Friday 16 November 2012

Marvels, mystery and the chilling world of the Nursery Rhyme – Dianne Hofmeyr

‘Marvels mix with the day-to-day and banality meets mystery in the nursery rhyme’ says Marina Warner, short story writer, historian and mythographer, known for her books on feminism and myth.

A few years ago I wrote a book on modern printmaking for GCSE level. I’m not about to go into a detailed description of the etching process, but one of the artists I discussed was Paula Rego. Anyone who has been to the Sainsbury Wing Restaurant at the National Gallery will know her huge mural, Crivelli’s Garden. Of her work, she says ‘I paint to give fear a face.’ And in her series on Nursery Rhyme she has introduced a dreamlike quality that manipulates scale and stirs up disturbing feelings and a certain potency in perfectly innocent scenes.
Take her etching of Hey Diddle Diddle with its carnival like gaiety… the little girl skipping, the dog laughing, the cow floating dreamily against a starry sky. But look again. The sharp points of the moon direct us back to the girl and we see she is skipping backwards towards the edge of a cliff that drops into space. And now the tall, muscular, grimacing cat takes on a more menacing role as he purposefully steps forward and the dog’s laughter seems more hysterical and the cow seems to have a knowing ‘I told you so’ smile while the dish is faceless as she scuttles off to hide.
And what about Baa Baa Black Sheep? Was there ever anything more menacing than this girl in the arms of the powerful ram? And is she waving to the curious boy down the lane or calling for help?

And in Three Blind Mice, the unseen moonlight catches the blade of the carving knife and focuses on the woman’s arm, face and blouse and also on the blank eyes of the mice. It’s as if Rego has drawn invisible lines between them. Yes… we know who blinded the mice.
In another example, from a series called The Pendle Witches (not part of the Nursery Rhyme series) Rego has illustrated a poem by Blake Morrison of the witches put on trial during the rule of King James I. The woman is sitting awkwardly in a tub in an etching entitled The Flood. The swirling water, the sharp stabs of rain, the flotsam and jetsam give a sense of doom yet the woman makes no attempt to save herself and seems to have withdrawn from the chaos around her. And what if she drowns? When we look closer at the water there’s a sense of nightmarish disaster looming from beneath it.
Rock a bye baby… what could be more innocent? But not in the hands of Paula Rego. The fragile sleeping baby is in a boxlike cradle (symbol for a coffin?) and against the background of stars (or is that snow?) one can see they are really high up in a prickly fir tree. There's almost the sense that the branches exactly under the cradle are too weak. The baby is too close to the edge. With a slightest shift the cradle will go over into the abyss. Although the woman in under-dressed we sense the icy coldness of the night. She’s looking over her shoulder as she grips the cradle. Is she looking to see if someone has seen her? Or is her expression one of utter desperation? Whatever it is, we know what she’s contemplating.

Read those nursery rhymes with care! 


Lily said...

These pictures are wonderful! Thank you - I hadn't come across this artist before. They remind me a little of the Maurice Sendak engravings for Grimm's tales (I think the book's called The Juniper Tree)- also quite menacing.

I always did think 'rock a bye baby' was a horrible rhyme...

Sue Purkiss said...

Disturbing stuff! Thanks, Diane.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thanks Lily and Sue. Oddly enough I was going to include some of Sendak's Wild THings and also Alexis Deacon's work from 'While you are Sleeping' which seems to have a frisson of unease and slight menace in the illustrations. But the post would've been too long. Another time maybe or for someone else to take up on. Will look up the images for 'The Juniper Tree' now, Lily. Thanks for that.

Celia Rees said...

Hauntingly strange images that certainly bring out the sinister side - not for the nursery. So much inspiration in the National Gallery, for writers as well as painters!

adele said...

One of my very favourite artists and wonderful to see her work written about here so well. Thanks Di!

Nicky said...

The stuff of nightmares! Great post.