Helena Raymond-Hayling and Jordan Barker plunge into the strange world of the Strange Worlds exhibition, which pays tribute to writer, poet, playwright and Bristol alumnus, Angela Carter.
One of England’s most treasured writers, Angela Carter has inspired an exhibition at the Royal West of England Academy which opened on 10th December – honouring her work, influences and those who share interest in the themes found in her writing.
— RWA Bristol (@RWABristol) December 9, 2016
Carter spent the 1960s and early 1970s in Bristol, an alumnus of the University where she read English and specialised in Medieval literature. Following this, she wrote her ‘Bristol Trilogy’ (Shadow Dance, Several Perceptions and Love), and went on to have a fruitful and exciting career as a novelist, also penning poetry, plays and screenplays.
‘There is a striking resemblance between the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer.’ So wrote Baudelaire, favourite poet of the nefarious husband in The Bloody Chamber. The quote resonates within me as I wander through ‘Strange Worlds’ and marvel at the art inspired such fantastically dark literary works.
[Carter] explores worlds that are taboo, hellish, voyeuristic and viciously feminist
One such piece is The Banquet, by the Brazilian artist Ana Maria Pachecho. The work is in a darkened room, which I initially suspect to be closed off to the public. Upon entering, I am startled by the unsettling scene before me. Four grotesquely mis-proportioned figures sit down to a cannibal banquet of an unclothed fifth. The macabre spectacle eerily evokes Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, dark and twisted in imitation.
Her prose is highly unique, salacious and sadistic. In The Bloody Chamber, Carter gracefully describes the husband’s ‘as if it were hovering, disembodied, above the sheets, illuminated from below like a grotesque carnival head’, and her novel Nights at the Circus features Fevvers, a virginal cockney winged aerialiste who is the centre of her circus’s success.
‘I write overblown, purple, self-indulgent prose. So fucking what?’ – Angela Carter
The carnival is explored too by Caroline Waite in Join the Circus, which includes dolls’ heads and a clown toy which when shaken changes from smiling to frowning. These gruesome and tormented sculptural elements are truly in keeping with Carter’s writings.
A lover of Freud, Carter’s work has a fervent interest in the nature of dreams and the the ways in which the conscious and unconscious interact. The story of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – as well as the Pre-Rafaelite paintings of its characters – captured her imagination and became the subject of a short story Overture and Incidental Music for a Midsummer Night’s Dream and too found itself in her final novel Wise Children.
Carter herself revisioned fairy tales to explore worlds that are taboo, hellish, voyeuristic and viciously feminist. Dominic Shepherd’s Season of the Witch reflects Carter’s fascination with spirits and fairy folklore, its explosive colours symbolic of magic and feminine mystique.
Self-described as ‘a social realism of the unconscious’, Carter’s work is unique in bringing to the fore the dark and elusive world of the mind and fear. Angela Lizon’s Grandma’s Footsteps shows a young girl being stalked by a monstrous bear – it resonates with Carter’s exploration of the subconscious and inner terror by depicting the male predator as a beast preparing to torment the child.
Carter was intrigued by the boundaries and binaries of love and torture, masculinity and femininity and the inner torment of a misunderstood gender identity. In The Passion of New Eve, the male protagonist is captured by members of a subterranean phallus-hating clan of women, raped by the six-breasted goddess ‘Mother’, and later surgically fashioned into a woman in order to be impregnated with his own semen.
This subversion of typical ideas about gender and transition is depicted by Wendy Elia in the stunning Maxime: a portrait of a trans woman who sits joylessly, hands folded reticently in her lap and failing to fit her large feet into a pair of glamorous stilettos. The tape marks beneath her suggest a indicate ‘ladylike’ positioning of the feet – further emphasising how misplaced her purgatorial gender identity makes her feel.
Carter’s work is excessive, pulsing with fire, energy, blood and sex. Commenting on her stylistic choices as an author, she said ‘I write overblown, purple, self-indulgent prose. So fucking what?’. Her exploration of sexuality and vulgarity stops nothing short of revolutionary. She deemed pornography as ‘a satire on human pretensions’, and is known for exploiting the toxic combination of sex and violence to send her audience hurtling through the realms of the indecorous.
Pornographic themes are subtly incorporated into in The Artist in Her Studio – with reference to cannibalism – by inclusion of the praying mantis, notorious for devouring its mate during intercourse. Fevvers in Nights at the Circus is tall and curvacious, and said to dwarf her fellow performers – so too does Rego’s artist: legs spread and smoking a pipe, she contravenes typically ‘ladylike’ behaviours and imparts a strong statement about empowerment of women through art.
The realm between the dominant and subservient is thrown open in the installation in the centre of the gallery space, Tessa Farmer’s The Forest Assassins. The work is suspended from the ceiling and in which flies ride bees and dragonflies wielding sharp pins and butterflies carry crocodile skulls like a trophy.
Carter and her merry men are sure to haunt your dreams for months to come
I leave the exhibition completely in shock and awe. I even purchased a not-so-cheap-but-hey-it’s-Christmas copy of the illustrated catalogue as I do not want to forget the extraordinary collection of works assembled by the curators of Strange Worlds: the artist and writer Fiona Robinson and Dr. Marie Mulvey-Roberts of the University of the West of England.
— Festival of Ideas (@FestivalofIdeas) December 10, 2016
The RWA has really stepped up its game with this exhibition, and this opening has breathed a welcome breath of fresh air into what is often seen as a very traditionally-focused institution. Strange Worlds is harrowing, bewitching and scandalous – Carter and her merry men are sure to haunt your dreams for months to come.
Strange Worlds runs at the RWA until 19th March 2017. Admission is free for University of Bristol students.
What did you think of Strange Worlds? Are you a fan of Angela Carter? Let us know in the comments below or on social media @EpigramArts