Dulac and his world of fairy tales : The Tribune India

Dulac and his world of fairy tales : The Tribune India

BN Goswamy

(His work evokes) things seen in a vision or mirage; or drawn by a child’s imagination in the lichen on the wall, the discoloration of water on a ceiling, or the light shining through a broken, crumpled screen; or even like the things we try to decipher in the leaping flames and glowing embers of an open fire…

— From a description of the work by Edmund Dulac

Looking at myself and my way of thinking, I come to the conclusion that the gift of imagination has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.

– Albert Einstein

Imagine you are a kid sitting by the fireplace listening to a story being told by your cuddly old dad as you sneak up on them. And imagine the story beginning something like this: “The old woman sang happily as she sat in the fireplace corner stirring the soup, for she had never been so sad. Many, many years had come and gone, leaving the weight of their winters on her shoulders and the touch of snow on her hair, without ever bringing her a little child. This made her and her dear old man very sad because there were many children playing in the snow outside.”

The imaginary scene is enchanted, and it is precisely this magic that Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), one of the leading figures in the ‘golden age of children’s gift books’, as it was called, wanted to capture in his illustrations. Here, at home, we probably don’t know much about him – he was born and educated in France but was naturalized as a British citizen and after a while earned the nickname l’Anglais (the ‘Englishman’ in other words) – but man learns that over the years he has “conquered” a whole generation of children and adult readers with his magical illustrations.

From a Belgian story: “The Queen’s Seven Conquerors of the Mississippi”.

Dulac’s range was remarkably wide. He didn’t start out painting fairy tales. When he was in England, the first work he illustrated – which incidentally made him famous almost instantly – was the perennial classic Jane Eyre. Very quickly he became a leading name in book art, producing illustrations for the Brontë sisters and popular magazines. Annual exhibitions of his drawings and paintings were held at the Leicester Galleries in London, resulting in both the European and American art worlds being drawn to him and his prodigious talent. One of the critics described his work as “rich in poetry and imagination, and possessing strongly of that decorative element which renders a picture generally pleasing”. Essentially, Dulac’s themes tended toward the fantastic, and he was as drawn to ‘1001 Nights’ and ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’ as he was to the Brontes. Art Nouveau, with its endless vine-like lines and lithe figures thin as smoke, was a dominant style in England at the time, and Dulac drew on it again and again. But his imagination was his own, and he embroidered, refined and reached out for most of his life.

From a Russian fairy tale: “The Snegorotchka”.

It was fantasy, so central to fairy tales, that Dulac was drawn to them, you can be sure. For example, think of a fairy tale – he was a fairy tale collector himself – like “Snegorotchka,” a fairy tale from Russia whose opening words I quoted above. When the childless old couple decides to build themselves a snowman – actually a little Snow White – and suddenly their sculpture begins to become real, slowly emerging from the snow into the prettiest, tiniest little girl anyone has ever seen, the impossibility of that aside Dulac must have been entranced by amazement and delight before he sat down to illustrate it.

He must also have found great imagination in the “Tale of the Snake Prince”, originally written by an Italian poet a long time ago. Because the story tells of a poor forester who finds a tiny snake in her firewood. She is scared, but then the snake offers this kind-hearted woman for adoption. The snake grows – “like children” – and soon demands a wife. And not just any wife! He must marry the king’s daughter. Surprisingly, the king agrees to fulfill this request, but he has one condition. “I will only marry off my daughter if the adopted snake son can turn all the fruits of the royal orchards into gold.” Will that happen? As Dulac illustrates the story, he projects his imagination of the king’s riches towards India or Persia, bringing in phalanxes of elephants laden with riches.

Cover of one of Dulac’s books, 1916.

Little known is the fact that Dulac also made portraits, caricatures, posters, tapestries, rugs, furniture and – as a friend of the poet WB Yeats – some theatrical props. He also designed postage stamps, banknotes and proposed coinage. But his first love remained without doubt the illustration of fairy tales.

During the time that Dulac was active, the world saw two wars. And with them in mind he collected and published a number of stories, but only stories that belonged to the “allied nations”: ie England, France, Russia, Holland, Belgium and the like. One of the stories he illustrated was that of “The Seven Conquerors of the Queen of the Mississippi,” which some say was subtle propaganda aimed at convincing the United States to join the war with the Allies to connect. But we’re not talking politics here: it’s Dulac’s soaring, rich imagination that’s the issue. And that imagination is of the kind that belongs to the poet, the writer, the artist.

Speaking of imagination, the great Sufi saint Bu Ali Shah Qalandar of Panipat once said in Persian, “Bu Ali, shair shudi, sahir shudi!” “

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