Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The Seductive Beast

An essay I found in my University archives!

A study on fairy-tale references in the art of three contemporary artists.

We all remember fairy tales from our childhood - with their optimistic ideals and their dualism, dealing out reward and punishment where apparently deserved - their simplicity appeals to the mind of a child. However, within their simplicity lies a complex web of ever-changing cultural references, ideals and symbols. The fairy tale changes depending on the viewpoint of the teller. This is a part of what makes fairy tales so interesting as a subject of art.

The thing which draws me to fairy tales is the metamophosis of the characters within them. Marina Warner writes that ‘Shape-shifting is one of fairy tale’s dominant and characteristic wonders’ (From Beast to Blonde, introduction pp. XV). Fairy tales carry the underlying message that change can happen, and give way to the notion of a darkness within humanity. The nature of the Beast and how it changes brings us to ask the question “Who is the Beast? Who is the Brute?” (Marina Warner, Introduction pp. XXI).

In this essay, I explore this question in relation to the work of three contemporary artists: Edward Keinholz and Nancy Reddin-Keinholz, Nicola Hicks, and Paula Rego. Their work uses fairy tales as a starting point or reference, or the work evokes ideas and images from fairy tales.
The Kienholzes’ work is dark, shocking, even upsetting, and also accusatory. It makes the viewer feel uncomfortable or guilty or even perverted. The subversion here is overt - impossible to miss.

In comparison, the “Bestiary”(Robert Heller, Nicola Hicks 1993, pp. 5) of Nicola Hicks contains beasts, figures which are half man, half beast, and other such wonderful creations. They are beautifully hideous - we are drawn to them, like Beauty to her Beast.

Paula Rego’s work, like the Kienholzes’, is darkly uncomfortable and subversive, but she does not express this so obviously. Rego’s tone is non-accusatory - it puts forward a view of acceptance of the darkness within humanity, and a pleasure in it. As she puts it: “To be bestial is good. It’s physical. Eating, snarling, all activities to do with sensation are positive.” (library.think

The Keinholzes’ piece, Faux Pas, 1989, is “a curious but evocative meditation on the awkward clash between society’s manners and the beast’s natural state. … the wild pig’s front paws rest … in bronze coffee cups as it suffers the indignity of a cage”(Walter Hopps, Kienholz, A Retrospective, pp. 236). This brings to mind the saying that caging the Beast only angers it. The name, Faux Pas - a mistake - backs up this idea, that the constraints of society’s values and taboos will bring about our own downfall - that they trap us. Just like society’s outcast of the Beast serves to trap him in his castle.

Another work of the Keinholzes; The Bear Chair, 1991, is possibly the most frightening and disturbing artwork I have ever come across. “This unstinting look at child abuse features the frightening image of a beloved teddy bear transformed into the role of sexual aggressor. A note scrawled on the dresser reads, ‘If you ever tell, I’ll hurt your mama real, real bad’”(W.H. pp. 240).

“Teddy’s Bear”(Marina Warner, pp.306), so named after the American President Teddy Roosevelt (ironically a keen hunter of bears), has become a household symbol of childhood comfort. Its invention in the 1900’s put a marker in the gradual change of society’s views towards animals (Beasts), and the collapse of boundaries between the animal and the human.
However, this now universal symbol of comfort appears in The Bear Chair as a frightening monster, and reminds us why we find the very idea of child abuse so abhorrent, especially from a figure who is supposed to be a protector of that child, such as a parental or family figure. The mirror on the dressing-table reflects our (the viewer) own faces back at us, as if we are a participant in this repulsive scene, and this gives the piece its accusatory undertone which is so common in the Kienholzes’ work. This piece makes us question, like in fairy tales, who the Beast really is.

Many of the folk tales which were written down by people such as the brothers Grimm contained stories of violent conflicts within families, between mothers and daughters, fathers and sons and so on, but they were altered by those who wrote them down to make them more suitable. Mothers were made “absent”(Marina Warner, pp.211) because unlike fathers, “a mother should not be seen to torment a daughter”(Marina Warner, pp.211). Fathers merely faded into the background, the male viewpoint of the writer indicating that, the father could hardly be blamed for anything - he had no choice. In an earlier version of Hansel and Gretel, according to Warner’s research, it was both the father and mother who planned to leave the children to die in the wood. However, this was seen to be too harsh, and the mother was replaced with a stepmother who pleaded and nagged and cajoled the father until he (reluctantly) is left with no choice.

The Kienholzes’ The Bear Chair re-awakens this knowledge of conflicts within families which can happen, even to the point of abuse. It reminds us of the tale of Donkeyskin (less popular as a children’s tale because of its incestuous and murderous content) - a dying mother makes her husband promise never to marry again “unless he finds ’another woman as beautiful as I have been’”(Marina Warner pp. 320). Of course their daughter becomes as, if not more beautiful than her Mother, and so the promise becomes a curse. The father has to marry his daughter, and so she, in order to escape, disguises herself in a donkey skin (or a bearskin, or fur and feathers, depending on the version of the tale) and becomes a beast herself.

So far I’ve been talking about the Beast as relating to the perhaps “unwanted” aspects of humanity, and also in part negative male sexual energy. However, to think of the Beast only in this way is a simplistic view, and doesn’t explain our strange attraction to the idea, only our repulsion by it.

Nicola Hicks’ work is, as I said, “beautifully hideous” (her method of using straw and plaster to sculpt adds to this, as it lends a “raw” feeling to her sculptures), but also presents a more positive view on the Beast. Her sculptures, Mr Fox, 1995, and Wolfie Baby, 1998, are most definitely figures of male sexuality, with their erect penises, but that sexuality does not appear to be predatory, even though the animals, particularly the wolf, are traditionally viewed that way. In Little Red Riding Hood, the allegory is obvious when the young girl “strays from the path” at the invitation of the wolf, and then is lured to the cottage after the wolf gets there when he proceeds to devour her. “Devourment” is a common theme in fairy tales and is an obvious reference to sexual awakening at the hands of a “predatory” male. Marriage was a frightening prospect for young women who were often married off to men far older and more experienced than them at a young age, and the fears of marriage were often coupled with the danger of death by childbirth. So fairy tales are full of young women faced with the terrible prospect of being married off to the Beast, a husband who may eventually be the death of her.

However, in this day and age, when freedom of choice allows us personal choice in our partners, and when it is no longer expected of us to wait until marriage to have sex, along with advances in contraception and medical care meaning that women rarely die in childbirth, sexual maturity no longer holds so much fear for young women as it used to (although it may still hold a little). In Angela Carter’s The Tiger’s Bride (The Bloody Chamber, pp. 56) Beauty must understand the Beast so that she can understand the Beast in herself, and in this story it is she who metamorphoses - into an animal - and is finally free. So Nicola’s Wolf is proud, strong, perhaps even attractive in his beastliness. He does not threaten, he invites - “The Beast’s sexual equipment was always part of his charm”(Marina Warner pp. 315). He stands before us as a figure of power, yet he also empowers, so that we stand before him as an equal, not a victim.

Hicks also touches on the idea of the tragic, perhaps misunderstood Beast in her outdoor sculpture, Crouching Minotaur, 1994. The Minotaur cringes, in guilt, shame, even despair, reminding us of the tragic Beast who needs only the love of Beauty to feel accepted and to break the spell.

It is worth mentioning at this point that Warner found in many early versions of the Beauty and the Beast story that the young heroine does not in fact fall in love with the Beast and redeem him - she overcomes him, and perhaps kills him. This shows the transition of these tales being told orally by women as a warning to little boys (and girls) that wives should be treated properly, to them being written down by men and altered in favour of the male perspective, focussing on “the tenderness of masculine desire and the cruelty of the female response, rather than women‘s vulnerability to male violence”(Marina Warner pp. 295). Warner writes: “the contemporary vision of the Beast tends towards the tragic”(Marina Warner pp. 315). Neither version should be dismissed as the “false” versions, as they are all “true”. “Bengt Holbek observes that ‘men and women often tell the same tales in characteristically different ways’”(Marina Warner pp. 208).

Hick’s charcoal drawing, Dogskin, 1998, highlights some of the differences between men as Beasts in fairy tales, and women as Beasts. Dogskin’s pose is relaxed and alert, free and strong. Unlike enchanted Beast-men, who lose their freedom, power and potency as the Beast, and have a pressing need to be dis-enchanted, Beast-women have usually chosen their fate, and gained power and freedom as a result. For example, Donkeyskin, which I mentioned earlier, uses cunning and bravery to get out of a problem which her father could not solve, by disguising herself in a Donkey skin and running away. From that point on in the story, she no-longer belongs to a man - she is master of her own fate. This is exactly the feeling that I get from Hicks’ Dogskin.

Moving on to the work of Paula Rego, it is relevant to mention Dog Woman, 1994 at this point. We all know the connotations of “dog” that we are all “someone’s dog” in one way or another, and the relation of “dog” as a derogatory term for a plain or ugly woman, but Rego doesn‘t mean this. She says “to be a dog woman is not necessarily to be downtrodden. That has very little to do with it. In these pictures every woman’s a dog woman, not downtrodden, but powerful” ( - just like Donkeyskin, or Hicks’ Dogskin.

The image of Rego’s Dog Woman is enigmatically powerful, in a way which speaks to something deep inside all of us. At some point we have all wanted to just let go of our inhibitions and go “wild” - and this somehow gives us freedom and strength in the world of rules and constraints.

It’s easy to think of Rego’s work as solely about women. However this is not necessarily the case. “When [Mackenzie] asked her if she could tell [her] why there aren’t more men in her pictures, she … turned to an old catalogue, pointing to her 1986 picture Untitled of a girl holding a dog on her knee. ‘There are men in my pictures,’ she said. ‘That’s a man, except it’s a dog.’”(‘Don’t flinch, Don’t hide’ Guardian interview with Suzie Mackenzie, Nov 30 2002).

Animals are often substitutes for naturalistic representations of people in Rego’s work, especially of men. Men fade into the background, or are submissive, dependant on women. She was surrounded by women in her childhood whilst men “went out to work”(Audio interview, Radio 3, 1988). Rego says that the Girl and Dog series are to do with the “firm tenderness on the part of the girl…[and]… alternating compliance and stubbornness on the part of the dog”(Audio interview). However, Rego also doesn’t like to answer too many questions in her work - part of its allure is the mystery - of a story. For example, in Looking Back, 1987, she says “they have killed the dog”(Audio interview). One of the girls lies on the bed with the skin of the dog as a blanket. This reflects the harshness of older fairy-tales, where family conflicts and the power of humanity to do both good and evil are the subject matter.

In my research I have found that the Beast can be viewed in many different ways, both in art and in fairy tale. As culture has changed, so has society’s view of the beast. “Monstrousness is a condition in flux, subject to historical changes in attitudes”(Marina Warner, pp. 299). In much of the 20th century, the influence of male writers and depicters of fairy tales (including Walt Disney) has cast much sympathy in the direction of the Beast representing male desire and fear of rejection, with the real evil being migrated into the cruelty of women, in the shape of the Wicked Stepmother and the Bad Sisters. However, since the influence of feminism in the 1970’s, things have taken a swing in the other direction, and now we are beginning to have a more equalised viewpoint. The idea now is that both men and women can have both evil and good in them, and that Beauty must understand and accept the Beast if she is to understand and accept the Beast in herself, and thereby being free. This is the tone that I think both Hicks and Rego take in their work, and also to some degree in the Kienholzes’ work.


Books & Essays

Carter, Angela, Simpson, Helen (Introdution), The Bloody Chamber, (Vintage, 2006 (first published in Great Britain by Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1979))

Dellingpole, James (Introduction), Denselow, Anthony, Elliot, Ann, Read, Benedict, Self, Will, Flowers East, Nicola Hicks, Angela Flowers Gallery PLC (printed by The Pale Green Press, 1999)

Flowers, Matthew, Heller, Robert, Hubbard, Sue, Flowers East, Nicola Hicks, Angela Flowers Gallery PLC (printed by The Pale Green Press, 1993)

Haraway, Donna, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp. 149-181.

Kienholz, Edward & Reddin-Kienholz, Nancy, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Kienholz: A Retrospective (in association with D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 1996)

Warner, Marina, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers (Vintage, 1995)

Internet Resources:,11710,850737,00.html (Guardian interview by Suzie Mackenzie, Saturday, November 30, 2002)

Other Resources

Radio interview - Marina Warner in conversation with Paula Rego, 21 October 1988, Radio 3

DVD - Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, screenplay by Angela Carter and Neil Jordan, Granada Ventures, 2005 Special Edition

left: 1, right: 2

from left to right: 3, 4, 5, 6

left: 7, middle: 8, right, 9

1 - Ed Kienholz, Nancy Reddin-Kienholz
Faux Pas, 1989

2 - Ed Kienholz, Nancy Reddin-Kienholz
The Bear Chair, 1991

3 - Nicola Hicks
Crouching Minotaur, 1994

4 - Nicola Hicks
Dogskin, 1998

5 - Nicola Hicks
Mr Fox, 1995

6 - Nicola Hicks
Wolfy Baby, 1998

7 - Paula Rego
Dog Woman, 1994

8 - Paula Rego
Untitled 1986

9 - Paula Rego
Looking Back, 1987

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