The Rite of Spring and The Red Shoes

redshoes1.jpg

The Red Shoes: Moira Shearer and Léonide Massine.

Emeric is often too easily accused of basing the principal male character of The Red Shoes on Serge Diaghilev, to which he replies: “There is something of Diaghilev, something of Alex Korda, something of Michael, and quite a little bit of me.”

Michael Powell, A Life in Movies (1986)

Despite Emeric Pressburger’s qualificatory comments, there’s a lot more of the Ballets Russes in Powell and Pressburger’s film of The Red Shoes (1948) than first meets the eye. Or so I discovered, since I’d known about the film via my ballet-obsessed mother for years before I’d even heard of Diaghilev or Stravinsky. The most obvious connection is the presence of Léonide Massine who took the leading male roles in Diaghilev’s company following the departure of Nijinsky. He also choreographed Parade, the ballet which featured an Erik Satie score and designs by Picasso. The fraught relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinsky forms the heart of The Red Shoes: Anton Walbrook’s impresario, Boris Lermontov, is the Diaghilev figure while the brilliant dancer who obsesses him, and for whom he creates the ballet of The Red Shoes, is Moira Shearer as Victoria Page. That the dancer happens to be a woman is a detail which makes the film “secretly gay”, as Tony Rayns once put it. Diaghilev and Nijinsky were lovers, and fell out when Nijinsky married; in The Red Shoes Lermontov demands that Vicky choose between a life of art or a life of marriage to composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). She chooses love but ends up drawn back to art, with tragic consequences that mirror the Hans Christian Andersen story. That story, of course, ends with a young woman dancing herself to death after donning the fatal shoes, a dénouement that’s unavoidably reminiscent of The Rite of Spring.

redshoes2.jpg

Anton Walbrook as Lermontov.

Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?

Vicky: Why do you want to live?

Other parallels may be found if you look for them, notably the figure of Julian Craster who comes to Lermontov as a young and unknown composer just as Stravinsky did with Diaghilev. Craster’s music isn’t as radical as Stravinsky but The Red Shoes was already giving the audience of 1948 enough unapologetic Art with a capital “A” without dosing them with twelve-tone serialism. The film aims for the same combination of the arts as that achieved by Diaghilev, especially in the long and increasingly fantastic ballet sequence. This was another of Powell’s shots at what he called “a composed film” in which dramaturgy and music work to create something unique. The Red Shoes is a film that’s deadly serious about the importance of art, a rare thing in a medium which is so often in the hands of Philistines. In the past I’ve tended to favour other Powell and Pressburger films, probably because I’ve taken The Red Shoes for granted for so long. But the more I watch The Red Shoes the more it seems their greatest film, even without this wonderful train of associations. The recent restoration is out now on Blu-ray, and it looks astonishing for a film that’s over sixty years old.

Seeing as this week has been all about The Rite of Spring, here’s a few more centenary links:

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Visualized in a Computer Animation for its 100th Anniversary
• George Benjamin on How Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has shaped 100 years of music
Strange Flowers visits the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Rite of Spring, 2001
The Rite of Spring, 1970
The Rite of Spring reconstructed

Walter Crane’s Household Stories

crane01.jpg

The ideal follow-up to yesterday’s post would have been David Wheatley’s 1979 film for the BBC’s Omnibus series dramatising the life and works of the Brothers Grimm. This week was the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of the Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales; I’ve never seen Wheatley’s Grimm film which—for the moment—remains unavailable.

There are, of course, plenty of illustrated editions of the Grimm’s collections although the dark tenor of the stories means these have never been as popular as Hans Christian Andersen’s tales. The Internet Archive has editions by Arthur Rackham, Robert Anning Bell and Rie Cramer, as well as a later, more stylised edition by German illustrator Albert Weisgerber whose plates can be seen at 50 Watts. Weisgerber brings some of the darkness to the fore, as in the drawing which shows Gretel about to push the wicked old woman into the oven.

crane02.jpg

Walter Crane’s edition of Household Stories was first published in 1881. I’ve always liked the Pre-Raphaelite quality of Crane’s drawings so I favour this book over some of the other British editions. I love the house-shaped title page, and the way he embellishes the borders with details from the stories. The vignettes are as varied and inventive as you’d expect from a man who wrote a study of decorative art.

As for the stories, they can seem surprising today when the more popular Andersen fairy tales have become the versions most people know, and those mainly from anodyne film and TV adaptations. Looking at the Grimm books is like hearing older recordings of familiar folk songs (and the Perrault versions are older still): Cinderella is Aschenputtel, Little Red Riding-Hood is Little Red Cap, Snow White is Snow Drop, and so on. Walter Crane’s edition, translated by his sister, Lucy, contains 52 stories, just less than a quarter of the number in the final Grimm collection. William Morris admired Crane’s drawing of the Goose Girl enough to have it enlarged for a tapestry design. The scanned book can be browsed here or downloaded here.

crane03.jpg

Continue reading “Walter Crane’s Household Stories”

Maxwell Armfield’s Faery Tales

armfield01.jpg

A selection of colour plates from Faery Tales from Hans Christian Andersen (1910) illustrated by British artist Maxwell Armfield. I hadn’t seen this collection before which turned up whilst searching for Tinderbox illustrations. Armfield does illustrate that particular story (here titled The Tinder Box—the title varies) but we don’t get to see the monstrous hounds. I was especially struck by the picture of Mount Vesuvius from What the Moon Saw which looks more like something by Hokusai than the usual fairy tale painting of the period.

armfield02.jpg

armfield03.jpg

armfield04.jpg

Continue reading “Maxwell Armfield’s Faery Tales”

The Tinderbox

tinderbox4.jpg

HJ Ford (1894).

“Do you see that great tree!” quoth the witch; and she pointed to a tree which stood beside them. “It’s quite hollow inside. You must climb to the top, and then you’ll see a hole, through which you can let yourself down and get deep into the tree. I’ll tie a rope round your body, so that I can pull you up again when you call me.”

“What am I to do down in the tree?” asked the soldier.

“Get money,” replied the witch. “Listen to me. When you come down to the earth under the tree, you will find yourself in a great hall: it is quite light, for many hundred lamps are burning there. Then you will see three doors; these you can open, for the keys are in the locks. If you go into the first chamber, you’ll see a great chest in the middle of the floor; on this chest sits a dog, and he’s got a pair of eyes as big as two tea-cups. But you need not care for that. I’ll give you my blue-checked apron, and you can spread it out upon the floor; then go up quickly and take the dog, and set him on my apron; then open the chest, and take as many farthings as you like. They are of copper: if you prefer silver, you must go into the second chamber. But there sits a dog with a pair of eyes as big as mill-wheels. But do not you care for that. Set him upon my apron, and take some of the money. And if you want gold, you can have that too—in fact, as much as you can carry—if you go into the third chamber. But the dog that sits on the money-chest there has two eyes as big as the round tower of Copenhagen. He is a fierce dog, you may be sure; but you needn’t be afraid, for all that. Only set him on my apron, and he won’t hurt you; and take out of the chest as much gold as you like.”

The Tinderbox (1835) by Hans Christian Andersen

tinderbox1.jpg

Helen Stratton (1910?)

Will at 50 Watts is to blame for this one, the illustrations he posted last week were excessive enough to give even a master of exaggeration like Tex Avery second thoughts. Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales have proved so popular over the years that a core group of stories tend to drive out the less familiar works from fresh editions. The Tinderbox is one of these minor stories, the tale of a soldier with a magic tinderbox capable of summoning a trio of supernatural dogs with enormous eyes. My first contact with the story was via a German television adaptation, Das Feuerzeug, filmed in 1958 and later screened in the UK as filler for the children’s TV schedule along with that memorably creepy series (also from Germany), The Singing Ringing Tree. I remembered little about the story but was never able to forget those weird dogs even though their eyes in the TV version are nothing like the way they’re presented in illustrations. They may not be as freaky but the way they’re presented as huge and black makes me think now of the ghostly barghests or black dogs of British folklore.

Searching around for illustrations turned up the handful here. Many illustrators concentrate on other scenes but I’ve only been looking for the dogs. I’m sure there’s more to be found so this may well be a subject to revisit later. The Stratton and Tarrant pictures show the climax of the story when the soldier, about to be hanged for having used the dogs to kidnap a princess, summons his creatures to kill the king, queen and all the people who condemned him. Yes, it’s good wholesome fare for kids.

tinderbox2.jpg

Margaret Tarrant (1910).

Continue reading “The Tinderbox”

Weekend links 104

cummings.jpg

Prettiest Star (2004) by Timothy Cummings.

I Want Your Love, a feature film directed by Travis Mathews catches my attention for having been described as “the gay Shortbus” even though (as the director notes) Shortbus was pretty gay to begin with.

• I’ve always found Hans Christian Andersen’s story of The Tinderbox—a tale of spectral dogs with enormous eyes—to be rather weird. But these illustrations by Heinrich Strub for a 1956 edition beat everything.

• “From an early age, however, I became in secret the slave of certain appetites.” The line that Robert Louis Stevenson deleted from The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Scientific American: Homophobes might be hidden homosexuals. Not exactly fresh news but always worth bearing in mind when someone starts ranting about those evil gays.

Minimal Wave: The 80s synth-pop underground. The Minimal Wave label releases a vinyl compilation by Hard Corps this month.

• “Blame the Victorians for making menswear boring.” Alex Jung on the endless tyranny of the suit-and-tie combination.

• Women, Vaginas and Blood: Breaking menstrual taboos with artist Sarah Maple.

London’s lost rivers (again): the hidden history of the city’s buried waterways.

Vincenzo Pacelli says the Knights of Malta murdered Caravaggio.

Street style 1906: Edward Linley Sambourne’s fashion blog.

Architectural Stationery Vignettes at BibliOdyssey.

Hans Bellmer & Unica Zürn at Ubu Gallery, NYC.

Pam Grossman admits to being a “candle hooch”.

Dirty (1986) by Hard Corps | Lost Rivers Of London (1996) by Coil | The Tinderbox (2009) by Patrick Wolf.