Seeking Beastliness and Defining Beauty

 

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If you type Beauty and the Beast into your search engine-of-choice today, you’ll get the full, oppressive weight of the Disney empire over-stuffing your screen. But there is so, so much more to the story than the Disney products, and for that you have to search further, and search deeper.

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La Belle et la Bête is a story that has captured imaginations since its first appearance in 1740 in a lengthy version by novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Abridged and rewritten in 1756 by  Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, it was later taken up by Andrew Lang in his Blue Fairy Book, and from that time on it has been constantly retold and redeveloped, spanning novels, short stories, operas, plays, musicals, films, animations and live-action remakes of animations.

Cocteau based his screenplay on the version of La Belle et la Bête by Leprince de Beaumont. I in turn am homaging Cocteau in my current project with Design for Today to take the mood of a film and translate it to the quite different language of a book. 

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It seems strange that such a magnificent subject has so often resulted in unconvincing illustrations, but among the numerous published versions I’ve found there to be a relative few that come close to capturing the strangenesses of the story. Walter Crane created admittedly eye-popping images (below) in which design takes precedence over character and mood, a common failing in versions of Beauty and the Beast. Crane’s Beauty looks not so much alarmed as filled with ennui at the dapper, monocled Beast who shares her sofa at possibly the dullest tea-party in the world. (Routledge, 1874) Perhaps he is both boar and boor!

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Among nineteenth century illustrators, I find myself most drawn to the images of Eleanor Vere Boyle. Her Beauty and the Beast of 1875 (below) has a Beast like a giant beaver crossed with a sabre-toothed tiger, and he is both sinister and majestic. I love the cactus garden Boyle dreamed up as the perfect setting for his first appearance. It’s an unexpected masterstroke of imaginative contribution to the story. And while Beauty is conventionally lovely, at the dining-table she looks trapped, a prisoner both in the too-tight space and in the confining swathes of her gown. All this feels far more in the darker realms of the story than most versions.

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H. J. Ford created a set of images for Andrew Lang’s retelling of the tale in The Blue Fairy Book, with a Beast notable for being a man/boar/elephant mashup.

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Ford’s illustrations are awkward and oddly uneven in style and tonality. The best and the most touching by far is the one in which Beauty returns to find the Beast dying in a grotto.

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Above: Illustrator Peter Thompson

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I particularly like the illustrations of the story by Beauge Bertall. (Above)

The abiding failure of so many illustrators tackling the theme has been one of being wedded to surface allure at the cost of atmosphere and character. Artist after artist gets lost in opulence and graceful whimsy, and Beauty and her Beast sink beneath the weight of it. She becomes a cypher for all things pretty, and he loses his animal nature long before casting it off in that final apotheosis. It seems to me that Beauty has become a prisoner of her name so that artists find it an almost impossible hurdle to clear. She’s defined by the standards and fashions of her times, running the gamut from Pre-Raphaelite goddess to 1920s socialite to sophisticated siren without ever bothering to leave a trace of her character on the page. It’s a conundrum. How do you define beauty? Moreover when you do – if you do – how do you manage to get beyond it?

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Above: Illustrator Jan Brett

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Above: Illustrators Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone

The Fairy Book - The Best Popular Fairy Stories Selected and Rendered Anew - Illustrated by Warwick GlobeAbove: Illustrator Warwick Goble

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Above: Illustrator Errol le Cain

Angela Barrett’s Illustrations (below) for Max Eilenberg’s 2010 Beauty and the Beast (Walker Books), are are undeniably beautiful and perhaps the most eerily romantic of contemporary versions. She presents dreamy, meticulously painted wide panoramas that invest an almost operatic quality to the undertaking, and if I have a qualm it’s that I can’t escape the feeling that the images have been made with the stage or film in mind, and that is where they’d look their best.

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The illustrations for Beauty and the Beast that I love most, appear in:

Favourite Fairy Tales Told in France

Retold from Charles Perrault and other
French storytellers by Virginia Haviland and Illustrated by Roger Duvoisin. 

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 1959

 

Roger Duvoisin (1900 – 1980) was born in Geneva. He studied at the École National Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, and after graduating tried his hand at a variety of practices, including designing scenery, creating posters and painting murals. In 1925 he married another Swiss national, the artist Louise Fatio. In 1927, while working in Paris in the textile industry, Duvoisin was offered a job designing for a textile company in the USA, and the couple relocated to New York. When the company went bankrupt during the Depression, Duvoisin turned to illustration to support his family.

In 1933 he had great success with his book Donkey, Donkey, and he won the 1948 Caldecott Medal for his illustrations for White Snow, Bright Snow by Alvin Tresselt. In 1954 he collaborated with his wife on The Happy Lion. Fatio wrote the book and Duvoisin illustrated it, and it proved successful enough to extend to a total of ten Happy Lion books which they jointly produced over twenty-six years. He illustrated Favourite Fairy Tales Told in France in 1959, and for me his achievement is a triumph.

The images throughout are fresh and lively, flat and graphic, and while they don’t rely on creating characters in the way we might expect of say Maurice Sendak, they nevertheless make good that deficiency by fizzing with energy and shapely loveliness. With their limited yet vibrantly sunny palette, they are wonderful accompaniments to the tale. I think too that by stripping him down to his natural animal shagginess, Duvoisin rids his Beast of all the pesky trappings of affluence that many other illustrators linger on. This Beast is man, bear and werewolf combined. He fills the space with physicality and presence, and when he roars, he ROARS!!!!

I can see Duvoisin’s origins as a textile designer in these images, and the energy and freedom of the 20th century, wedded to the most artful drawing craft, flows through them. They make me happy. Beauty and the Beast is just one of several tales in the book, and these are the illustrations for it.

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Throughout a long career Duvoisin was an ardent and steadfast collaborator, producing an astonishing nineteen books with Alvin R. Tresselt, five with Mary Calhoun, four with Charlotte Zolotow and three each with Kathleen Morrow Elliott and Adelaide Holl. He also produced a series of books based on his creations Petunia and Veronica, respectively a goose and a hippopotamus. He received a Caldecott Honour in 1962. I leave you with another image from Favourite Fairy Tales Told in France, this one from the story of Puss in Boots. It has to be the best Puss ever!

 

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Palaces of the Imagination: Part 1. The Globe

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The Penylan was a cinema in Albany Road, Cardiff, that opened in 1914 showing silent films. On conversion to ‘Talkies’ in 1931, its name was changed to the Globe.  It was demolished in 1985.

The building though small – it sat 500 – was presented in a pretty, neo-classical style. It was surmounted by a dome that could be opened on fine evenings to let out the patrons’ smoke. By the time I went there in the 1960s, it showed mainly art-house films, and was the cinema of choice for Cardiff’s student population. I remember the elegance of the narrow auditorium, the slender, gravity-defying balcony and the loveliness of the gilt plasterwork. It was faded and peeling, but it had all the allure of a building that though built-to-purpose as a cinema, had its roots in the traditions of the old theatres and music-halls.

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At some point in my early teens I was taken to the Globe by a young man I’d met at drama club. Gareth was about six years older than me and had a car, and it was exciting to be picked up by him from my home in Newport and whisked away to Cardiff for an adventure. There was a heady whiff of romance in the air, though I wasn’t quite sure what that might entail. He had written poetry for me, which was unexpected and head-spinning, and to this day I have an art book that he brought to me as a gift, with an inscription and his name on the title page.

We saw a double Jean Cocteau programme. Orphée (1950) and La Belle et la Bête ( 1946). The experience was revelatory. Everything on the screen left me weak at the knees. This was the single defining moment of what I would later reach toward creatively, though of course I didn’t know that at the time. I don’t mean by this that I came away from the experience yearning to be a film director. At that point I was still unclear about what I’d be, in all senses. But the seed was planted, the desire to build worlds of my own that had the power to hold and enrapture, as I had been held and enraptured by the experience of the films. Watching Cocteau’s masterpieces shimmering in the darkness of that palace of the imagination, left me yearning to be a maker.

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The Things That Made Me: part 1

Here’s my list. It may appear random, but all the things on it have been significant to me. They were the accompaniments to my finding myself, the books, films, TV programmes and objects that had profound effects on me when I was a child. (And in some cases, the allure of what I yearned for but never got, like a Topstone latex rubber mask!) Some of what’s here you might expect to see, and much of it, probably not. It’s also my ‘coming out’ list, inasmuch as there are items here that my parents didn’t approve of. The horror magazines and the Mars Attacks collector-cards were frowned on by my mother, and I quickly learned to put them away where she wouldn’t see them. This made me uncomfortable. Conflicted. They were pleasures tarnished with guilt.

I’ve been conflicted most of my life about the things I’ve loved that might be considered lowbrow. Next month I’ll be six-five. A nicely rounded figure, though inconceivably high. It’s time I got over being troubled about what made me who I am. There’s nothing wrong with any of the things that thrilled me in those formative years. Time to celebrate them. Time to own up!

No words and no explanations. Just the pictures. I leave it to you to put titles to the films represented by photographs.

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Johann Christian Rohl in the wolf’s den, part 2: the interview

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Part 1 of J. C. R. in the wolf’s den may be found HERE

  • Clive H-J. With The Company of Wolves you’ve explored just one of the suite of Angela Carter’s tales, The Bloody Chamber. Was your first experience of this dark and sexualised spin on Red Riding Hood the short story, or the film by Neil Jordan? Many people came to Carter as a writer after seeing it.
  • Johann CR. I read the book first. I’d been told about the book by a friend I’d made in my first year of Uni, she was a second year and told me what briefs to expect and gave me advice and a lot of support throughout my time at Cambridge school of Art. I owe a lot of my development to her. (Erika Lewis I am eternally grateful, you beautiful blackbird.) I couldn’t put the book down. I was completely engrossed. This was a book that had so much meat to it. A most decadent banquet. There was a lot in those pages that I savoured. The writing itself was gothic, so rich in detail that you could almost smell the acrid blood drenching the tales. It was sharp and witty.
  • The stories felt like familiar terrain but weren’t. It was full of surprises and there was a whole wealth of dark imagery for me to delve into. There’s sexual bluntness, a bounty of symbolism. The writing is sharp and witty and there’s a heavy presence of danger! When I finished it I’d go back and read my favourite bits and I still do. I didn’t even know the film existed until one of my lecturers, Mick Gowar (an expert in fairytales and folklore and one of my most favourite people on this earth) told me about it in my second year. He’d recommended it as at the time I was exploring how the dream world had been achieved through film. I’d looked at Alice by Jan Svankmajer and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by Jaromil Jires. Both films share a lot of similarities with Neil Jordan’s interpretation of The Company of Wolves, and allowed me to go deeper into the world of dream imagery. It was nice to see an interpretation of The Company of Wolves on film because all I’d known before was my own, obviously, so it was cool to compare the director’s take on it. Also the use of special effects was immensely appreciated! They really don’t make films like that anymore (and if they do then please point them out to me!) What about you? Which did you experience first?
  • Clive H-J. Like you, book first, film later. Interestingly, I felt sure that one of the fairy tale films Neil Jordan had referenced, was a favourite of mine. But we’ll come to that later.

  • Clive H-J. in the matter of re-spinning old tales, many have tried, and just about all have failed in comparison to what Carter achieved. She got there first, and in my opinion did it best, though I accept that I haven’t read everything out there. One of the things that makes me wish she had lived longer… and there are many… is that within The Bloody Chamber, she offered two riffs on Beauty and the Beast: The Tiger’s Bride and The Courtship of Mr Lyon, and both are beautiful in their own rights. I’m impressed by that doubling up, because to me it shows the kind of creativity I want to see in an artist, where there is no single, definitive approach. In my own practice I work and re-work a cache of carefully selected themes, because no version is the definitive one, and every time I set out, I feel as though I’ll do better for all the work that’s gone before. Like an actor never nailing the role of Hamlet, but discovering new layers with each performance. Discuss!
  • Johann CR. Reading the different takes on the same tale surprised me. I think as a collection I’m in amour of the way each story has it’s own fleshed out world that feels completely its own and at the same time there are these echoes from one story into another. The same motifs crop up and it feels like you’re looking through alternate realities of the same world. I think as an artist you’re taught to approach things from different perspectives. What art school has taught me is that there are an infinite number of solutions to be made. No single idea is the ultimate one. All of the artists that I look up to seem to have that creative unrest, that ability to keep going and going and going with an idea and with work in general. I think through observing the different perspectives on a subject you allow deeper understanding which is ultimately what it’s all about, exploration.

  • Clive H-J. I agree. So which of the other Bloody Chamber tales is tickling away at you right now, in terms of how you might approach it?
  • Johann C R. At the moment I’m working on The Lady of the House of Love which is a story overflowing with an abundance of imagery. It has this duality and divergency that I really enjoy in a story and I’m looking to recreate that. I’m hoping I can mirror all the contrasts and contradictions in it.

Below: image for The Lady of the House of Love

  • Johann CR. I really want to capture those elements of beauty and grotesqueness, violence and serenity, those qualities that give depth. I like that. The presence of sex and death is rife in these tales, and that’s something I want to be present in my drawings.

  • Clive H-J. I’m guessing you’ve already found and read Bruno Betelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment (1976), but if you haven’t, order a copy from Abebooks now. (And if you haven’t read it yet, then you are going to love me for eternity for pointing you in its direction!)
  • Johann CR. I haven’t! Why that book isn’t already on my shelf I do not know. It looks like a Johann Rohl essential!

  • Clive H-J. To me it seems that Carter… like Betelheim did by bringing an analytical approach to the way children ‘use’ fairy tales to make sense of the world and its frightening aspects… gives her readers license to dredge up the darker sexualities underlying the tales, and be creative with them. (‘It’s OK’, she seems to be telling us, ‘to have those feelings. They’re exciting. It’s good to imagine a sexuality in which your lover licks your skin clean away to expose ever deeper layers of desire.’) I believe this particularly germane to gay men and women, for whom sexuality has too often in the past been a thing of shame. Discuss
  • Johann CR. I like the idea of layers being exposed by a lover, I think that’s a wonderful metaphor for the nature of a relationship and for sex as well because the only way you can let someone in is by bringing your walls down and exposing yourself. It’s a beautiful thing to be in a relationship with somebody. You learn so much from each other and you grow, and even when it doesn’t work out you still grow from the things that go wrong. The same can be said about work; you’re constantly working stuff out and learning, through exposure and exploration. There are always new conclusions to be reached, and even when an idea doesn’t work out you learn from it, and so you’re peeling layers of yourself back and revealing a better version of yourself. I believe that’s why I’m drawn to The Bloody Chamber it has that honesty and bluntness about sexuality, and I think that’s something I tend to seek out, that openness and assurance that it is okay to have those feelings and desires.
  • As a young gay man growing up I’ve always felt the need to hide those parts of myself away as a means of self preservation and I think in a way it’s been very damaging as I’m sure a lot of other people in the world have experienced themselves. So naturally I’ve always tried to look for assurance in some form or another where I can, be that in film, art or literature. I’m starting to find that if I’m open about my thoughts, feelings and experiences though then I’m allowing myself to make connections with other people that share those same thoughts, feelings and similar experiences and in turn I’m creating this world for myself where I no longer feel segregated or alone and that’s breaking down a lot of walls for me. At what point did you feel comfortable about your sexuality ?
  • Clive H-J. That’ll take a little explaining, because I grew up in different times. I was born in 1951, when homosexuality was illegal and considered by most people to be an aberration. For a child, those attitudes made for an incredibly isolating experience, and I hid as best I could the aspects that would draw attention to me. It made me rather introverted. What I still find most repellent about those times, is my memory of the cruelty practiced at every level. (You see it today, with the hatred directed at immigrants and all those deemed to be ‘outsiders’. For the greater part, homosexuality today in the UK has been protected by law from the prejudices that were once so rife.) Back in the 1950s and even the 60s, society as a whole openly despised and mocked gay men (and it was men, rather than women, that drew the most homophobic wrath), labelling them as limp-wristed, fey, ludicrous. Moreover gay men in the entertainment industry were actively complicit in that homophobia, emasculating themselves into parodies and sexual grotesques. (Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howard, John Inman and too many others.) It was as though it couldn’t be countenanced that homosexuals might actually be like everyone else, or that gay mens’ ‘desires’ came in as many varied packages as did those of heterosexuals. We had to be rendered neuter, laughed at, held up to ridicule. We couldn’t be handsome, or masculine, or heroic or powerful or any positive thing. It was horrible, and I absolutely knew that it was a lie, even before I began to discover the wider world for myself.
  • So I didn’t share my understanding of my sexuality with my parents, as I knew from things they said that they would’t understand. Imagine, if you can, a world in which there were no role models for gay men and no positive expressions of homosexuality. It was a world in which a defining part of my life would have to remain hidden. I knew that I was different and that my sexual desires ran counter to everything I saw around me, but I was damned certain that I didn’t fancy Kenneth Williams!
  • I got lucky. I went away to school in London. I studied performing arts at Italia Conti, left when I was fifteen-and-a-half, and made my way as a dancer/actor. Later I became a choreographer. In that world I could be myself. There were many of us, and we recognised each other. Gradually I told trusted, long-term friends. All was well. British film director and gay activist, Derek Jarman. became my hero. He was a force to be reckoned with. Here was a passionate, outspoken, drop-dead handsome and openly homosexual man. He was fired up and angry, and he wouldn’t shut-the-fuck-up. The establishment hated and feared him, but for me, he showed the way. Nothing was the same after Derek Jarman. He changed everything for us. I wish he were here still. Seek out his books, Johann. He was compassionate, insightful and loving, and he burned white-hot. Jarman wrote beautifully. Beautifully.

  • Given that we’re both horror film fans, I have to ask which film/s affected you most in terms of staying with you and informing your work? Mine are:
  • 1) Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. I love all its aspects: the visual aesthetic, the pace of the unfolding narrative, the sound (no music, but the soundtrack is masterful) the actors’ performances, the matte-paintings by Albert Whitlock that so ravishingly enhance the location footage, the horrific bird assault that begins with a seagull dive-bombing a man fuelling his car. All the performances in a film shot through with neurosis are mesmerising, not least newcomer Tipp Hedren’s cool blonde socialite becoming steadily unravelled.
  • 2) Hitchcock’s Psycho, because Anthony Perkins’ troubled Norman did it for me, and I deeply appreciated Janet Leigh’s unflinching yet nuanced performance of Marian Crane. Then there was Bernard Hermann’s amazingly nerve-jangling score. (Everyone talks about the shower scene music, but just listen to what Hermann did for Marian’s car journey in the rain. Staggering!
  • 3) La belle et la bête, directed by Jean Cocteau. Probably not horror at all… though in terms of what the Beast suffers the film might profitably be viewed alongside David Cronenberg’s The Fly… but certainly the most beautiful film of a fairy tale ever made.
  •  Johann CR. Yeahhh! The Birds and Psycho are both genius! I haven’t seen La Belle et la Bête. I’ll have to add that to my list!
  • Clive H-J. Do it. Now! The experience is going to change you.
  • Johann CR. I think for me films had a major influence in the early stages of my life but as I grew up I took a lot from video-games. Films that stick out for me from my early childhood that I think heavily influenced my interests now are:
  •  1) the Film of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. It frightened and fascinated me. I watched it recently and It’s fantastic! The Head Witch (Angelica Huston) is still as grotesque as ever. The special effects in it are fantastic and I think as a result it’s stood the test of time
  • 2) The Thing (the 80s one) was my first experience of a horror film. I saw it when I was very young. Far too young, really, to be watching anything like that. On a Wednesday after school I’d go to my grandparents house for tea and my granddad would record monster movies that had been on the telly for me because I was obsessed with stuff like that. I was always drawing monsters. So I’d go and there’d be a new VHS waiting for me and I’d go into the living room with my colouring pencils and paper and watch whatever it was whilst lying on the floor drawing. I don’t think I ever expected to see anything like that. I was disturbed, to say the least, but at the same time I had this morbid curiosity to rewind the tape and try again to keep my eyes open to the sight of this warped and twisted ‘thing’ on the TV screen. If only my granddad knew what he was recording for me haha!
  • There’s a quality I can’t quite pin down in Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders that I feel I’m being influenced by right now. If you haven’t yet watched it I’d recommend giving it a look, then maybe we can decipher what it is I’m on about.
  • Clive H-J. OK. I’ll do that, and you watch the Cocteau film. Tell you what, afterwards we’ll meet up again here, and discuss. Deal?

Above: a recent ‘self portrait’ by Johann that he tried to palm off on me instead of a photograph. I’m sure you’ll all be pleased that I persisted and was forwarded the image at the top of this post.

Johann will view La belle et la bête and I’ll view Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and  later we’ll convene for further discussion here at the Artlog.

The Puppet Challenge Part 4: Stuart, Clive and Steve & Pamela

Stuart Kolakovic, Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Steve & Pamela Harris

Stuart Kolakovic: The Priapic Puppet

Stuart writes:

“I knew straight away I wanted to play around with making a shadow-puppet. I’m currently working on a comic book which features a decrepit and perverted monk, influenced in part by the character Ambrosio in Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, and Father Schedoni in Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian; a theme I thought I could develop into a puppet.”

“I made a couple of quick mock-ups using paper and brass fasteners, but quickly realised I was being over-ambitious. Originally I wanted the Monk to have a working mouth and tongue, a multi-jointed neck as well as a movable cloak to reveal his disgusting erection. I simplified this down to just having his willy and his head move in one motion. After looking at Indonesian Wayang puppets, I realised that the broad-shoulders are not just an aesthetic; they allow the arms a much wider arc of movement away from the body, making it much more dramatic once it’s in action. With hindsight, I might have used a thinner card stock when cutting out the puppet; it would have been easier and less time-consuming. My hand definitely hurt after a day of cutting.”

“Filming the puppet in action was a bit fiddly. Much easier to operate it parallel to the ground, as opposed to being upright like all other shadow-puppets. So I placed the camera (well, an iPhone 4) on the ground pointing upwards, and made a sketchy theatre using a large frame and a piece of A1 paper stapled to it. (It’s not the best quality footage, but I’d also like to mention that I also recorded the song on the same phone. A versatile bit of machinery. For those of of you that may be interested, I used a Tanpura drone, a bass and drenched it in reverb from a Holy Grail pedal.) A puppeteer I am not, but it’s definitely got me inspired to try my hand at stop frame animation, and maybe to develop an edition of lasercut prints at some point.”

Click below to see Stuart’s film

Herman Inclusus: The Lecherous Plague Monk Shadow Puppet

With this beautifully conceived and executed puppet that is absolutely true to the character of its maker’s art, Stuart is working toward the complete creative package: writing and illustrating the comic book, and designing, making, operating and filming his shadow-puppet. As a big fan of his illustrations and artworks, I’m greatly anticipating watching this project further unfold.

Clive Hick-Jenkins: Channeling Cocteau

Above: the puppets take their lead from the swooningly romantic pairing of Jean Marais and Josette Day (below).

My puppet was inspired by Jean Cocteau’s ravishing 1939 film of La Belle et la Bête, in which Jean Marais played the Beast and Josette Day was his Beauty. It is my favourite film. No other comes even close.

My greatest worry was that I’d try too hard to reproduce the characters as they appear in the film, and in so doing reduce my puppets to being pretty dolls. I need not have worried. As is so often the way with a puppet, my Beast took matters into his own hands, and emerged entirely his own creature. All extraneous details were pared away. I made, but then didn’t use a version of the high-collar that was such a feature of Christian Bérard’s elaborate and princely costume for Jean Marais’ la Bête. I didn’t have time to make la Belle, and so for the photographs I co-opted a puppet made last year for my staging of the chamber-work The Mare’s Tale for Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra.

La Bête is a puppet made and operated in the Bunraku tradition. He requires three puppeteers, though two can suffice if they’re dexterous. He is controlled from the back, with the lead puppeteer’s left hand inserted into the chest cavity to both support the figure and operate his head. This construction allows a wide range of head/neck movement. The hands are operated by rods and the garment is manipulated from beneath to give the illusion of legs. The head and hands are made from gessoed papier mâché and the arms from wood. The mane is twisted hemp and the costume is constructed from medium-weight canvas painted with acrylic.

I played around quite a lot when making images of the puppet. For some I stretched muslin over the camera lens. When Rima Staines… who is also taking part in the Puppet Challenge… and her partner Tom Hirons recently came to stay at Ty Isaf, they posed the puppets while I clicked away with the camera. Team-work!

Steve and Pamela Harris: Merenia Makes Herself Beautiful

Pamela Harris and I are cousins. She lives in New Zealand, and is married to Steve, who is of the Maori nation.

Pamela writes:

“This is how we came to make the puppet. I was presented with a story in Maori that inspired her creation from old junk. Here it is in translation.”

“Merenia was a doll going to a dance. She had to make herself up to be beautiful. But she is not from this world. Her clothes, see-through and have been ripped by children. Her face is dirty. Her eyelids are fastened on and her fluttering eyelashes are the legs of spiders. Her hat is of green plastic, her hair unkempt like dreadlocks, all scraped back. Her lips are pouting, like the back end of a hen, and her cheeks are glowing red. From top to toe she’s different! There is no other like Merenia.”

Merenia is the first of two submissions for the Puppet Challenge made by couples. Of course anyone looking at her would be hard-pressed to guess that she’s the work of two pairs of hands, as she’s completely coherent as a design and construct, with no sense of contradictory ideas pulling in different directions. I’m not sure how ‘fluid’ she is… she looks pretty arthritic to me with her rusty wire arms and iron spine… but that’s probably as she should be, given her ‘junk’ origins. Suffice to say that she’s splendid, with that expressionless, rather praying-mantis-like face, jaunty topknot and party-dress of zinc mesh. I was smitten with her from the first image sent to me.

a la Bête portfolio

 

Today I had a bit of fun with la Bête, using a scrap of gauze over the camera lens when photographing him. Not easy juggling my small digital camera in one hand only, gauze and all, while manipulating the puppet with the other. Interestingly, on the film set of La Belle et la Bête Cocteau battled with his cameraman to eschew any ‘softness’ of cinematography, emphasising that he wanted his images to be crystalline. Reading his diary I was impressed by his vision. While he saw his film as poetic, for him that meant not the ‘softly-focussed’, but an almost surgical precision and clarity of vision, and La Belle et la Bête is all the better for it.

Cocteau’s arguments notwithstanding, today I wanted to take the edge off sharpness, and to conjure a world of atmospherics, of dust through sunbeams and swathes of inky shadows. I’m no photographer, but there’s a little in these images of what I was looking for.

La Bête

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I’ve finally and belatedly started work on my puppet for Peter Slight’s Puppet Challenge at the Artlog. I have barely any time to complete it, and so my approach is to be fast and rough. I’d intended to wood-carve the head and paws, and had various devices in mind, such as a hand-close mechanism in the style of Bunraku. But all that has been jettisoned in favour of a relatively simple combination glove/rod puppet made from wood and papier mâché.

From the beginning I’ve been cautious about making the puppet too much a ‘doll’ of Jean Marais in his iconic role of La Bête.

And so while I’m nodding in the direction of Jean Cocteau’s film, I’m not making my ‘Beast’ a facsimile of its inspiration. Everything has been pared back to a puppet simplicity.

I began yesterday evening with a card ‘cage’, made in a few minutes as the foundation to work over. I secured it atop the control rod.

I layered paper gum-strip over the foundation to make the rough shape I had in mind, padded out eyes, nose and lips with tightly wadded gift-wrap tissue-paper glued into place, and then made the final gum-strip layers.

By bedtime I was done, and the head was left on top of the Aga to dry out overnight to a lightweight but rigid shell. This morning I roughly felt-tipped in some features to check that the shape was going to be right when painted, and now I’ll begin applying the layers of gesso that will build up a good surface to work on.

Once gessoed and painted, I’ll add the wig, which I’ll fabricate from hemp.

UPDATE

Here are some images of the head now it’s been painted. It’s become darker and scarier than I’d anticipated. Not as handsome as Marais’ Beast. It has a wide-eyed, frozen-expression that seems to reference Japanese Kabuki performances.