Friday, March 5, 2010

Arthur Rackham & The Ring

Arthur Rackham was an early influence on my appreciation of both art and literature. As a child I remember vividly reading editions of Rip Van Winkle and The Romance of King Arthur illustrated by Rackham, both of which I still have (the latter now worth a fortune). In addition, there was Peter Pan in Kensington GardensUndine, and Grimm's Fairy Tales (all now sadly gone from my collection, save in memory).

But one I never came upon until much later in life was this collection of 64 watercolor illustrations and several dozen black and white vignette's for Margaret Armour's translation of Wagner's Ring (published 1910-11). I bought a facsimile edition some years ago, which contains all of the color plates, plus a handful of pen & ink vignettes, but only a line or two of Armour's text beneath each color plate. Consequently, although I got the gist of Wagner's plot, I was fairly vague on the details until just recently (I filled in much from my prior reading of Wagner's source material, but was at a loss to discover where the Rhinemaids came from, for example, not to mention the gold itself). I've just downloaded the complete Armour edition of The Nibelungenlied, so I'm looking forward to finally reading the full text (although reviews of it are less than kind).

One of the things I used to do for fun (and occasional profit) is screen printing t-shirts. Several years ago I had a website up where I sold hand-dyed and printed shirts under the name Art-Shirts, most of them containing images from classical artwork, such as daVinci's Vitruvian Man and Picasso's Don Quixote. Among my top sellers were prints of Arthur Rackham illustrations, such as this one from Wagner's Ring of the Norns weaving out the threads of Fate (still one of my all-time favorites).

It was this image of the three sisters that I had in mind when I added them (or rather, they inserted themselves) into The Saga of BeowulfIt was completely unintentional (and unforeseen). They just showed up, in one of those strange unconscious fits that come over writers in the throws of narrative compulsion.

This one of the Rhinemaids I liked to print on mottled blue (a sort of tie-dye that looks a lot like marble) to make it seem as if they were swimming underwater (I removed the border for my print), while the dwarves Mime and Alberich struggle beneath the burden of the Ring, here stylized by Rackham in the likeness of the World Serpent (also seen in the illustration of the Norns above). Few artists can depict such agony and ecstasy in a single monochromatic image. But his color renderings are among his very best work, and considered by many to be his masterpiece. Perhaps one day I'll go back to printing shirts again, but until then you can click on the black and white vignettes for my high-resolution scans.