Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Léon Bakst's Oddly Compelling Sleeping Beauty Series (with Commentary)

Close-up of Rothschild Sleeping Beauty panel by Léon Bakst
We're including information about these amazing Sleeping Beauty panels at the end of the post, but for fun, we decided to post these panel paintings with our own commentary, to draw your attention to some unusual - and amusing - aspects of these scenes.

Note: almost all symbolism is being thoroughly ignored in favor of first impressions, and any art history analysis is completely accidental.

Let's begin at the first panel, showing the moment the christening went horribly wrong:
The Bad Fairy Visits the Christening
So here we have the 'bad fairy' talking directly to the King, who looks bored, and a more concerned Queen. Meanwhile, on the floor, rats are swarming toward the cradle and the nannies are busy being very protective of the baby. One of them looks horrified and is choosing to shield the baby from the fairy, despite rats looking to make their way up her skirts, while the other is working on stopping the vermin with some good whacks of her, whatever that is - a fan?

It's a bit hard to tell if the rest of the folk are in shock, have no idea what's going on or are so bored they don't care.

Before we leave, we have to draw your attention to whatever is going on behind the curtain. We don't know what it is - but something shady is going on. (Perhaps the Bad Fairy's visual effects crew setting up? They're in black with those tell-tale floating heads of a backstage crew. Whomever they are, they 're about to be found out by the person wrapped in a gold, er, wraps, in front of them.)

Next: the Good Fairy takes her chance and gets a promotion up the fairy ranks with her bold initiative: while she's not powerful enough to stop the curse, she can bend it a little.
The Good Fairy's Promise
Here we see the Queen forgetting about her designer dress (though her ladies in waiting look to have been aware of the optics and fanned it out to best effect on the ground), crouching on the floor near the cradle, clearly begging for help from the young fairy, while the nannies are being perfect back-up nannies, having jumped to assist immediately, and apparently having banished the rats very effectively to follow their mistress.

Meanwhile, poor nervous apprentice fairy seems to have a body odor issue, as evidenced by the looks on the faces of the people next to, behind and across from her. (You thought they were magical radiance lines, like we did at first, didn't you? Well now you know. She just stressed.)

The royal guard have rushed at the cause of the initial commotion and are forcing the old woman - and her rats - out the door, perhaps overdoing the threat factor a little with that giant axe being swung at her head. Good thing she seems to have ducked in time. The painting behind her is looking on in a very judgmental fashion, but what can you expect from folks stuck on a wall in such a situation?

Meanwhile the King appears to be protecting his royal jewels and trying to not look as if he's lost control of the situation, (is that pregnant lady looking at him from the background very pointedly?) while the young fairy is looking a little wavery, like she's barely holding it together herself.

Oh and by the way, looks like the baby got a preview of the sleeping spell there. She's turned over and is looking pretty happily asleep now.

Fast forward fifteen and a half years to see Briar Rose checking out a teeny, squishy tower room, complete with foreshadowing crow in the top right corner:
The Princess Pricks Her Finger On A Spinning Wheel
Through a strangely distorted fish-eye-type-but-not-quite lens we see Beauty, who looks like she stole out of her dressing room in her underthings while no one was looking, having found a cool looking door, opened it and let herself in (because she's a princess and doesn't need to ask permission). 

The spinning woman, who can't seem to fit her spinning wheel anywhere else except next to the gigantic unsafe window, looks rather concerned her over-sized cat will escape out the open door, but Beauty is oblivious. In fact, the girl seems to be making it even more awkward for the old woman in that space, to the point where granny has just caught her wheel from being knocked over. Luckily, the enormous cat, likely full-bellied from having a lot of that creamy milk, is totally occupied with a gigantic ball of yarn (though it's clearly keeping escape as an option out of the corner of its eye).

Meanwhile, the bird in the cage is savvy enough to rock its prison so it will get launched out into the air, and dumb enough to not realize there's no door... The crow, watching, seemed to be finding this behavior quite stupid and Darwin-esque, so is so relaxed about it all, he's leaning on the wall, just waiting for his moment.

Knowing Beauty is about to swoon into an enchanted sleep, it seems more likely that she'll fall out that low-silled tower window, or impale herself on the spindle, rather than on the floor, at this point, but really, with a cat, a crow, a crazy bird and an off-balance old woman in the mix, anything could happen.

Cut to dear old dad calling on the Good Fairy (who has taken advantage of her job promotion to afford herself a chariot pulled by dragons), saying something along the lines of: "Halp! The thing the ugly one said came true, and Beauty's mother isn't around anywhere to fix this, so now I have to figure this mess out... Please? -whine, whine - I'm old and stuff, and shouldn't be working on fixing stuff any more..":
The Aged King Pleads with the Good Fairy
The dragon is looking at the gathering murder of crows and thinking "lunch?". The fairy, in upgraded designer garb, is looking dubiously at the jeweled cushion thingy her POC servant seems her to want to step on, effectively ignoring the King (who conveniently is wearing the same outfit as the last time her saw her, to help her recognize him), though the monkey is offering to take it if no one else wants it. The king has had the presence of mind to employ some convenient POC helpers with his cloak, although they're having issues because either they're the only ones who have noticed the dragon and are appropriately terrified, or are the only ones who can see it.

The self-important guys behind the King seem to be discussing the fairy's outfit and looking at her ankles, while the folks below clearly can't hear anything over the racket of the trumpet by the knight doing double-duty as a herald. (It could be our imagination but it looks like the African herald-helper just saw his long lost brother above, with the cushion, so he's sent the monkey up to get his attention, but the monkey is distracted by the cushion... sigh.)

So the Good Fairy does her thing and send the entire castle to sleep (and we need to give her a break because it looks like this is her first time trying her spell on this scale):
The Princess and the Court Fall Asleep for a Hundred Years
She doesn't do it very adroitly. Unlike other paintings where people fall asleep gracefully, here folks clearly collapsed right where they stood, including a couple who unfortunately face-planted, while others knocked heads together pretty hard on the way down. At least the guards' armor seems to be helping prop those guys up. As long as the end guy doesn't fall over, they should be good for a few years, until they rust in place together. The cricks happening in some of those necks are going to need a miracle of their own to survive though. Yikes.

It's not clear if the fairy did a Miracle-Gro spell on the plants around the castle at the same time, but it's either that or the royal gardeners have not been doing their jobs, because the moss and mold is out of control already, and it's only 'day one, a hundred years to go'. Eesh.

The fairy looks less than impressed with the whole effect, like the vision hasn't matched the outcome, but from the way she's holding her arms she's not going to bother re-doing it all, especially since she appears to have become flammable. (Perhaps her dragon is in the background and isn't fully trained yet.) At least she remembered to get Beauty out of the tower and onto a proper bed. Not too terrible for her first proper assignment.

Fast forward again, but this time ninety-nine years, nine months and twenty-nine days, to when a more modern Prince finds himself in the vicinity of the legend:
The Prince Out Hunting Sees the Castle Where the Princess Lies Sleeping
So perhaps he's not modern enough for even a Galileo telescope, and he's clearly not modern enough to treat his companions any better than a literal footstool, but this Prince, in his latest skinny-jean fashion-pants, has caught sight of something he likes and he's going to change everyone's plans by making that his new adventure. (His horse doesn't care - he found a good crop of grass and is going for it.)

His advisors are estimating the distance to the walls, not looking happy about the setting sun and the terrain between them and the prince's new ambition. To complicate matters, they all seem to have different ideas about which direction to take is best. The dogs only care about their dinner, which the guy who fell down the hill a little was holding.

Meanwhile, the prince's buddies are tooting their own horns - literally - while trying not to tear their own fashion-pants on the twisted dead tree branches that are stopping them from falling over the edge of the cliff. And all this as the wind is getting stronger and flopping their sun hats and fripperies around, making it clear their fashion choices for this venture have leaned toward hazardous.

 Cut all the boring bits about the Prince hacking his way through to the princess.. but wait: is this even the same guy? Maybe not. Which, would make sense, considering the scene above. And frankly, that's fine. He's dressed more appropriately for finding a princess and declaring himself to also be royal (the crowns make the theme kinda obvious: 'Princess Alert!'. If they could have been flashing, perhaps they would):
The Prince Discovers the Princess and Wakes Her With a Kiss
So Sleeping Beauty wakes up and although she's aged well for a hundred years, she's not sixteen anymore. (Hopefully that's a good thing.) Not sure when she got moved from the tower with the open window to this fancy boudoir but room theme should make it obvious she's got good breeding, even if her nightie is outdated and she speaks in medieval-ese.

The dog isn't completely sure he approves of this hand kissing business, though the princess is doing her best to be gracious (despite that what she really wants is a glass of water to rinse her mouth out, or maybe just a bathroom and some privacy). The prince isn't exactly sure he's doing the right thing either, all the while, keeping a close eye on that dog, who clearly believes he has dibs on princess-cuddles, and can you blame him?

And where is everyone else? That part isn't clear. Maybe their stasis spells weren't as effective as the one on the princess, but that's OK. As long as she's there, and can take that heavy crown off her head at some point really soon, all's good, right? The look on the princess' face says she has other thoughts about that though...

And so her real story begins...
[End of non-official, non-researched commentary.]

Note: Léon Bakst is probably best known for his association with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and his opulent and inventive costume designs, that influenced the fashion and design world at large. He also created set designs and backgrounds for ballets but these Sleeping Beauty panels he created (aka The Sleeping Princess in the Wood), on commission for James de Rothschild in 1913 and finished in 1923,  seem largely unknown outside the art world, apart from the woken princess panel. (His costume designs for Diaghilev's Tchaikovsky production were rendered in 1921.) The paintings are from an era when people took their time looking at paintings, discovering details and aspects included at the artist's whim and own commentary. We just felt these panels included so many unusual elements that it was worth sharing our own commentary, because, after all, the eye of the beholder is where Beauty's true state is. ;)


  1. I love your commentary on these panels. You have made me laugh. Thanks for sharing them. I never heard of them and I'm glad to discover something new.

  2. This made me laugh. You should do more of these :)

  3. Delightful commentary! Thanks for pointing out all the strange little details:)

  4. Haha. Body odour in newbie fairies - one of the untold difficulties in the realm of fae. :D Have you ever seen Moritz von Schwind's cycle of Cinderella paintings? They have some Sleeping Beauty medallions set above them. Not nearly as elaborate as these, but amusing nonetheless.

  5. Reblogging this on Quill and Qwerty - hope that's okay.