Neither Porridge nor Clog-Dancing: The Virago World of Angela Carter
[Castle Sarah Woodfine, 2005. Photo credit: Hannah, Generally Gothic, 2017]
The white walls of Bristol’s Royal West of England Academy art gallery are lined with mystical, dark, dream-like artwork. A giant snow-globe, twin baby heads in a gravy dish, and a sculpture of a girl sleeping in the folds of a book adorn plinths in the middle of the room. It all suggests a child-like charm, but with none of the innocence.
[The Fairy Tale Di Oliver, 2005. Photo credit: Hannah, Generally Gothic, 2017]
“You mention folk culture and people immediately assume you’re going to talk about porridge and clog-dancing.”
– Angela Carter (1991) quoted in The Fairy Tale, Di Oliver (2005)
On the 25th anniversary of her death, Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter is a celebration of the English author’s lasting influence. Angela Carter (1940 – 1992) studied literature at Bristol University and, as many do, lived in the city for a time upon graduating. She is perhaps best known for her re-imaginings of classic fairy tales – restoring the original darkness of Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm, whilst elevating female characters out of archetypal roles, often as fragile victims. Her full body of work crosses genres including Magic Realism, the Gothic, Post-Modernism, and Post-Feminism. The artwork in this exhibition is similarly broad-scoping, covering themes of death, sexuality, morality, female identity, and religion.
[The Forest Assassins Tessa Farmer, 2016. Photo credit: Hannah, Generally Gothic, 2017]
In the centre back of the main gallery space, a large installation is suspended from the ceiling. Composed of natural found objects ranging from crab claws to crocodile skulls, Tessa Farmer has created a fascinating world, with tiny figures riding bees into battle against an unknown enemy. The Forest Assassins (2016) captures the connection between the grotesque and the beautiful and humankind’s relationship with nature, as often explored by Carter through a Gothic/Fantastic lens.
On the walls surrounding the minute detail of The Forest Assassins are more instantly traditional pieces of predominantly painted art. After a moment’s consideration, however, the continuation of Carter’s themes is apparent. My eyes linger, and continue to return to an almost scale portrait of a hairless man with drawn-on eyebrows, in bondage straps, a hiked up skirt, and high heels. He dominates the frame otherwise filled only by the simple chair upon which he sits, mysterious strips of tape on the floor at his glamorous feet, and cracks realistically painted upon the walls behind him. His eyes are glazed over, and though I suspect the subject is trying to communicate with his audience, I am unclear of his message. For me, this is the continued appeal of Maxime (Wendy Elia, 2010).
[Maxime Wendy Elia, 2010. Photo credit: Hannah, Generally Gothic, 2017]
Along the same wall hangs Manuscript: Janus (Sandy Sykes, 2009) which, in terms of process, I feel best encapsulates both the intention of the exhibition and the essence of Carter’s literature. Unlike much of its company, this piece is pale of palette, with a theme less instantly apparent. The gallery plaque describes the piece as a ‘palimpsest’. To me forever associated with The Handmaid’s Tale (1985, Margaret Atwood – another contemporary literary great similarly influenced by myth and fairy tale, with strong feminist and environmental overtones, and a focus upon gender identity and the female body), this is the word which sums up Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter for me. Manuscript: Janus has physical depth and texture, with layers of wood, metal, plastic, paper, and so on, built up upon one another. The result is an intriguing piece that seems to display a figure with two heads facing in opposite directions. Its presumably naked body is covered by a modest square. As in Maxime blurred boundaries are explored in Manuscript: Janus, raising questions of gender identity, sexual expression and morality.
[Manuscript: Janus Sandy Sykes, 2009. Photo credit: Hannah, Generally Gothic, 2017]
Dimly lit for preservation, the second room of the gallery hosts 19th and 20th century religious paintings featured in The Holy Family Album, a controversial 1991 TV documentary written and narrated by Carter. Broadcast only once on UK television, The Holy Family Album presents a collection of religious art as God’s own photograph album – the image of God does not appear as a subject in any of the paintings because it is he who is taking the ‘photographs’. Amongst those exhibited here is Arnulf Rainer’s Wine Crucifix (1957 – 1978). Originally displayed as an altar-piece in an Austrian Catholic university chapel, Rainer later reworked the piece stating:
– Arnulf Rainer (1978)
Stains of red command attention before my focus is drawn to a looming dark figure that suddenly seems to consume the foreground; this is the darker carnation of Wine Crucifix on display. Hidden beneath layers of paint and dull lighting the religious iconography (a large cross) is lost; all that remains is a seeping, suffering human form against a backdrop of self-sacrificial blood. Like the palimpsest that is Manuscript: Janus, the process behind Wine Crucifix is a deeply fitting selection for an Angela Carter exhibition. Consider the similarities between Rainer refocusing a religious altar-piece to reveal latent, physical darkness in order to present a more human truth and Carter reimagining fairy tales to include more honest, flawed, and mature characters. Whilst there is darkness, subversion, and a lingering magic, there is also an awareness of honesty that makes both Rainer and Carter’s work starkly realistic.
[The Banquet Ana Maria Pacheco, 1985. Photo credit: Hannah, Generally Gothic, 2017]
The next room exhibits book cover artwork and even a collage of Carter’s own, made during her time studying at the West of England College of Art, housed at RWA. Vividly bright in contrast to the previous room, I rather rapidly seek the dark intrigue of the space beyond the heavy curtain. Ana Maria Pacheco’s The Banquet (1985) is a huge, intimidating scene that dominates an entire room. Equally unsettling and enticing, each face is crafted with beautiful, eerie detail. I feel certain that the seated figures will lift their arms to grab me and throw me upon the table at any moment, or at least seek me with their eyes. Whilst amongst my personal favourites (in terms of craftsmanship and pure aesthetic), initially I am surprised that the largest singly occupied space is devoted to a party of male figures, though on reflection I appreciate the relevance to the gender power reversal often explored in Carter’s writing. My initial emotional response to The Banquet is of stepping into the moment before a gruesome fairy tale scene, a naked man lying bare bottom up at the mercy of his suited fellow man. The indistinguishability between the seated faces and their victim, in all but expression, highlights the expected equality of each of Pacheco’s giant figures… were it not for the uncompromising, powerless situation in which the naked man finds himself. The scene also encourages questions on the relationship between beast and man[/human]kind. We have no context, do not know why one individual has been singled out and laid bare, but the sinister suggestion encouraged by the title of the piece is that the men in suits – a symbol of sophistication and dignity – are suspended eternally in the moment before a carnal, animalistic act. Whilst I cannot look away, I am eager to leave, repeatedly looking over my shoulder as I do so to see if they have yet made their move.
[The Music of Things (Sleep) 2009. Video: Alice Maher. Sound: Trevor Knight. Photo credit: Hannah, Generally Gothic, 2017]
Exiting through a different though equally alluring curtain I experience the final work of the exhibition. The Music of Things (Sleep) (2009) is a visceral, dreamy animated video by Alice Maher. For Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter the 3 minute 16 second long film is paired with sound by Trevor Knight, a decision made by the exhibition co-curator, Fiona Robinson RWA, which I applaud. This captivating short follows pencil drawings that come to life, and tumble and transform across the screen only to be rubbed out and reincarnated as a sleeping head, an egg, a woman, a man, a tree, a tiger, an amalgamation of all these things. I suspect that silent the film would still succeed, but accompanied by the sometimes throaty sometimes guttural chorus of voices, The Music of Things (Sleep) is like watching a dream unravel. A perfect piece to end the exhibition on, it neatly brought many of the themes explored to life in a moving narrative, exemplifying the fluidity of one to the next, demonstrating (to any still in doubt) that life, death, and nature, man, woman and beast, all have a place alongside one another whether the setting be a white world of pencil lines, a room with cracked walls and only a chair, or giant sculpted men with human teeth hungry in suspended time. Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter is a beautiful treasure-hunt for inter-disciplinary connections between literature and visual art that presents and explores themes that start with Angela Carter but really, are simply human. Whether you are a fan of Angela Carter, a fan of art, both, or neither, I recommend this exhibition as either a starting point for your curiosity to develop or a wide-spanning space for your interest to deepen.
Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter was on at the RWA from the 10th of December 2016, to the 19th of March, 2017. For more information and related events, click here.
© Hannah Sinclair Emadian and Generally Gothic, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Hannah Sinclair Emadian and Generally Gothic with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Cite This Work
Emadian, H. S. (2017, July 07). The Gothic: Review | ‘Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter’ Exhibition. Generally Gothic. Retrieved from https://generallygothic.wordpress.com/2017/07/07/the-gothic-review-angela-carter-exhibition/
Emadian, Hannah S. “The Gothic: Review | ‘Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter’ Exhibition.” Generally Gothic. https://generallygothic.wordpress.com/2017/07/07/the-gothic-review-angela-carter-exhibition/
Emadian, Hannah S. “The Gothic: Review | ‘Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter’ Exhibition.” Generally Gothic. Generally Gothic, 07 Jul 2017. Web. [Date Accessed]