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"The Wonderful Art of Oz".

"The Wonderful Art of Oz" at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Amherst, Massachusetts. July 11, 2006--October 22, 2006

William Wallace Denslow's illustrations for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) bleed pictures across full pages and taunt the frame with chiseled, lacy, intervening images. His pen led him, at the turn of the twentieth century, to places other children's illustrators wouldn't go. So did his liking for asymmetry and for the unfettered use of color at a time when the children's genre did less with little.

The sardonic wit of Denslow--a sometime dandy and hard drinker--shod the doleful Tin Woodman with spats (look closely) and gave the important oilcan double duty as a cocktail glass. He was brave enough to make Dorothy, the heroine, appear ugly. He had the gall to compete with the author himself on many a page of Oz, where a curtain of fibrous lines and drenching hues would descend to swaddle L. Frank Baum's words. Denslow may need no defending now, even though for years American librarians caviled at his moral and stylistic license.

In Michael Patrick Hearn's show at the Carle Museum in Amherst, Denslow's pictures remained bold as ever, yet now with strange new bedfellows on hand: Oz disciples, Oz dissenters. Among those, Andy Warhol's 1981 silkscreen mug shot of a ripsnorting Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West from the 1939 movie stood out. With fat black marks Warhol circled and underlined elements of evil on her torrid appearance. Denslow, as well as Baum, was surely capable of that kind of satirical swagger, too. Was the slaying of the witch with a mere pail of water anything more?

Even if Warhol and Denslow may not seem like heaven-sent sidekicks, the show spelled out interesting unforeseen kinships, like theirs. At the same time, it would be fair to say that Oz disciples at times forget that Baum and Denslow's originality came from composing an entirely new kind of fairy tale, as they themselves well knew. In their wake, latter-day fairy tales--and artists--look conventional, sometimes sadly so.

Of that school, Trina Schart Hyman's contemporary illustrations were the most cloyingly limited. Although Hyman has been heard to complain of the first Oz book's do-gooder drift (just wear the silver slippers, dear, like the Witch of the North told you to), her overwrought and under-thought pictures reveal an indifference to a complex original.

The most startling and original inheritor of Denslow in Hearn's show was Lisbeth Zwerger. Though this Viennese painter did not teethe on Oz like some of us, her rendering of the famous poppy-field scene is enticingly austere, like Klimt astray. Whereas Denslow's zigzagging vitality embodied horizontal range, her squeezed verticality brings poppies teetering to crowd Baum's voyagers with a blankness that could kill. The Carle Museum made her 1996 retelling of the complete Oz tale available for bystanders to finger. Anyone who did so found that Zwerger's version reversed Denslow's approach ingeniously: while visually emphasizing text by laying it out in densely somber two-column pages, this elegant book restores art as a leading surprise.

Beside Zwerger, the prolific John R. Neill, who illustrated countless Oz sequels with pomp, comes across as a problematic champ. Nonetheless, Neill could not quite see past his own versatile talent, as if never certain that he could draw well enough in Denslow's footsteps. Instead of searching for the Oz outside of him, or inside of him, Neill settled for his own virtuosity as his main subject.

Searching for an Oz of their own, others begin to reach it partly by paying homage to their precursor. Charles Santore's careening color double-spreads take their cue from Denslow's, and bring a Broadway verve to an old ensemble. Barry Moser's black-and-white wood engravings recall Denslow's graphic brilliance in a very different style and mood: cramped late Puritan anomie, with political intentions (his Wicked Witch resembles Nancy Reagan). Chris Van Allsburg's cyclone in brown pastel is as strikingly mundane-and as true--as yesterday's nightmare, or as Denslow's prairie. I was sorry, I'll admit, not to see Oz visions and revisions by Michael McCurdy or Bruce Nygren on view. But the artists in Amherst mostly gave Denslow good company.

--Molly McQuade
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Author:McQuade, Molly
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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