Women!

Posted by on August 4th, 2010 at 12:26 PM

We have battered wives and so did the Victorians, but the Victorians also had funny drawings about battered wives. For example, this one by Phil May (1864-1903) that appeared in Punch. I don’t read it as a satire, just an affectionate slice of life. The point isn’t how awful it is that a lady’s old man should knock her around; the point is that you can count on it happening and that this just goes to show about those roisterous scamps of the East End.

© 1955 by Bradbury, Agnew & Company, Ltd.

And yet it’s a fine piece of drawing, both the background composition (I like the asymmetry and the depth progression) and the caricature of the woman. You’ve got a real face there and it’s wearing a finely shaded expression. A woman who has just been beaten up by the man she loves couldn’t possibly be smiling. But she might have the look of someone who knows she’ll get beaten up, off and on, for the rest of her life and who is making the best of it. The look is the only one she could have that would keep her in bounds for the cartoon’s ha-ha spirit. And May could draw exactly that look and still think he was drawing a cartoon, gag material; it just goes to show how talent and convention can operate side by side.

Possible overanalysis here, but line up the woman with the background figures and you see her expression broken into two components: the background lady’s big smirk and the background girl’s frown. The smirk dominates, the frown comes in second, as a minor key. The looks are set off by that of a second background lady, one whose expression I read as neutral — interested, but that’s all. But even her look has a hint of a lift to her lips, as does the expression of the foreground lady. It’s not that they’re cheerful. The lifted lips chime in visually with the outright smirk of the first lady in the background. I take this chiming to be the visual signal that we’re looking at something light-hearted, even if only one of the characters in question is feeling jolly. Meanwhile, the girl’s frown acknowledges that we’re also, in addition, looking at something grim. This added-on awareness would eventually push its way into the center of the picture when people contemplated such scenes; to see it here, existing but in second place, seems a bit freakish.

Fairy tale girl. H. J. Ford’s illustration of “Lovely Ilonka,” a German folk tale adapted by Andrew Lang for The Crimson Fairy Book, pub. 1906. Per Wiki, Ford lived from 1860 to 1941 and worked on several of Lang’s fairy tale books.

Perky. Raphael Kirchner (1876-1917), “Lady with a Sunburst,” which David Ouellette’s Fantasy Postcards identifies as “chromolitho; RK; Germany; circa 1905.” I believe that “RK” is the publisher. Kirchner was born in Vienna, worked in paris, died in the U.S.

To me, this card is an example of triumphant banality: the colors, her bone structure, the curve of the sun rays, and the fact that there’s so many of them that they’re ripples, a binge of curves. Even the cream and bronze strike me as too lush. You don’t see the combo these days, or at least I don’t, so it’s distinctive. But the effect strikes me as dumb and gorgeous, too easy, a brand-new cliche (or unfamiliar cliche).

I’d sum up the drawing as the splendid temporal representation of a vapid eternal something, some ideal principle so far down the slopes that its importance is at the mosquito level. A bit higher up and you find France and Madeleine. Down here we have Raphael Kirchner’s girl and the Spirit of the Perky Ethereal.
Daily proverb. Ask nothing, get no sugar. Ask too much, get two lumps, still no sugar!
Beware the Gladiator, my son . . . in Claws of the Cat!!

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