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It is a tale passed down through the ages, a prophetic conjuring of man's most basic instincts, a dreamy lullaby in some retellings, a nightmare in others. In written form Cinderella dates back to the ninth century--by 1893, Marian R. Cox had catalogued 345 variations, among them the familiar Charles Perrault version, published in France in 1697. Since then, endless reworkings have appeared, sparking all manner of rumination and elucidation on the significance of the little girl from the ashes. She has become the fodder for psychoanalytic inquiry and the stuff of pop-psychology success (see Colette Dowling's 1980s tome The Cinderella Complex).

While it is true that upon close examination the story reveals a measure of psychological overdetermination (it's full of sibling rivalry, fetishistic behavior, and various lacks) and while it may also be read as a contemporary narrative about identity, gender, the dysfunctional family, and the universal quest for recognition, it is perhaps most striking that in this age of overextended discourse, of reading and rereadings, the tale remains intact. Cinderella and her posse--Little Red Riding Hood, Thumbelina, Hansel and Gretel, et al.--have withstood the barrage of theoretical examination. That the story has survived this onslaught is testimony to the strength of its roots in the fundamental desire to be revealed, celebrated, loved for one's true self.

And now the world's best-known fairy tale can be found in an enchanting edition illustrated with photographs by William Wegman. Wegman gracefully extracts Cinderella from the world of theoretical/critical exegesis and returns it to a place where the imagination alights and the bounds of real and unreal bend like images in a fun-house mirror. The photographs feature Ella, a cinder-colored weimaraner, in the title role and other members of her family as supporting players. The use of the dogs--from Ella dressed in a ragged frock, scrub brush and bucket in paw, to the fully realized characterization of her canine stepmother, complete with human hair and an orange chiffon dress a la Great Neck--is a perfect device to free the story from previous conceptions and open it to less predetermined readings. That one can easily project a wide range of emotion and affect onto the dogs (all except Ella furnished with human hands and arms) encourages the viewer to engage with the narrative on many levels.

As photographs, these are first-rate Wegmans, fully realized and richly colored, combining backdrops that borrow effects from the artist's recent paintings with a nearly baroque attention to fabric and detail. Highly attentive to the demands of the narrative, magically playful and inescapably human, this is truly a book for both adults and children.

Cindy Sherman's moody Fitcher's Bird contrasts sharply with Wegman's seductive volume. Based on the Brothers Grimm tale of a wicked wizard who captures young girls, then chops them to pieces and throws them into a cauldron when they fail to obey his orders, Fitcher's Bird is filled with kidnapping, domination, and abuse--all overcome by the smart, lucky girl who outwits the evil wizard in the end. While this fairy tale addresses profound questions about the convolutions of the human psyche, what is particularly frightening about Sherman's version is that it all too accurately reflects a moment in our society when these nightmares often come true. These photographs are dark, distant, and grotesque, in keeping with the artist's themes of horror, fragmentation, and dismemberment. Fitcher himself is portrayed as Mansonesque, deranged and unkempt.

Unfortunately, the photographs seen here lack the stunning clarity of Sherman's most recent gallery show. In this case, the theatrical artifice employed so distances the viewer from the narrative that it becomes difficult to engage the work as a whole--the parts don't pull together as the plot requires. However, in that they further Sherman's documentation of our psychic lives, they are of interest. One also wonders who the intended audience is: Fitcher's Bird cannot really be considered the stuff of bedtime stories--unless the goal is to raise a young Jeffrey Dahmer.

That both Sherman and Wegman are working within the bounds of the fairy tale, albeit at different ends of the spectrum, reaffirms the power of these legends, the magical way in which they allow us to see ourselves and to live (un)happily ever after.

A. M. Homes reviews regularly for Artforum. Her novel, In a Country of Mothers, was just published by Alfred A. Knopf.
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Author:Homes, A.M.
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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