September 25, 2012


        Transformations make a vital part of fantasy, from ancient mythologies of cultures all around the world, through Grimm's fairy tales, right up into plenty of modern fantasy novels.  The idea of transformation is so vital to our identity as humans - we go through so many transformations in our lives - that it's no wonder it shows up so explicitly in our fantasy stories.  Both the change from infant to adult and the internal changes of heart we experience can be explored through the metaphor of magical transformation.  But at the same time, the idea of having our very identity replaced is potentially terrifying - will our transformations bring us to something greater, like Beauty's Beast, or will they destroy all that we are, like Acteon's death as a stag?  In fantasy, transformations are sometimes punishments and sometimes
rewards, and every once in a while (especially in modern works) just for fun.  They're fun to read about, and they're fun to write, allowing an author full scope for imagination and creative description.
        But what about transformations in art?  It's not so easy to show a transformation in a still picture, since transformations necessarily involve an element of time, a before and an after.  Of course many illustrations of fantasy avoid the issue by depicting the before and the after in separate pictures, but I like seeing artists' attempts to show transformations in progress.
        Perhaps the most straightforward way to handle the problem is to show us the mid-transformation point, where our subject is partway between one state and another.  I particularly like this example of a hunter turning into a donkey, by H.J. Ford.  I love how the human legs are bending as if the man is going into a crawl, even
though of course the donkey is standing upright - I think Ford has really captured the feel of change in progress as opposed to a beast who's always half-man-half-donkey.  You can see how difficult that is when you compare it with the sixteenth century depiction of two people turning into snakes.  Just looking at the picture I don't think you'd know it was a transformation in progress.  The artist hasn't managed to give us any clues that the two creatures aren't always the way they appear at this moment: an ordinary (if large) snake and a snake-tailed person.  Of course, the picture is meant to appear together with the story, so you'd know perfectly well what it was depicting, but my point is how hard it is to get that feeling of magic in progress.  Ford used a halfway point again for his illustration of a comb magically growing into a forest.  You can see that the first row of vines is growing up from a comb-like formation.
        Another possible way to show transformation is with a sort of time-lapse.  Although this woodcut of nymphs turning into trees does in fact show seven nymphs, the anonymous artist has chosen to show each of them at a different stage of the transform-ation, so that we get a real sense of the change going on before our eyes.  Showing multiple stages of a transformation is also M.C. Escher's technique in many of his pieces.  In this example we see night turning into day as well as plowed fields turning into birds and birds turning into sky.  Escher depicted tons of transformations, as you probably know, but
I really need to restrain myself from posting half a dozen of my favorites!
        Space is running out, and I wanted to share an example of one more technique that gets used a lot for illustrations of those fairy tales where people are released from an enchantment.  The former appearance is shown as a skin which is shed, like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.  John Batten has done this well in his image of Beauty helping the prince out of the skin of his Beast form.
        Transformations are an intriguing subject in both words and pictures. 

[Pictures: The Hunter is Transformed into a Donkey, woodcut from an ink drawing by Henry Justice Ford, from "The Donkey Cabbage" in The Yellow Fairy Book by Andrew Lang, 1894 (image from The Victorian Web);
Cadmus and Harmonia Become Snakes, woodcut by Vergilius Solis from Metamorphoses by Ovid, 1563 (image from University of Vermont);
The Comb Grows into a Forest, woodcut from an ink drawing by H.J. Ford, from "The Witch" in The Yellow Fairy Book by Andrew Lang, 1894 (image from The Victorian Web);
Nymphs turning into trees in the presence of Jupiter, woodcut by anonymous artist, from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by Francesco Colonna, 1499 (image from Wolfenbütteler Digitale Bibliothek);
Dag en nacht, woodcut printed from two blocks by M.C. Escher, 1938 (image from M.C.Escher web site);
Beauty and the Beast, woodcut from an ink drawing by John Batten, from European Folk and Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs, 1916 (image from SurLaLune).]

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