The Fantastic in Art and Fiction

Developed between 2000 and 2012, the Cornell University's site known as Fantastic Library is an image-bank providing visual resources for the study of the Fantastic or of the supernatural in fiction and in art. While the site emerges from a comparative literature course on the topic at Skidmore College, it is also intended to open the door to consideration of some of the constant structures and patterns of fantastic literature, and the problems they raise. In this sense, the materials presented here may find a use among students in a variety of disciplines.
In order to take maximum advantage of the materials in the Cornell collections, it seemed best not to adhere to a strict definition of either the Fantastic or its predecessor, the Marvelous, as these have emerged in literary criticism and theory. It will be useful, nevertheless, to note some general markers. In the context of western literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, The Fantastic involves dread, fear and anxiety in the face of phenomena that escape rational explanation, or that reveal the notion of reality to be no more than a construct. A fantastic experience can therefore be likened to the breaking or shattering of a frame. While the literary fantastic is limited to the last 200 years, the Fantastic in art can be construed more broadly. This elasticity allowed us to choose images from works spanning a period from medieval manuscripts and printed incunabulae, to the early twentieth century.
Because of its rich and varied modes of representation the Fantastic also lends itself quite easily to interdisciplinary approaches. Psychology and sociology, art and literary history, anthropology and folklore among other disciplines, can provide avenues of investigation useful in the study of such basic critical or analytical concepts for the Fantastic as repression, the uncanny, indeterminacy, or the postmodern.

Astaroth, who obtains the friendship of great lords.
J.A.S. Collin de Plancy, Dictionnaire Infernal, Paris : E. Plon, 1863, p. 86.
Ref. satan, devil, demon.
Cornell University: Fantastic Library

Angels and Demons. Devil or Angel? Please say you'll be mine. The religious supernatural recognizes/zed a self torn between transcendent forces that fought for its possession. The Devil and his minions, the Demons, engaged in a struggle for the soul with the angels and guardian spirits. When the religious supernatural expresses the search for salvation in terms of conflict and terror it anticipates the universe of Fantastic anxiety. A particular interest in this cluster of images is the material drawn from the extensive Witchcraft collection.[1]

Clay Study

Danse Macabre. Danse Macabre, Dance of Death, Todtentanz. A grim saraband of skeletons, coming to take you away. Momento mori: remember that you must die. The middle ages preached this lesson with particular intensity. Graphic artists--Hans Holbein most influentially--responded to the urgency, to the undeniable power of this topos with scenes in which a dancing, skeletal Reaper came for the archbishop and the servant, the judge and the doctor, the mother and the child. In the nineteenth century the motif is re-energized by revolution and social upheaval, and heralds the arrival of a social fantastic with Alfred Rethel’s great series, Auch ein Todtentanz. Cornell’s extensive collection includes rare works that have never been reproduced in the literature devoted to the subject. Freund’s Heins Erscheinungen (in Holbein’s Manier) and Merkel and Flegel’s Bilder des Todes join Thomas Rowlandsonís satirical classic English Dance of Death, for especially remarkable depictions of suicide. The collection also contains early, important studies, like Peignot’s Recherches sur les danses des morts (1826), which links the theme to the iconography of playing cards; Achille Jubinal’s Explication de la danse des morts de la Chaise-Dieu (1841) a hand-colored example of early art-historical interest in ecclesiastical danse macabre frescoes; and E.-H. Langlois’s definitive Essai sur la danse des morts (1852).[2]

FantasPorto. JN, official sponsor of the 31st Oporto International Horror Film Festival, 2011. Ref. Advertising & Marketing

Weird Science. Magic, The Black Arts and the Occult: The basis of many a fantastic tale involves an invisible world of secrets, accessible with a particular kind of knowledge. Magic, alchemy and the occult are thus keys that allow entry into certain zones of the Fantastic. More important, they drive the intellectual engine of the Fantastic; even as they wane, they preside over the gestation of science fiction. The grimoire of the Magus becomes the mad-scientist’s user’s manual. Our selections include depictions of witches and sorcerers, instruction pages from the classic work of secret sciences entitled The Magus, illustrations of alchemical workshops, cabalistic mappings of biblical passages, and cover illustrations from the first issues of Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsbach’s celebrated pulp journal devoted to science and fantastic fiction. We close this section with the Calendrier Magique of Austin de Croze, a sumptuous visual account of the occultist fervor of the late nineteenth century in France.[3]

Popular Culture Magus

Bestiary. An extraordinary compilation where the paradigmatic struggle between observation and vision so crucial to the Fantastic is constantly played out. By the time of the early Enlightenment, the Bestiary, like its more recent relative the Encyclopedia, participates in the totalizing intent of a catalogue whose purpose is the scientific understanding of the world. Empirical observation banishes from these increasingly imposing tomes any creatures that have not been observed in their environment. So the unicorn and the dragon, the griffon and the sea serpent, and all their relations take refuge in the annals of folklore, until the fantastic and its adjudant, surrealism, release them once more into literary discourse from the prisons where rational inquiry had consigned them.[4]

Hartmann Schedel, Liber chronicarum, 1493. Woodcut. The Blemmyae were believed to live in Africa and India (Pliny, Natural History, 57-58).

The Marvelous. In strict contrast to the Fantastic, The Marvelous allows for the existence or occurrence of supernatural events without the attendant anxiety or fear. The stuff of legend, of folklore, and of the fable or fairy tale, the Marvelous often employs seduction and humor in achieving its effects, traits which are frequently absent from the Fantastic. The sources for the images in this section are for the most part the literature of myths and legends, of fables and fairy tales.

The Grotesque. A powerful esthetic category involving disruption and distortion of hierarchical or canonical assumptions. The notion combines ugliness and ornament, the bizarre and the ridiculous, the excessive and the unreal. The term derives from the Italian term for grottos (grotteschi), i.e., the ruins in which statuettes of distorted figures were found in the XV and XVI centuries. The Romantic era, with its interest in the dispossessed, in all those who before the age of Revolution had been nameless and invisible, made the grotesque its indispensable adjunct. Victor Hugo, for whom the grotesque was indispensable opposite the sublime, aptly indulged his penchant for antithesis when he claimes that the grotesque is "the richest source nature can offer art." M. Bahktin placed the grotesque at the heart of the carnivalesque spirit.
With its insistence on ironic reversals, on fluent and fertile opposites, the grotesque also resembles the topos of The World Upside-Down, that topsy-turvy universe where things are no longer in their place, where order is disrupted, where hierarchies tumble, and the Fool is king. Both the Grotesque and The World Upside-Down possess a darkly comic portent, that the fantastic uncovers and explores; both serve the key function of revealing the constructed nature of rationality, of the mandate that everything be in its place. The surface relationships by which daily life is governed are anything but ordained and stable; indeed, they can be understood as absolute only by dint of a sustained illusion.[5]

Salvador Dalí, Autumn Cannibalism, oil, 1936. Tate Gallery, London

Possession & Insanity. The self taken-over, will overcome, autonomy lost. The theme of possession in the supernatural marvelous, and subsequently in the fantastic, rarely lacks a quotient of fear. In this sense, possession helps bridge the gap between the marvelous and the fantastic, by asserting the presence of dread within the context of a supernatural acknowledged as real. As the marvelous morphs into the fantastic, however, the nature of possession changes. Demonic possession from a religious perspective fades in the nineteenth century, as the age of anxiety discovers the doppelgänger, exhumes and resurrects the Ghosts, Vampires and Werewolves of folkloric legends. These fearsome exponents of a living death are now endowed with powerful psychological and sexual connotations, which in the course of the nineteenth century, bring possession by madness and hysteria to the fore.[6]

Parasite. Latex Halloween mask, Ghoulish Productions, United Kingdom, c. 2011

Fantastic Space. The space in which the fantastic event unfurls takes on a life of its own, strongly marked by what C. W. Thomsen calls visionary architecture’s "tendency to externalize an inward vision." This dynamic is on display in the Romantic fascination with ruins, or in Piranesi’s celebrated Imaginary Prison engravings, where hellish fears of incarnation and torture are inscribed on a massive scale. Poe’s epochal Fall of the House of Usher confers a grim aura on the Gothic edifice. The space of dreaming takes on an importance of its own.[7]

Johann Georg Hertel (after Jeremias Wachsmuth), Winter, Rococo Music, Fancy Dress Ball, etching, 1750-60

Freaks, Monsters & Prodigies. All give the Fantastic an embodied form. Monstrosity was experienced in the age of the marvelous as prodigious, thus retaining the key emotional componenet of awe. Later, under the influence of medical emperimentation and enlightenment science, research assigned the freak a rational category, but without eliminating the new and complex component of dread. Hybrid creatures no longer inspired the amazement of the creatures of ancient myth. As teratology begins to catalog monsters for the age of reason, literature gives them voice.[8]

Russ Baltes, Cognitive Dissonance, radio program poster, c. 2006-9.

1. Angels and Demons. Literary works: Barbey d'Aurevilly, Les diaboliques; Goethe, Faust; M. G. Lewis: The Monk. Studies: Max Milner, Le diable dans la litterature francaise, Paris: Corti 1972; Jeffery Burton Russell, The Devil, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977; Burton Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages: Cornell University Press, 1972.
2. Danse Macabre. Literary works: E. A. Poe, Tales of Mystery and Imagination; Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Contes cruels; Theophile Gautier, Contes fantastiques; Joan Kessler, ed. Demons of the Night. Studies: The Dance of Death from the XIIth to the XXth Century: The notable collection of Miss Susan Minns of Boston Mass. Auction Catalogue, published by the American Art Association, NY, 1922; James M. Clark, The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Glasgow: Jackson, 1950; Marcia Collins, The Dance of Death in Book Illustration, exhibition catalogue, Ellis Library, University of Missouri-Columbia, 1978; Sara Webster Goodwin, Kitsch and Culture: The Dance of Death in Literature and Art, NY: Garland, 1986.
3. Weird Science. Literary works: Hoffmann, The Sandman; Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, L’Eve future; Borges, The Library of Babel; Italo Calvino, T-Zero. Studies: Grillot de Givry, Le Musée des Sorciers: Magie et Alchimie, Paris: Librairie de France, 1929; Kurt Seligmann, Magic, Supernaturalism and Religion, New York: Pantheon, 1948; Gwenhaël Ponnau, Les Savants fous, Paris: Bouquins/Robert Laffont, 1994.
4. Bestiary. Literary works: Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings, Dream-Tigers; Angela Carter, Burning Your Boats. Studies: Roland Schaer, ed., Tous les savoirs du monde, Paris: Flammarion/ Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 1996; Ron Baxter, Bestiaries and their Users in the Middle Ages, London: Alan Sutton/The Courtauld, 1998.
5. The Grotesque. Literary works: E. A. Poe, Tales of Mystery and Imagination; Patrick Süskind, Perfume; Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber; Enid Wellsford, The Fool, His Social and Literary History, London: Faber and Faber, 1935. Studies: Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World Cambridge: MIT Press, 1968; Hannes Leopoldseder, Groteske Welt, Bonn: Bouvier-Verlag, 1973; Frédérick Tristan, Le Monde à L'envers, Paris: Hachette/Atelier Massin, 1980.
6. Possession & Insanity. Literary works: M. G. Lewis, The Monk; E. A. Poe, "William Wilson"; Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. "The Eleventh Hour Guest"; Henry James, The Turn of The Screw; Maupassant, "The Horla", "Him", " Who Knows?"; Bram Stoker, Dracula; Angela Carter, "The Fall-River Axe Murders", "The Lady of the House of Love".
7. Fantastic Space. Literary works: Poe, "Fall of the House of Usher"; Italo Calvino, "Invisible Cities", "The Count of Monte Cristo"; J.L.Borges, "The Circular Ruins"; Julio Cortázar, "House Taken Over" [La casa tomada]. Studies: Luzius Keller, Piranèse et les romantiques français, Paris: José Corti, 1966; Paul Zucker, Fascination of Decay, New Jersey: Gregg Press, 1968; C. W. Thomsen, Visionary Architecture: From Babylon to Virtual Reality, NY and Munich: Prestel, 1994.
8. Freaks, Monsters & Prodigies. Literary works: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; Patrick Suskind, Perfume. Films: Todd Browning's Freaks; Elephant Man. Studies: Gould, Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, 1900; Charcot, Les Difformes et les malades dans l'art, Reprint, Amsterdam: B.M. Israel, 1972; Feher et al., Fragments for a History of the Human Body, New York: Zone Books, 1987; Boneson, A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997; Lorraine Daxton and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, New York: Zone Books, 1998.

The Fantastic in Art and Fiction


Ezequiel Pen said...

Ingenious and most original. Bravo!

Joan Dann said...

Totally amazing.

Renu Jain said...

This is very nice article and gives indepth information. Thanks

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