"Like the medieval, ours is a non-systematic but additive and composite art. Today, as then, the refined elitist experiment coexists with the great enterprise of popularization (the relationship between illuminated manuscript and cathedral is the same as that between the Museum of Modern Art and Hollywood), with reciprocal and uninterrupted exchanges and borrowings. And the apparent Byzantinism, the mad taste for collecting, listing, assembling and amassing different things is due to the need to take to pieces and reconsider what is left of a previous, perhaps harmonious, but now obsolete world, to be experienced, as Sanguineti would say, as a stinking swamp that has somehow been crossed and forgotten." { 26 }

Umberto Eco
Towards a New Middle Ages

4. Encounter

Vasalisa’s encounter with Baba Yaga contains what I call the “shock of the old”. Graphic design employs this same surreal language to commercial ends, an idea articulated by Paul Jobling and David Crowley in their history of Graphic Design. The authors show how the role of semiology is useful in decoding the ideological meanings of ads, but caution the reader (as does Roland Barthes), that the signs in themselves are not hermetic entities but part of a wider signifying chain, quite vulnerable to distortion and ambiguity. Barthes asserts that ‘myth is speech stolen and restored’. In the case of graphic design, the original symbol does not disappear, but it is distorted, morphing to fit its new context. In this way, the language-object (meaning) and the metalanguage (myth) can coexist in the same text or image. ‘It is the constant game of hide and seek between the meaning and the form which defines myth’, or what Barthes calls the ‘slippage’ between the sign’s meaning and the signifier’s form. {27}

Andre Breton held firm that ‘beauty should be convulsive’. In other words, he meant that every being or idea had the propensity for being transformed into something else through representation. The erotique voilee (veiled erotic), the explosante-fixe (fixed explosion), and magique circonstantielle (circumstantial magic) were the three ways surrealism represented this idea of convulsive beauty. Man Ray’s photograph Violon d’Ingres, the nude back of a woman superimposed with the f-holes of a violin is one example of the erotique voilee. This is superimposition through which two objects may be signified in the same form, one becoming an object for the other. Another photograph by Man Ray illustrates the term explosant-fixe. It is an image of a dancing woman, suddenly transfixed into the shape of an exotic flower. This is the capturing of an arrested motion, the person taking on another form.

"The final term is perhaps the most complex of the three, since to a certain extent it is based on a more subjective interpretation which can involve the manipulation of an object not only through visual representation - the strangely paranoiac world in Dali’s painting The Persistence of Memory (1931), for example, where solid masses appear to liquefy into soft forms - but also through totemic hallucination - the chance encounter with a found object such as the wooden spoon with an intriguing tiny shoe at the tip of its handle, which triggered Breton to suggest, ‘it symbolized for me a woman unique and unknown.’ On either level, however, the association takes on a personal significance, since the forms which appear to be in a state of transubstantiation do so precisely in order to become obscure or fetishistic objects of desire." {28}

Paul Jobling and David Crowley
In the empire of signs: ideology, mythology and pleasure in advertising
Graphic Design Reproduction and Representation since 1800

The design historians find this convulsive beauty at work in a successive ad campaign for Benson and Hedges cigarettes. A shaft of golden light takes on the image of the cigarette package, the packet melts off the page (a la Dali), and a snail’s slimy trail is transmuted to liquid gold after it passes through the pack of cigarettes. The surrealist devices transcend any factual data that smoking is harmful, delivering instead, the magic and the pleasure of the object of desire: the golden cigs.

Surrealism’s visual vocabulary is prevalent in the environment of digital imaging. Photoshop filters can skew, warp and composite an image from real to surreal, in just a few clicks. Layer and opacity tools allow digital designers to manipulate these pictures, superimposing text and image. We can see-through sign on top of sign on top of sign with seamless magic. The power of this alchemy is seductive. The cut and paste of Photoshop makes it the perfect tool for collaging the surreal object, be it a fixed explosion or an exquisite corpse.

Surrealism marries unlikely species, giving birth to monsters.
Animal parts combine with human elements in the artwork of Max Ernst, Dora Mar and Joseph Cornell among others. Leonora Carrington spun tales populated with these unconventional beings. The Surrealists’ utopia was one where the liberation of sexual and creative energy would lead to freedom and fulfillment.

As a graphic artist, I seek the startling image. Ours is a competitive landscape, cluttered and layered with visuals. The new thing, even the creepy thing, is most likely to capture the attention of our media saturated audience. Surreal combos lead us to the dream world of utopia. Creatures from no place take us someplace new. We are transported away from our humdrum workaday existence. We are shocked and thrilled by the weird. Startling, these revisionist images slip suddenly from daydream into nightmare.

The webbed-footed storyteller also offers the embodiment of surreal juxtaposition. Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde, traces the female storytelling tradition from the Queen of Sheba through Mother Goose, revealing the tale teller’s identity as linked to both woman and bird. When we encounter the chicken-footed hut, we know that we are coming face to face with the enchantment of the fairy tale. Likewise, the webbed-footed woman is a sign for the storyteller.

"Prejudices against women, especially old women and their chatter, belong in the history of fairy tale’s changing status, for the pejorative image of the gossip was sweetened by influences from the tradition of the Sibyls and the cult of St. Anne, until the archetypal crone by the hearth could emerge as a mouthpiece of homespun wisdom. I found that I was discovering a kind of fairy tale origin for the figure of Mother Goose herself, as I followed the tracks left by the Queen of Sheba, taking me into Islamic as well as Christian territory. It turned out she had left a strangely shaped print - of either a hoof or a webbed foot - which led me on, deeper into the layered character of the traditional narrator." {29}

Marina Warner
From the Beast to the Blonde

Feet and shoes are signs for identity and its transformation in obvious ways in many Cinderella tales. This belief system is surprisingly persistent. More than one friend has advised me on the importance of my footwear when searching for a job. Fancy shoes remain transformational objects, opening doors to new futures.They provide our passport into new echelons of society. And for a woman who wants to move from house frau to professional, this knowledge is crucial.

In one part of her complexly associative book, Warner also discusses the work of artist Merit Oppenheim. Oppenheim’s surreal sculpture, Project for Sandals is a transitional object for a woman’s entry into the world of sexual knowledge and liberation. This high-heeled shoe has a furry foot and toes. Less famous than the teacup, but equally erotic, couldn’t this be a reference to the mistranslation of Cinderella’s slipper from fur to glass? Clearly, Oppenheim’s imagery is steeped in the language of fairy tales.

"...Oppenheim even surpassed her own achievement with the fur pieces in her most brilliantly achieved challenge to the conventions of the fairy tale: Ma Governante, My Nurse, Mein Kindermadchen of 1936. It too, like the Fur Luncheon, makes a tight visual pun on the twin themes of sex and food, but also suggests another theme, through the connections of its title with its materials. For the sculpture shows a pair of white high-heeled shoes trussed on a dish, like a chicken, with butcher’s frills of the heels....the title...Ma Governante, My Nurse, Mein Kindermadchen invokes the voices of the different women - governesses and nannies - who had told Meret stories when she was a little girl, maybe in three languages. These stories pointed to the future that lay in store for her: they prepared her to be a young woman, they introduced her to the idea of being handed over to the Beast, to the Other, and his appetite. Hence the combination of the title with the bridal white shoes, which trussed and dished up offer another image of the female body apt to be consumed." {30}

Marina Warner
From the Beast to the Blonde

Subject: Re: Bare Bones
Date: Sun, 22 Jul 101 19:26:17 -0400 (EDT)
From: Vika Zafrin

Throughout time, fairy tales have served as transitional objects, handed down from women to girls as cautionary wisdom, guiding them into new domestic territory. Women of previous eras had less control over their life options. Marriage was only one of the situations a girl might find herself thrown into, without a say of her own. Death made orphans of girls whose status was lowest in whatever home they found themselves. Women who were widowed, or never married at all, were often reliant upon the generosity of a family hierarchy which placed them at the bottom. Warner suggests that spinsters and other devalued women wove hidden agendas into the fairy tales they told, advocating for the degraded heroine’s transformation. Their social location required them to speak with a forked tongue.