“In 1930, after having furiously and methodically composed my
novel ‘La femme 100 têtes’ I was visited almost daily by Loplop,
Bird Superior, a private phantom very much attached and devoted to me.”
— Max Ernst
Poised amongst the brood of bird-children sits the nanny, a character within my Disobedient Dollhouse that was modeled after myself. Downstairs in the kitchen, a second version of ‘myself’ cast as the household cook struggles with an absurdly large cooking utensil. These characters are the result of an amalgamation of Gothic heroines I have borrowed from sources such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and, most especially, Lewis Carroll’s Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Costumed in a fashion reminiscent of a Victorian girl, my ribbon bonnet, puffed sleeves and crinolined skirt (fig. #8) recall the famous wood engravings of Alice by British illustrator John Tenniel. By incorporating my own image into these characters, I have effectively embedded myself within this miniature world. This role-playing is one of the creative strategies I employ in order to generate a private mythology.
Throughout my visual art practice, I have used various legends and myths as cultural ready-mades into which I introduce my own personal symbolism and meanings. Over the years, these pre-existing myths have been absorbed into my artistic lexicon, contributing to a complex language of symbols by which I construct a private mythology. Myths supply an accessible and universal narrative to which I can attach my idiosyncratic story.
Renowned scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell describes one of the goals of myth as “…effecting a reconciliation of the individual consciousness with the universal will.” Similarly, in his essay “The Expressive Fallacy” Hal Foster cites Nietzsche’s discussion of an artist’s use of myth to express an interior world: “The whole notion of an ‘inner experience’ enters our consciousness only after it has found a language that the individual understands – i.e., a translation of a situation into a familiar situation…” The “language” to which Nietzsche refers can be interpreted as “mythology” which provides a universal narrative to which all cultures, no matter how disparate, have access. The “inner experience” may be read as the personal, psychological or emotional world that the artist seeks to materialize through the use of myth. In short, myths connect us to each other by anchoring the idiosyncrasy of the individual to a universally shared point of reference.
The construction of a private mythology is a procedure that allows an artist to explore deeply personal and intimate subject matter while simultaneously maintaining a level of psychological distance. In my own work, I employ the strategy of role-playing as a means to address autobiographical content. In an earlier body of work entitled The Bitter Seed (fig. #9), I combined images of myself as a child with the character of Persephone, a heroine borrowed from Greco-Roman mythology. By adopting the role of Persephone, I universalized the idiosyncratic – depersonalizing the personal content. This process provides a psychological distance while simultaneously rendering the work more readily accessible to the viewer.
The mythological character Persephone has supplied my artwork with its most recurrent of symbols: the pomegranate. My series The Bitter Seed took its name from the pomegranate seed that Persephone was forced to eat, thus sealing her fate as the goddess whose annual death and rebirth would usher in the changing seasons:
“Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. Hades, the lord of the Underworld, surprised Persephone one day while she was picking flowers and carried her off to be his bride. Demeter, the distraught mother, threatens to destroy all mortal men by causing an endless drought unless her daughter is returned. Zeus, who is the king of the gods at Olympus, commands Hermes to fetch Persephone from the realm of Hades. The wise Hades chooses to obey the command of Zeus; however, before Persephone is returned, he tricks her into eating a seed from a pomegranate. This deception is later revealed when Demeter asks her daughter ‘…have you eaten any food while you were below? If you have not, even though you have been in the company of loathsome Hades, you will live with me and your father…but if you have…you will return again beneath the depths of the earth and live there a third of the year; the other two-thirds of the time you will spend with me…’”
To the ancient Greeks, the myth of Demeter and Persephone served to explain the death and regeneration of plant life each year. Persephone personified the cycle of the seasons through her annual sacrifice.
A pomegranate motif appears repeatedly throughout my Dollhouse. A highly stylized version of this fruit is featured in all of the stained-glass windows, and pomegranates adorn the wallpaper of the bedroom and the head and footboard of the bed. Two of the framed, miniature pictures that hang on the bedroom wall also contain the pomegranate. One of these framed pictures features a self-portrait, in which the curly locks of my hair transform into undulating, snake-like vines (fig. #10). These vines terminate in a single pomegranate, delicately suspended above my open palm. This self-portrait, however, makes only a vague reference to the pomegranate from the Persephone myth. Within the narrative of my current project, I no longer inhabit the role of this Greco-Roman goddess. The pomegranate serves not as a symbol of sexual subjugation – as it does within the Persephone myth – but rather as a symbol of female empowerment. The partially opened vulviform shape evident on the pomegranates throughout the Dollhouse make the linkage to female sexuality quite explicit.
Whenever an artist includes self-portraiture, the temptation for the viewer is to read autobiographical content into the work. Such is the case in my work, although this content is largely mediated through my use of symbolism and mythology. The grotesque and dreamlike imagery of the Disobedient Dollhouse obscures any straightforward reading of autobiography, softening the distinction between ‘the invented’ and ‘the real’ elements. The dark, psychologically tumultuous material that the Gothic would seek to conceal, and the Freudian psychoanalytic model to repress, my Dollhouse opts to place on display, albeit cloaked in myth and symbolism.
Blurring the boundaries between ‘the invented’ and ‘the real’ through the creation of a private mythology was a strategy often employed by artists who subscribed to the idiom of Surrealism. The fantastic and frequently grotesque imagery of Surrealist art closely relate to my Dollhouse’s otherworldly and Gothic-inspired content. In fact, the aims of Surrealism – to question rationality and uncover sublimated fears and desires – seem to echo the urge of Gothic novelists like Brontë to expose the concealed darkness of the human psyche. “Surrealism and the Gothic share a decisively anti-Modernist stance,” wrote curator Christoph Grunenberg, “rejecting Modernism’s emphasis on order, rationality, and purity.” One of the most ‘gothic’ practitioners of Surrealism – and an artist whose work was dedicated to the manufacture of a private mythology – was the visual artist Max Ernst.
The collage-based books and graphic work created by Ernst possess an especially heightened quality of the Gothic. To a large extent, this quality derives from the source material Ernst used to construct his collages, which included wood-engraved illustrations taken from 19th century French popular fiction. The subject matter of these ‘pulp’ fiction books and periodicals generally involved:
“…torrid love, torture, crimes passionels and the subsequent incarcerations and executions (by guillotine), hatreds and jealousies among the very wealthy and the very indigent…”
These are the same dramatic, sinister and darkly romantic themes that typify Gothic fiction. Ernst’s disjointed juxtapositions only served to amplify the already emotionally charged content of his source material.
One of Ernst’s most famous collage novels is Une Semaine de Bonté (fig. #11), in which the days of the week are represented by seven seemingly arbitrary “deadly elements” such as the “Lion of Belfort,” bats, serpents and dragons, and the mythological character of Oedipus. It is in the latter chapter concerned with Oedipus that the bird-headed creature named ‘Loplop’ first makes his entrance into Ernst’s novel. The hybrid bird-man Loplop was a creation with which Ernst closely identified. His identification to the bird-headed man prompted many of his contemporaries to view Loplop as the artist’s alter-ego, an association that Ernst strengthened through his writing in Notes pour une biographie. Ernst frequently mixed actual autobiography with his Surrealist art, making it impossible to distinguish between the artist’s life and his wildly inventive stories. In one such account, Ernst forges a strong link between his early life and his artistic creation Loplop:
“1906. Head Bird Hornebom. A friend by the name of Hornebom, an intelligent, piebald, faithful bird dies during the night; the same night a baby, number six, enters life. Confusion in the brain of this otherwise quite healthy boy – a kind of interpretation mania, as if newborn innocence, sister Loni, had in her lust for life taken possession of the vital fluids of his favorite bird. The crisis is soon overcome. Yet in the boy’s mind there remains a voluntary if irrational confounding of the images of human beings with birds and other creatures; and this is reflected in the emblems of his art.”
Ernst’s motivation behind this conflation of his art and autobiography remains unclear. While writers such as Werner Spies describe Loplop as an “autobiographically tinged bird-creature”, there remains a degree of mystery surrounding Ernst’s personal attachment to his alter-ego. His complex vocabulary of recurrent symbols and characters, including the omnipresent Loplop, may have been more the result of a Surrealist intellectual game than a deeply personal expression of psychological catharsis. Driven by a fascination with psychoanalysis, Surrealist artists like Ernst frequently engaged in game-playing as a means to access the random machinations of the unconscious mind. The technique of collage was particularly well-suited to this end. Thus, Ernst’s juxtaposition of disparate images, such as a male figure topped with a bird’s head, could well be the result of his Surrealist investigations into randomness. Regardless, inspired by the psychoanalytic writings of Freud, his private myth-making created a forum in which he unearthed and explored the repressed material of the human psyche.
The bird-headed women that populate my Disobedient Dollhouse can be viewed as the great-granddaughters of Loplop. Female counterparts to Ernst’s invariably male creation, they inhabit a similarly enigmatic role. While it is enticing to read these bird-women as extensions of myself, this close association remains ambiguous. My own image is represented in the appearance of the ‘nanny’ and ‘cook’ characters. Cast in these roles, my social status within this world appears subservient to the two bird-headed women, one of whom leisurely plays at the piano. Has my character/s been enslaved by these menacing creatures and forced to care for their offspring while they lounge? Given my real-life status as artist, wife, and mother, one could easily attach this autobiographical reading. Caution should be exercised, however, to interpret these images too literally. Similar to the private myth-making of Max Ernst, my work contains as much theatrical artifice as it does legitimate psychological exploration. Steeped in dramatic excess, my Dollhouse is self-consciously prone to hyperbole.
The genesis of my bird-women has little to do with Surrealist explorations of the unconscious mind, but instead, are visual evidence of my recent interest in dioramas. In fact, the figure of the bird-woman holding the skeletal rodent was not only the very first image I created for this project, but she derived entirely from a taxidermy diorama I viewed online at the A Case of Curiosities web site. Anthropomorphic taxidermy dioramas were a strange passion of the Victorians. Walter Potter, one of that era’s most celebrated practitioners of this macabre art form, was renowned for his complex and large scale tableaux such as his Kittens’ Tea & Croquet Party (fig. #12). The ghoulish spectacle of Potter’s taxidermy dioramas neatly encapsulates the type of grotesque art to which I am drawn as an artist, and therefore, it is not the least bit surprising that these provided the creative ‘jumping-off point’ for my dollhouse project.
The hybrid bird-women and host of other grotesques that populate my Disobedient Dollhouse represent the wild, unruly and random elements of the psyche that stubbornly resist the process of repression. The nostalgic impulse that seeks to construct a too-perfect version of the past – one that suppresses the ‘dark family secret’ or other psychologically troubling material – is thwarted by these defiant monsters. The idyllic view of domesticity generated by nostalgia rejects the ugly, soiled, imperfect and dissonant. This romanticized construction is illusory and cannot be maintained. Shaken to its very foundations by the uncanny creatures that swarm its interiors, it will inevitably falter and collapse like the ill-fated House of Usher.
Epilogue: A Perverse Thrill
“Who has not a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?”
— Edgar Allen Poe
The music builds to a crescendo that ends in a sudden, resounding crash, followed by silence. “She’s dead”, pronounces Dr. Markway after he grasps the arm that dangles limply from the open car window. This is the dramatic finale of Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting, in which the character of Nell meets her end in a fatal car accident on the grounds of Hill House, remaining forever as the caretaker of the vindictive ghost who haunts the nursery in this classically Gothic house. “It was what [Nell] wanted, to stay here…” explains the clairvoyant Theo, “…she had no place else to go. The house belongs to her now, too…maybe she’s happier.”
Moviegoers have flocked, myself included, to horror films like The Haunting in order to vicariously experience the eerie and macabre. What is it about these frightening experiences that we find so intriguing? Much like the malevolent spirit of Hill House that beckoned to Nell, we feel urged by an inexplicable force to seek out the locked doors, hidden rooms and dark, mysterious corners of the Gothic house. The more we have been instructed by the rationality of science to reject the nonsensical, the superstitious, the absurd and otherworldly, the more we seem compelled to seek these out. The shadowy interiors of these cinematic and literary haunted houses have significantly shaped the construction of my oneiric house, the one that I dream with the endless doors and secret passageways. They also inform the grotesquery of my Disobedient Dollhouse. Rather than reject the absurd and uncanny, my Dollhouse celebrates it.
- Preface & Chapter One: A Sense of Nostalgia (jenniferlintonart.wordpress.com)