Monday, August 26, 2019

A fairy tale in boxes



 







When I am at my mum's house, I love rediscovering books from my childhood. My sisters and I didn't divide up all our books when we left home, so our mother still has a substantial collection. Now that she has four grandsons, they are being introduced to our old books, and the last time I was there, I saw that this version of Rumpelstiltskin was in rotation for Emil, whose fourth birthday is this week. My sister feels conflicted about this strange primal story, with its explicit male dominance, and finds it rather bleak.* 

The book includes a note about the origin and possible meaning of this ancient tale (there are, as always with fairy tales, a lot of different theories and psychoanalytical interpretations), and when she reads the story to Emil she reads that bit, too, without missing a beat. So perhaps little Emil has an acute awareness of the potential motives of Rumpelstiltskin, who may be able to spin gold out of straw, but cannot attain human status and is therefore desperate to possess the queen's child, a 'living thing'.

This book has my name written in it and was a present, and I have a vivid memory of being in the sitting room of our first house and looking at it. The cover and one of the pages as well as a couple of details were imprinted in my mind, but I was surprised at how much I had forgotten. And it didn't register back then that the pictures were actually photographs of staged scenes of wooden cut-outs, made by Nanni Luchting.

Now that we are inundated with digitally created illustrations, it is extra special to see a book where every illustration was painstakingly created by hand, in this case using a method based on an 18th-century technique called 'Bühnenrahmen' ('stage frame'): for each picture Luchting built a framed wooden box arranged like a stage with a foreground, a painted background and partitions and peopled with 2-D wooden figures and props, adding in other materials such as gold thread and the straw visible in the second photo. The characters and objects cast shadows and look like they might slide across the page at any moment. The effect is eerie and reminded me of the so-called 'silent companions' from the 17th century, life-size cut-out portraits that served as a welcome for visitors to a house. 

I couldn't find any information on Nanni Luchting; online there was only evidence of one other box creation by her, and when I check now it no longer comes up. Whoever she is or was, I am grateful for these beautiful mesmerising worlds within boxes she gave us.


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