Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Gustave Baumann (Still Life of Toys)

In addition to award-winning color woodcuts, Gustave Baumann made toys. Specifically, hand-carved marionettes. Marionettes have a sort of haunting quality. Quite often they fall into the uncanny valley, especially when their stiff, naturalistically-represented bodies start to move around. And so looking at this image I find myself wondering if Baumann had an interest in where childlike fantasy and nightmares intersect. I stare at it, and my brain tells me that these are toys. A large, black wooden duck over a nest of smaller, yellow ducks. A sheep made of looped yarn. A stuffed monkey propped up at a toy piano. This is some sort of child's room or toy store. It should feel whimsical and cheery, right? But my gut says, no. Like a frozen-faced marionette tip toeing across a tiny stage, that creepy monkey is lifting his hands to play whatever maniacal music might come out of that dwarfed instrument. The beady black-eyed skull-faced sheep appears like some sort of bad joke, its loops and braids suggesting (through their color and texture) bones, and yet also suggesting (with their flopping) bonelessness. And of course the star of the scene, a colossal raven gaping over a mess of ducklings who move uncertainly in a slithering puddle of rope. And yet, as much as my imagination turns a still life of toys into a bad acid trip, I am captivated. I am drawn to this image and its creatures ever more for their monster-like qualities. There is some gritty reality there, some dramatization of dark, natural truth. The monsters of our imagination do not come from nowhere. They are what has come of shadows in our monkey brain. Shadows that know where we come from and what we really are.

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