For my latest interview, I sit down with Dr Marie Mulvey-Roberts (UWE) and Fiona Robinson (RWA) to talk with them about their co-curated exhibition at Bristol’s RWA, Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter.
Caleb Sivyer: Could you begin by telling me about the genesis of this exhibition? Where did the original idea come from and what were your initial thoughts and wishes? For example, did you always plan to have both contemporary and classic pieces on display?
Marie Mulvey-Roberts: It goes back to 2010 when I was planning to do something on Carter in Bristol for the 20th anniversary since her death. I had an idea for a kind of circus theme with wild and colourful aerial installations at the Watershed or Arnolfini or even at the City museum in Bristol, which is visited by a character in her first novel, a painter who contemplates two of the exhibits, still there today – the gypsy caravan and the Irish elk. I liked the idea of visitors stepping into her fiction from the real world. But then when time ran out, I decided instead to look ahead to the 25th anniversary in 2017. My colleague Charlotte Crofts at UWE, told me about an art film which Carter had made. Charlotte was the first person to write about it in her book Anagrams of Desire, and the notion of an art exhibition popped up, the starting point of which was to get hold of original paintings from the film.
Fiona Robinson: Yes, the initial idea for an Angela Carter exhibition came from Marie and she submitted a proposal to the Royal West of England Academy (RWA) Exhibition Advisory Group who accepted it. The current policy of the RWA and one which works really well is to show both historical works and contemporary works at the same time thus extending the reach of the exhibition to appeal to visitors who have different interests. I was invited by the RWA to curate the contemporary section of the exhibition because I have both a wide knowledge of contemporary art through my writing on that subject and my background in Art History and good contacts with contemporary gallerists and dealers through my own practice.
CS: Why was the RWA chosen and why Bristol? Can you talk about Carter’s connection to both of these?
“Carter started her writing career in Bristol and set three of her novels in the city, known as the Bristol trilogy. She also wrote The Magic Toyshop here (now made into a film) and Heroes and Villains, which appears to have reflected the time she spent studying English at the University of Bristol” (Marie Mulvey-Roberts).
MMR: The then President of the Royal West of England Academy (RWA), Jeanette Kerr, suggested to me that the galleries would be a good venue for the show, so I approached Director Alison Bevan. I had wanted to draw attention to a forgotten decade in Carter’s life, the 1960s, spent mostly in Bristol. She lived in Clifton where the RWA is located and so it made sense to have the exhibition in this stunningly beautiful building. It also seemed a female friendly space having been founded by a generous female patron, the artist Ellen Sharples and has a sizeable collection of paintings by women. This tradition continues with the current director, who is also a woman. Carter started her writing career in Bristol and set three of her novels in the city, known as the Bristol trilogy. She also wrote The Magic Toyshop here (now made into a film) and Heroes and Villains, which appears to have reflected the time she spent studying English at the University of Bristol. It was not until the week before the exhibition opened that I did some research and made the immensely satisfying discovery that she had actually studied art in the very same building where we were about to hold the exhibition.
CS: What was the process of finding, borrowing and commissioning like? Were there any surprises or difficulties along the way? Did the exhibition change much in the process of putting it together?
MMR: I started by re-reading Carter’ work and her archive at the British Library, noting down her references to art and artists and researching artists whose work resonated with hers. I met with artists and lenders. I compiled a list of around 120 paintings in order of preference. Tracking down the provenance was time-consuming. For that I mainly used the internet though I did draw on art books and talked to curators and art dealers. Once a loan was agreed with Fiona and the Exhibitions Curator Gemma, I researched the artist and the painting in more detail for a rationale explaining why it was important for the exhibition and how it reflected or corresponded to Carter’s work. It was a euphoric moment for us all when I managed to get the Chagall. There was also a huge sense of relief when my request for the Holman Hunt, amongst others, came through. One of the main reasons why requests were refused was because the work in question had been promised elsewhere or had recently been on loan, making some curators reluctant to let it out of the stable again so soon. There were other setbacks along the way. For instance, I had been keen for us to exhibit a fairy painting by Richard Dadd and spent a long time researching him and visiting galleries, but to no avail. The painting I most wanted to borrow had been spirited away long ago by the art market and had not been seen for decades: whereabouts unknown. This was his Come Unto these Yellow Sands, the title of Carter’s radio play about Richard Dadd. But I did manage to borrow Joseph Noel Paton’s magnificent fairy painting, a scene from Midsummer Night’s Dream, Carter’s favourite Shakespeare play, which connects with her last novel Wise Children. Another frustration was not being able to get any of Frieda Kahlo’s work, since most of it is in Mexico and we could only borrow work from the UK. Fiona joined in the hunt. Carter had popularised Kahlo in Britain when she brought out a box of postcard reproductions of her paintings, but I did manage to obtain the art work of her friend and fellow-painter Leonora Carrington, who had also lived in Mexico, and that made up for it.
“It was a euphoric moment for us all when I managed to get the Chagall” (Marie Mulvey-Roberts).
FR: For me the process of sourcing the contemporary works in the exhibition started with what art works and artists sprang to mind when the exhibition was proposed. I then did internet searches, checked out galleries, initially ones I knew of that dealt in edgy work like Charlie Smiths in London, and then widened that search by going to Art Fairs where hundreds of galleries exhibit. I saw Heather Nevay’s work at the London Art Fair and having requested one small work, The Murder, went on to commission a larger piece, The Lesson, from her. Thanks to Andrew Kelly, the Director of the Festival of Ideas, The Arts Council gave us a grant which I split four ways to commission work from four artists. The other three commissioned works were Untitled Forest by Sarah Woodfine, Tessa Farmer’s installation The Forest Assassins and Wendy Mayer’s powerful sculpture of two baby’s heads in a vase, The Parting Gift.
All of the artists who were approached were keen to be involved in the show and I went for a combination of big names like Ana Maria Pacheco, the Irish artist Alice Maher and Eileen Cooper and less well-know artists. But the selection was always driven by a desire to show work which paralleled Angela Carter’s ideas, rather than illustrating them. Borrowing from contemporary artists is relatively straightforward since you are dealing either with the artists or their gallery and there are no issues around payment for the reproduction of images for example. Only one work, Wendy Elia’s Maxime, came from a public collection and that too was a very unproblematic loan. Securing the Ana Maria Pacheco The Banquet was a real coup although initially I had requested the whole of the three-part installation comprising Some exercise of Power, The Acrobats as well as The Banquet. However it transpired that because of the weight we could not show The Acrobats on the first floor so the decision was made to just some one element of it. In the event The Banquet fills the room and is extremely powerful.
“[T]he selection was always driven by a desire to show work which paralleled Angela Carter’s ideas, rather than illustrating them” (Fiona Robinson).
The historical work was more difficult since there is a long run up time with requesting work from museums and major collections so you have to decide more than a year in advance what you want and then are faced with the problem that if that loan is turned down there isn’t time to get something from somewhere else. It was always necessary to have a plan B in terms of being prepared to compromise with the first choice and source works that were available. Some loans were confirmed very late. Karl Wescke’s Leda and the Swan needed expensive restoration and the cost was going to be prohibitive for the RWA but in the event the lenders contributed to that. However the loan was only actually confirmed a few weeks before the show opened which was nerve-racking.
CS: Which works by Angela Carter inspired the exhibition? And can you describe Carter’s relationship to art? Where does Carter write about art: in her fiction, in her journalism, in her private journals, or all three?
MMR: Carter’s film The Holy Family Album inspired the inclusion of three religious paintings by Stanley Spencer, William Holman Hunt and Arnulf Rainer in a side gallery, which appropriately resembles a Gothic chapel. The book Carter edited Wayward Girls and Wicked Women has a story by the Surrealist writer and artist Leonora Carrington. As Carter has been seen as a Surrealist in prose, it was important to have Surrealism within the exhibition and Carrington was an obvious choice. I managed to secure a couple of her paintings and the drawing, “I am an Amateur of Velocipedes”, which I associated with Carter’s vampire story in her most well-known collection The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. It shows a man riding a bicycle with an eroticised female figure whose body is fused with the bicycle (her arm extends into a handlebar), trundling along on spokes resembling human bones. In “The Lady of the House of Love”, Carter’s Gothic blood-sucking Sleeping Beauty chateau is visited by the innocent and unwitting Hero, who arrives on a bicycle and imagines spiriting away this pale girlish occupant, presumably on his bicycle. It was a huge bonus to have been given permission to exhibit a typed copy of the manuscript, especially since it is my favourite story! Carter wrote about art in her journalism and there are reviews of exhibitions and of art books reproduced in the posthumous collection of her writings Shaking a Leg, for which Charlotte Crofts turns out to have been the researcher. Carter’s unpublished translation of a French book on sexuality and surrealism can also be found among her private papers. She wrote about art in her letters, where she conveys a deep love for Rembrandt, but unfortunately, his work was out of our reach.
“In ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, Carter’s Gothic blood-sucking Sleeping Beauty chateau is visited by the innocent and unwitting Hero, who arrives on a bicycle and imagines spiriting away this pale girlish occupant, presumably on his bicycle. It was a huge bonus to have been given permission to exhibit a typed copy of the manuscript, especially since it is my favourite story!” (Marie Mulvey-Roberts)
FR: Carter’s novels: Wise Children, The Magic Toyshop and Nights at the Circus seem to have been the most popular with artists who made work specially for the exhibition. The three most referenced stories were ‘The Bloody Chamber’, ‘Company of Wolves’, and ‘The Erl King’.
CS: How does this exhibition represent Angela Carter? What would you say are the dominant qualities of the exhibition?
“Fundamentally [the exhibition] makes concrete the visual quality of her writing and its diversity” (Marie Mulvey-Roberts).
MMR: Fundamentally it makes concrete the visual quality of her writing and its diversity. It includes the work of painters who were important to her, as well as touching on themes in her fiction which reference art. She once said that she had wanted to write like Chagall painted – so we had to have a painting by him. She also loved the pre-Raphaelites, especially Millais’s Ophelia. The artist heroine Annabel in Love, a novel set in Bristol, is obsessed by the figure of Ophelia and we managed to get hold of a haunting holograph of the drowning Ophelia by the Bristol artist and performers, Davy and Kristin McGuire. Then there were artists who have been associated with Carter, most notably Paula Rego, whose representations of women are both bookish and bold. Her illustrations of Jane Eyre put me in mind of the sequel to the Brontë novel, which Carter planned but never lived long enough to write. There are two of Rego’s book illustrations in the show, “Him” and “Moth”, from Blake Morrison’s book of poems, Pendle Witches (1996). The first is of an encounter between a girl and a man with a wolf’s head, which is evocative of Carter’s “The Company of Wolves”. The second shows a woman resembling a large doll straddling a wooden chest, as a doll-like child holds onto her frock with its frilly petticoat. The poem is about a moth, “this ghost of the wardrobe”, whose fur resembles the ermine it flies into and who is compared to a flighty woman. Rego’s aquatint gives the viewer the impression of looking back into the past, like a sepia-tinted aged photograph, or even of peering back into the woman’s childhood. Through her fairy stories for adults, Carter, like Rego, brings the worlds of the adult and child closer together. Rego’s The Artist in her Studio is indicative of Carter’s interest in women artists, and the number of women artists in this exhibition, unusually far out-number that of male artists.
“Rego’s The Artist in her Studio is indicative of Carter’s interest in women artists, and the number of women artists in this exhibition, unusually far out-number that of male artists” (Marie Mulvey-Roberts).
FR: Apart from the items which belonged to Angela Carter or which predate her, the work in the show reveals in some way or another a response to Carter either as defined by the artists or identified by the curators. The significance of this exhibition lies in its ability to reveal to a new generation of readers the extent of Carter’s influence on cultural thinking and feminism. Her highly original way of writing and use of language has not just influenced writers who came after her but, together with her very visual storytelling, has been a gift to artists. The contemporary work is edgy, hard-hitting and uncompromising, and parallels a similar disregard for the niceties of polite society and acceptable behaviour in Carter’s writing.
“The significance of this exhibition lies in its ability to reveal to a new generation of readers the extent of Carter’s influence on cultural thinking and feminism” (Fiona Robinson).
CS: A number of works on display in the exhibition were directly inspired by Carter’s writings. Why do you think she has spoken to these artists and inspired them to respond? Have any of the artists vocalised this with either of you?
FR: Carter’s iconoclastic attitude seems to appeal to contemporary artists. The richness of her narratives and her alternative views of social interaction and family relationships was always likely to appeal to a certain anarchic seam in artists’ work particularly in work which is political. Many artists, from whom I sourced work for the exhibition, had read Carter in their student days. Others reading it for the first time, were similarly entranced by her powers of description, her idiosyncratic use of language and her fearlessness in tackling subjects which were taboo for other writers.
“Carter’s iconoclastic attitude seems to appeal to contemporary artists. The richness of her narratives and her alternative views of social interaction and family relationships was always likely to appeal to a certain anarchic seam in artists’ work” (Fiona Robinson).
Tessa Farmer has spoken about the way she used both ‘The Erl-King’ and ‘The Company of Wolves’ as inspiration for her installation The Forest Assassins. She says that, “The piece evokes the unsettling stillness of the woods and their lurking threats that can engulf you.” The title of the installation came from this quote in “The Company of Wolves”: “But those eyes are all you will be able to glimpse of the forest assassins as they cluster invisibly round your smell of meat as you go through the wood unwisely late. They will be like shadows, they will be like wraiths, grey members of a congregation of nightmare”. Wendy Mayer, whose startling sculpture Not Waving but Drowning, a life-size baby dressed in rags, trapped in a box, commented that although she was not conscious of the influence of Carter on her work, in retrospect she could see the parallels.
CS: Might this exhibition change our view of Angela Carter and her work, and if so, how? And what has her legacy been so far? How is that legacy changing?
MMR: Tellingly, Carter revealed that her working method was to start with the images, and then “grope” for the words. So here we have gone full circle in a way by going back from word to image. The exhibition should make people more aware of the importance of art and the visual to her life and work and encourage them to see another side to her as a writer. Her legacy has often been limited to her use of fairy tales, but there is far more to her than that. Her interests were wide-ranging and included art, music and philosophy, etc… To the discerning, these are also detectable within her fairy-tales themselves. Carter’s multi-disciplinarity is now being explored by scholars which is indicative of how her legacy continues to evolve.
“Carter revealed that her working method was to start with the images, and then “grope” for the words. So here we have gone full circle in a way by going back from word to image” (Marie Mulvey-Roberts).
FR: I am not sure that it will change people’s perceptions of Angela Carter but it, along with the 25th anniversary, is likely to see her work becoming popular with a new generation of readers and also result in people re-reading her work. In fact Eileen Cooper, whose work Tail of the Tiger is in the show, said about Carter: “Her writing is image rich, which I adore. In fact I am going to reread them all!”
CS: Can you pick a favourite piece from the exhibition and can you tell me why you chose it?
“Some have told me that there should have been a warning notice about what lies behind the curtain shielding the doorway, which reminded me of the heroine of “The Bloody Chamber” entering the forbidden room, which resembles a torture chamber” (Marie Mulvey-Roberts).
MMR: The Banquet by Ana Maria Pacheco is a very powerful sculpture which takes up an entire gallery consisting of chunky male figures with enormous heads, piercing eyes and real prosthetic human teeth, surrounding a life-size figure of a naked man lying on a table, his body taut, presumably with terror. The lighting is low, the gallery painted a specific grey. The work is open to multiple interpretations, as is Carter’s own work of course. As Pacheco left Brazil in the 1970s at a time of political repression, it is tempting to see this as a representative of political repression. It is a single component of a three-part installation, called Some Exercise of Power. The title of the piece is suggestive of cannibalism and the family resemblance of the figures is indicative of in-breeding. Carter had once said that the two great themes of the Gothic are cannibalism and incest. It is also possible to see the prostrate figure as a symbol of religious sacrifice. Carter was a very political, ardently anti-religious and demythologising writer and this installation can be seen to embody the cruelty and fear of a repressive ideology, projected onto a powerless individual. Many visitors find it a disturbing and even shocking encounter with an inner, as well as an outer, darkness. Some have told me that there should have been a warning notice about what lies behind the curtain shielding the doorway, which reminded me of the heroine of “The Bloody Chamber” entering the forbidden room, which resembles a torture chamber.
“Carter was a very political, ardently anti-religious and demythologising writer and this installation can be seen to embody the cruelty and fear of a repressive ideology, projected onto a powerless individual” (Marie Mulvey-Roberts).
FR: Sarah Woodfine’s Castle is one of my favourites. Like many of the pieces in the show it is deceptive. Initially it entrances you because it references those childhood snow globes that you turn upside down and then it snows on the landscape inside. It also has the romanticism of the castle. But then there are other readings. The isolated Castle with its empty landscape and Gothic turrets is sinister as if it is waiting for something to happen. The turrets look like pencils but they are also phallic shapes. Imprisoned in water the castle is trapped, it cannot escape and yet when you view the piece from certain angles it disappears completely!
CS: Can you talk a little about the pieces from Carter’s own life? How were these chosen and why?
“A visitor looking in the display case containing her fountain pen is reported to have said that it represented the single most important part of the exhibition. For me, handling it felt like holding a sacred relic” (Marie Mulvey-Roberts).
MMR: A visitor looking in the display case containing her fountain pen is reported to have said that it represented the single most important part of the exhibition. For me, handling it felt like holding a sacred relic. Its positioning, adjacent to two of Carter’s own art works, quintessentially brings together literature and art, which is what we set out to do throughout the exhibition. It was a real coup to include Carter’s own art work in the show, particularly since it has never before been on public display, and not least because she created art in the very same building. Another important and neglected aspect of Carter’s life and work is her contribution to the folksong revival of the 1960s – unique to the time she spent in Bristol. With her husband music producer, Paul Carter, she founded a folk-club in the city, notated folk songs and helped record for his record label folk singers, preserving their voices before they were lost forever. There is evidence of these activities in a display case, above which are head-phones bringing back from 1967 the eerie sound of Carter singing and playing the English concertina (you can hear an extract which accompanies an interview I did on Front Row for Radio 4). This is the only known recording of her singing and playing and was made possible with the help of Chris Molan, whose painting of Angela singing with her husband Paul is also on display there too. I succeeded in getting originals of the first appearance in print of “The Company of Wolves” and “The Erl-King” in the form of Bananas, a literary magazine, prior to their publication in her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, and a copy of the exquisitely illustrated book version of Carter’s tale “The Tiger’s Bride”, brought out posthumously. The artist is Corinna Sargood, Carter’s most well-known illustrator (there are several others in the show too) and we are so pleased that she lent us so much of her work and came along to the preview. It was a privilege to have been able to display the tropically-themed screen which Corinna painted for the celebration of Carter’s life following her premature death on 16 February 1992 and to have a copy on display of one of the invitations which she also drew and designed.
“Corinna Sargood, Carter’s most well-known illustrator […] lent us so much of her work and came along to the preview” (Marie Mulvey-Roberts).
CS: What do you imagine Carter would have made of the exhibition, had she lived to see it?
MMR: People who knew Carter assure me that she would have been pleased with it. As for the location, she had left Bristol, the folk scene and her first marriage far behind for pastures new. The one time we met, I invited her back to the city, which she refused in no uncertain terms, and that has made me feel a bit uneasy about bringing her back, as it were, through the exhibition, but I hope that she wouldn’t have minded.
FR: I hope she would have liked it and been intrigued by it. She would no doubt have loved seeing the Chagall since he was a painter which she was fond of.
CS: What has the reaction been like, from Angela Carter fans, experts and those not acquainted with her writing?
MMR: The praise has been incredible. I never anticipated that it would have the response it has had. It has been quite over-whelming at times and fantastic that it has encouraged people to re-read her work and others to read it for the first time. That is exactly what I had hoped for.
FR: The reaction to the show across all types of visitors has been amazing with lots of very positive remarks about how exciting it is. It has had a lot of attention on social media and Anna McNay wrote a glowing review in Studio International.
CS: There have been a number of related events, such as the Fireworks conference and a concert. Were these events all planned at the same time? How did this broad range of events come together?
MMR: It has generated so much creativity, some planned, some not. Carter is such an important writer, that I was determined to organise an international conference rather than hold a relatively small and more localised symposium. As a result, the conference attracted delegates from around the world – Japan (where Carter lived for a few years and which had an immense influence on her work), USA, Australia, Switzerland, Sweden, France, Portugal, etc… The conference lived up to its title “Fireworks: The Visual Imagination of Angela Carter” (taken incidentally from a book of her short stories, many inspired by Japan) with excellent papers and discussions. For the final session, Charlotte and I arranged a unique and one-off installation, which consisted of her mini cinema theatre which she had built called The Fleapit, projecting films which we commissioned specially for the conference from around the world. For this, we hired the Dark Studio at the Arnolfini UWE City Campus, on the second day of the conference, where we also exhibited Layla Holzer’s Magic Theatre (she led a workshop at the RWA on Shadow Puppets on Sat 18 Feb) and screened Carter’s The Holy Family Album as a silent backdrop to the discussion Charlotte and I had with the producer John Ellis. After the conference ended, we moved from the Dark Studio to the real darkness outside for a group photo on the waterfront with delegates holding sparklers – fireworks indeed!
FR: The RWA normally stages some sort of conference or symposium with all its major exhibitions. The Fireworks Conference was put on the schedule early on in the process and at a later date UWE took it on and the bulk of it was organised by Marie and Charlotte Crofts. The concert by New Music in the South West was organised by their director Julian Leeks as part of their regular programme of commissioning composers to respond to art works. Other events happened in response to the exhibition and not planned in advance. The book signing and talks that Marie and I gave at Waterstones Piccadilly were set up by Sansom who published the Catalogue of the exhibition and the Art History in the Pub was organised by the Association of Art Historians in Bristol.
CS: What other Angela Carter events can people look forward to in the future, in Bristol or elsewhere?
MMR: I am helping to organise a folk concert in the gallery on Sunday 5 March 2.00-4.00 with Chris Molan, the artist and folk-singer, who was a great friend of Angela Carter. This will be a tremendously exciting event as it brings together people who sang with Carter, for the first time in 50 years. I will be doing the very final readings on the last day of the exhibition on 19 March at 3.00 followed by my last curator’s tour. These will be from “The Lady of the House of Love” and “The Loves of Lady Purple” – two undead femme fatales – a vampire, and a puppet who comes back to life. For more information about this and other events, see the website I built with Charlotte Crofts – getangelacarter.com.
FR: Sarah Woodfine, who is exhibiting in the exhibition, is doing a special weekend drawing workshop on the 11th and 12th March.
CS: Thank you both for your time and for a wonderful discussion.
Marie Mulvey-Roberts is Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of West of England, Bristol. Marie’s research interests range widely, from eighteenth-century literature to Gothic Romanticism, especially Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and from human rights issues to Angela Carter. Marie is the author of several books, including Dangerous Bodies: Historicising the Gothic Corporeal (Manchester University Press, 2016), and she is editor of The Handbook of the Gothic (Palgrave, 2009) and Literary Bristol: Writers and the City (Redcliffe, 2015). Marie is currently editing a book called The Arts of Angela Carter: A Cabinet of Curiosities for Manchester University Press. She is also the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the journal Women’s Writing.
Fiona Robinson is a British artist whose primary practice is drawing. Her works “reference landscape, architectural spaces, music and literature focusing on the relationship between repetition, process and denouement across different art forms”. Her past projects include “site-specific drawings commissioned by The National Trust for High Cross House, Dartington and drawings centered on the repetition in a short story, La Plage by the French Nouveau Roman writer Alain Robbe Grillet”. Her recent work “prioritises music looking at the interaction between sound, mark-making and diverse drawing materials”. Fiona has won numerous prizes, including the Drawing Prize at the Royal West of England Academy Open Exhibition, Bristol (2011), First Prize in the University of Bath Painting Prize (2007), and third prize at the 4th International Biennale of Drawing in Sydney, Australia (2007). She was elected an Academician of the Royal West of England Academy in 2012 and is a Fellow of the Ballinglen Arts Foundation Co. Mayo. For information about Fiona’s work, head over to the RWA profile page here or to Fiona’s own official website here.
For more details of all the associated events at the RWA, head over to their website by clicking here. To find out more about Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter, click here. Finally, for news about all the events that are taking place as part of the Get Angela Carter festival, head over to the official website here.