Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter

The Fairy Tale, Di Oliver

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by fairy tales. As a child I was enthralled by the pretty princesses and magical phenomena, but as I grew older I started to notice the darker elements of the tales, to wonder what was going on behind the scenes. Why were the (usually female) protagonists always warned to stay out of the woods, away from the tower, or not to go to the ball? What was lurking there that was so dangerous? And was it really dangerous to the protagonist, or was there something more oppressive at work? When I discovered the work of Angela Carter, who so skillfully weaves all these questions into a tapestry of magical realism, carnival colours, and often shocking sexuality, I was completely entranced. Her writing made me think deeper about not only the stories I had grown up with, but the real world, and my place in it. It made me realise that magic can be found in the strangest of places. Above all though, her writing conjured up a series of very clear images, pictures in my mind which have influenced me ever since.

So when I had the chance to visit Strange Worlds, an exhibition of art which echoes or is inspired by the themes of her work, at the RWA, I jumped at it. This exhibition really captures the themes and the atmosphere of Carter's work, and held me captivated. It is brilliantly put together and utterly absorbing-in fact I was so focused on looking at the pieces on display that I forgot to take many photos. This exhibition seems perfectly placed in Bristol, not only as the city where Carter studied and wrote five of her novels, but a place which has many elements of a colourful and magical carnival, but has had its own struggles with an underlying darkness in the past. Fittingly for an exhibition paying tribute to Carter, whose work was infused with themes of feminism, Strange Worlds showcases a high volume of women artists, from Anna Maria Pacheco to Tessa Farmer. This is just one of the ways in which this exhibition feels thoughtfully and respectfully put together, a sensitive tribute to Carter's legacy. There is even some of Carter's own art work included in the displays.

Just as Carter's work explores different places, stages and dimensions, the layout of the exhibition evokes a feeling of moving between worlds. The main gallery has an atmosphere of dark tinged whimsy. Sarah Woodfine's striking, snow globe like Castle is filled with shimmering white glitter,in stark contrast to the dark pencil drawing at its centre. It has at once an air of slight menace, and an innocent nostalgia.

Tessa Farmer's The Forest Assassins is an epic fantasy scene plucked from fairy land, but these fairies are waging war while riding the backs of strange taxidermied creatures, not floating softly about on pastel wings. The work, which hangs suspended from the roof of the gallery and drifts slightly in the breeze, is both delightful and horrifying, much like Carter's stories. All of the pieces in this gallery seem to mix the playful with the serious, the light with the dark.

Moving into the smaller of the side galleries, the full horror of Anna Maria Pacheco's The Banquet is displayed against a stark, black backdrop. There is no whimsy here, only dread. The lower lighting really enhances the unnerving and haunting qualities of the piece. This work brings to mind themes of cannibalism, perversion, assault, and even the divide between rich and poor. The figure on the table is naked and pleading, completely vulnerable, while the seated figures are fully dressed and loom above the table, with mocking smiles. The fact that those smiles are made from real teeth makes the installation even more chilling. This piece makes an impression that is not easily forgotten.

Collages by Angela Carter. Image courtesy of RWA/Alice Hendy

The third gallery has a different atmosphere again, with more a focus on older pieces and older stories, the tales that have become part of our shared consciousness, as well as the work of the Surrealists. Somehow this combination works, and gives this gallery a feeling of deep rooted, old magic seeping through. There is the wonderfully colourful and carnivalesque Blue Circus by Chagall, the huge and imposing Shadow of Death by William Holman Hunt (which appeared in Carter's tv film, The Holy Family Album), alongside some of Carter's own collages, and perhaps most poignantly of all, some of the original artworks for the covers of her books, which were one of the exhibition highlights for me.

It is difficult to choose favourites when so many of the pieces in this exhibition struck me so much, but I was particularly drawn to Season of the Witch by Dominic Shepherd. I love that it juxtaposes imagery of mysticism and witches with bright, rainbow colours and a friendly robin, turning pre-conceived notions of witchcraft being all about darkness and shadows on their heads. Although it has themes of magic, the joined dots scattered throughout the painting call to mind the molecular structure models used by scientists. This painting really gives a sense of closeness to nature, and of everything interconnecting.

An unexpected favourite was Sarah Woodfine's Boy, a simple but brilliant piece in which a wolf sleeps inside a cot, conjuring thoughts of changelings, as well as the masquerading wolf from Little Red Riding Hood. 

I also loved Anna Mari Pacheco's dry point series, The Miraculous Journey of a Little Vixen. The circus imagery and anthropomorphised animals are another link to Carter's stories, while the pursuit of a mystical stag calls to mind the sacred status of deer in both Celtic and Asian mythologies, where they were viewed as messengers of the gods. The final image, of Little Vixen flying off on the back of a winged stag, has a wonderful feeling of freedom, but also the inevitable loss that is necessary to achieve that freedom, with Little Vixen wistfully looking back over her shoulder. 

Overall, this exhibition is absolutely stunning, with each piece perfectly chosen to reflect the themes of Carter's work. I can't remember the last time an exhibition made me think so deeply, or created such a sense of wonder. I really cannot recommend it highly enough, and I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to see it. I suspect I will be making a repeat visit.

Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter runs until 19th March 2017 at the RWA, Bristol. Check their website for further details.


  1. You write so beautifully about this exhibition. I wish I could see it! I was given a book by Angela Carter for Christmas. I look forward to reading it even more now.

  2. I had to come across and read your blog post on this after seeing snippets of the exhibition in your video, it's stunning! I really like the Castle and The Forest Assassin's, two really beautiful, whimsical but dark pieces. Loved the way you wrote about this exhibition too, I can tell you loved it and were moved by the different pieces. Would love to go along and see this! - Tasha