided with the hiring of inspirational sketch artist David Hall, an Irishman who had experience in live-action set design, having worked on, among other films, Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings. Hall adapted many of Perkins' ideas into storyboards and inspirational sketches, using a combination of pencil, watercolour and ink.

The little that is known of Hall's life is covered in John Canemaker's Before the Animation Begins. Canemaker has compared Hall's inspirational sketches for Alice and Peter Pan to the illustrations of Beatrix Potter (Peter Rabbit) and of Arthur Rackham (who had himself illustrated Alice); however, Hall's work is both less finished and more energetic, with a sense of movement very suitable for Wonderland and its residents.

Hall was ordered to remain faithful to Tenniel. However, while Tenniel's illustrations remain very static - partly a result of the method of reproduction via etching in those days - Hall endows everything with movement more suitable for transition to the big screen. More cinematic too is Hall's approach to scale. Alice's journey down the rabbit-hole is an epic fall through a vast space populated by clouds, gems, ice, bubbles and bats; and the Queen of Hearts' castle is an immense, foreboding fortress silhouetted against an uneasy sky.

Hall's depictions of events at the Queen's Castle and Croquet-Ground are among his most interesting sketches. Used in this post are a mere selection images that can be downloaded from Thad Komorowski's blog; the larger images are from the aforementioned Before the Animation Begins, an edition of Alice in Wonderland abundantly illustrated with Hall's sketches, and the catalogue from the exhibition Il Etait une Fois: Walt Disney.

As in the book and 1951 film, Alice first encounters three gardeners painting white roses red.

Meanwhile, hoses, watering cans, lawnmowers and shears are busily at work without the aid of gardeners, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the sketches of fellow inspirational sketch artist Albert Hurter.

Dissatisfied with the volume with which the White Rabbit heralds her arrival, the Queen knocks him out of the way and does it herself.

Al Perkins' treatment made several attempts to link the episodic events of the story together. As a result, much of the cast encountered earlier in the film attend the Queen's croquet game. Besides Alice, the Queen, the King (asleep), the Knave, the White Rabbit and the soldiers, this scene also features the Duchess (who does not appear in the final film) and her baby-turned pig, with her frog and fish footmen acting as caddies. The Caterpillar, Hatter, March Hare and Dormouse are also taking part, as are the Dodo and his companions from the Caucus Race earlier in the story. We can also see a fool (presumably a reference to the Joker card) and a figure in a red hood. More on him later.

Following the game the party proceeds to the castle, presented here in a long sketch to indicate a pan. I've split the sketch in two here. This is a spectacular scene, full of life and character; however, the castle at left suggests that we are entering a darker part of the story, and the presence of gallows up above, with a corpse hanging from them certainly can't bode well. Indeed, the imagery becomes more and more nightmarish as we progress.

The red hooded figure we saw earlier is apparently the assistant and train-bearer for the executioner, a dark, sinister figure cloaked entirely in black - a far cry from the diminutive, comical figure from the original book and illustrations.

The trial of the Knave of Hearts takes place in a courtroom of tall boxes and long, winding staircases. The Knave himself is in far more chains than necessary to emphasise the cruelty of his oppressors, and the Cheshire Cat is present - first as a headless steward handing out programs, then as a barrister.

From what I can see in the storyboards, the story involved the Knave being done in by some sort of exploding cannon (another Hurter-esque creation). The Queen sentences Alice to be executed, and we enter the film's climax.

The door of the dungeon opens out to a sheer drop. The Queen does not seem to want Alice to go so easily and leads her instead up a spiral staircase to the top of the castle's highest tower.

This is perhaps the darkest of all of Hall's inspirational sketches for the film. The Queen and the black-clad executioner lead Alice to the guillotine, which is being prepared by the red henchman. Sinister hooded drummers line the tower's battlements, while more minions, forced on by an overseer, operate the necessary equipment to move the blade of the guillotine, which reaches towards the viewer. Despair is emphasised - the stairs Alice is climbing are transforming into cards and collapsing behind her, leaving her no option but to continue to her death. Nor is there any mode of escape around the guillotine itself, which is surrounded by a sheer drop. Not to be too graphic, but that which is decapitated would simply fall, seemingly to infinity. The other towers scattered about the edges of the frame give the viewer an idea of the vastness of it all.

The ending continues to resemble nightmares in which the dreamer has no choice but to die. Straps tie themselves around Alice as the Queen looks on in anticipation. Taking it a step further the Queen becomes, in a way, the death herald, climbing onto the blade in order that she be able to ride it down as it does its job. She's done this before.

Just as the blade screeches towards Alice, of course...

She escapes the nightmare, the blade lingering a little as everything else transforms into a simple pack of cards swirling about her. The cards eventually become the leaves of the garden she sits in in the 'real world'.

The climax of the 1938 plot for the film would perhaps have made this the most terrifying of Disney features, with its imagery of hanging corpses and guillotines, and a frighteningly bloodthirsty Queen of Hearts. Ultimately the film ended up much lighter, with a greater deal of slapstick and arguably an approach better suited to animation. The Queen was made rather more comical - and, I must say, a thoroughly entertaining character, even though her animator, Frank Thomas, was not satisfied with his work - and we do not follow her victims as they are dragged to the execution block.

Though the film is ultimately kept in the realm of fantasy much more, many viewers find the film scary, not through the danger of death as in the storyboards and sketches shown here, but in the unnerving quality certain aspects of the film, such as the Cheshire Cat, create. It should also be noted that the original book probably wasn't as dark or scary as the likes of American McGee may suggest - just weird and wonderful, and most of the time satyrical. The Queen of Carroll's Wonderland is just as eager to behead, but the majority of those she sentences are pardoned behind her back, and the Gryphon even claims that no-one is executed. Will Burton take the darker or lighter route with the Queen?

For a treasure trove of Hall storyboards, visit Thad Komorowski.