Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Magic Worlds Exhibit at V&A Children's Museum

'Fairy Queen' Cinderella dancing doll in original box, England 1955

Wouldn't you know that I learned about this one after my visit to London? Drat...
 From the V&A Children's Museum website:

Magic Worlds
8 October 2011 - 4 March 2012

Delve into the realms of fantasy, illusion and enchantment with our major new exhibition revealing how magic has been embraced for hundreds of years.

Magicians were and are held in high regard, some as popular entertainers and some as higher beings. From the Indian rope trick to Derren Brown’s modern take on illusion, adults and children alike have always been in awe of magic and its practitioners.

Magic Worlds explores the world of fairy tales and fantasy literature, the history and origins of magic and how themes of magic have influenced many artists and writers. The exhibition takes the visitor on a journey into miniature magical worlds, complete with witches, wizards, fairies and magical creatures. Objects on display include costumes, tricks and illusions, film merchandise, optical toys, paintings and ceramics, otherworldly dolls and puppets and illustrated books, together with interactive hands-on activities.

A world of marvellous tales and exciting adventures. To enter a fantasy world is to step outside reality and expect things to be different. Fairy stories are pure fantasy. These are old tales passed down originally by word of mouth and later collected together by people such as Charles Perrault and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

Fantasy literature started in the mid 19th century. Some of these stories are about completely separate worlds - some that exist in their own right, like Middle Earth, and some, like Narnia, that ordinary people step into. In others, the real and fantasy worlds exist side by side, as in the Harry Potter books, operating for the most part exclusive of each other.

This is a world where you cannot believe your eyes. People have always been fascinated by illusion and trickery. Optical devices, particularly in the 19th century, used scientific principles and were designed to both educate and entertain. They are still as intriguing today.

Magicians and magic have long been associated with Eastern countries. The tricks of Indian street markets were brought back to England during the 19th century and quickly gained a foothold in the world of variety theatre. Magicians became the film stars of their day and performed to the highest in the land. Today magic as spectacle has become commonplace and magicians appear regularly on television.

This is a world of magical creatures and beings. It is above all a place of the imagination.

People can experience wonder in everyday life but still actively seek it out in the worlds of fantasy and magic. Fairies and other magical figures inspire artists to produce work that can be beautiful or sinister, or both, reflecting the different aspects of enchantment.

Fairies, elves and pixies are usually regarded as kind creatures associated with the natural world. Witches and dragons generally belong to the darker side of magic. Other figures, such as wizards, mermaids and unicorns, lie somewhere in between.

Picture cubes, depicting a variety of fairy stories, Czechoslovakian, c.1930

And from Magic Worlds? The Museum of Childhood's show lives up to its billing: From Dürer to Harry Potter, an exhibition about the relationship between folk tradition and childhood comes up trumps by Jonathan Jones:

With great lightness of touch, Magic Worlds explores how folk traditions have interacted with the culture of childhood. It includes an early 19th-century painting of Cinderella by George Cruikshank, various editions of the fairytale collections of Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, and ... Lego Harry Potter.

The Museum of Childhood is actually an outpost of the V&A, and I love the way this exhibition draws on the V&A collection – and loans including Derren Brown's props – to offer a genuinely rich exploration of its subject. It shows the ways magical beliefs become magical fictions, how fairytales evolved into fantasy literature, and how real superstition merges into conjuring tricks. Another fascinating exhibit is a 16th-century book on witchcraft that includes a depiction of the fairground trick known as the beheading of John the Baptist – a Tudor version of the modern magic trick of the assistant sawn in half.

I don't want to give a false impression of this show: it is no blockbuster. But it is an unpretentious, free, family exhibition at a museum whose main galleries are a treasure trove of historic toys. I learned more from it – and got more genuine pleasure from some of its exhibits – than many massively promoted, self-consciously intellectual events where children are encouraged to shush, instead of being invited to run about dressed as fairies. It continues through the winter, so if you missed it at Halloween it will add to the magic of the Christmas season.

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