the Wizarding world

“You have to admit, Dumbledore’s got style.”

The Wizarding world, as revealed to Muggles by J. K. Rowling, has attracted gazillions of book-readers, movie-watchers, fan-fiction-writers, fake-Quidditch-players and wistful Wannabe-Wizards, whose rampant (sometimes rabid) enthusiasm  is testament to the unprecedented popularity of the Harry Potter stories.  Although most people ascribe the wonder of magic as the thread that not only links the stories together but also has a stranglehold on fans’ imaginations (not to mention their wallets), it’s actually a larger idea of the quality of life in the Wizarding world that is to credit for their success. It’s a matter of Wizarding taste.

Rowling’s descriptions of the environments in which her stories are set are terrifically engaging, as are their cinematic representations.  But it’s not just the storytelling that draws in readers; it’s the particular quality of the world on which she reports: one with a clear aesthetic preference that even Muggles can understand, since it is part of their history, too.  It is a direct echo of the forward-yet-backward-looking taste that bubbled up in England for a few decades starting around 1850.  Backward in that it intentionally ignored many, if not most, of the period’s technological innovations, forward in its democratization of art-making.  This is the movement that slips back and forth between a new appreciation for medieval art and architecture, the invention of a bold polychromatic Gothic revival, and the blossoming of the Arts and Crafts.  What these related-but-distinct ideas have in common is their rejection of the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution and abhorrence for its poofy “Victorian” consumption and taste, and their value for art and design that manifests of the unique qualities of individual human spirits.

The nineteenth-century aesthetic that informs the backdrop of the Wizarding World is neither the maneuvering of moviemakers nor the whim of a writer.  It is a revealed world that is parallel to, but simply better than, the one that twenty-first century Muggles inhabit: it’s in better taste.  And there’s a reason for that, a reason with a story of its own, which takes us back to the eighteenth century.

It is of great consequence that this particular set of stories drawn from the Wizarding world is set in Britain, the seat of the Industrial Revolution which began around 1750 in the English midlands (no more than a few hundred miles from Hogwarts, which—as good readers should know—was already established for over seven centuries by the time the first blast furnace was fired up).  During the century (or so) that defined the first phase of the Revolution, Wizards took careful measure of its possibilities and fruits and, unlike Muggles, selectively chose to engage in only part of it—and not because magic could already accomplish what Muggle technology was only then attempting—and this is key.  Wizards use technology too, but are more selective about it, having had the sense to sidestep the ugly side effects of the Revolution.

Why?  Because Wizards are more discriminating.  In short, they are characterized by taste, not haste, and that is the distinction that distinguishes Wizards and Muggles to even a deeper degree than the capacity to do magic.  Haste, speed, efficiency: these are the enemies of taste.  Taste is usually inconvenient; taste requires forethought and reflection.  Wizards accept that, and their world is the richer for it.  This is quite the opposite of the Muggles, who all too often assume that just because a person can do something faster/cheaper/easier, that a person ought to do so.

You recognize the Ravenclaw blue, don’t you?

That kind of thinking led Muggles to adopt the cheap products of the Revolution much more quickly than Wizards did.  Most of the latter aligned themselves with the teachings of John Ruskin (at left), who started publishing right about 1850 (again, coincidence?  we think not), and warned of the dangers inherent in sacrificing the sacred work of the hand to the god of efficiency.  He saw the medieval world as a guide to the modern one in rejecting both industrial manufacture and (in  another branch of this particular rabbit’s hole) the dogmatism of Classicism–both of which enslaved the artist/craftsman and removed true joyous beauty from everyday life.  Although classical taste is present in the Wizarding world,  it manifests very different values than does the medieval/Gothic/Arts and Crafts.  Ruskin’s articulation of the tenants of taste describe the most admirable element within the Wizarding world.  (And not surprisingly, since—spoiler alert!—He belonged to it.)

Surveying the potentials and pitfalls of the Industrial Revolution, the Wizards of the mid- to late-nineteenth century saw that not all was good.  They did appreciate some conveniences (steam trains and multi-decker busses come to mind).  But more often than not, they ignored it, and continued to ignore it, sort of freezing their world and, through the twentieth century and beyond, admitting only those innovations that could achieve an important benefit, but never at the expense of taste.  And thus Wizards are blissfully free of the following mistakes that plague Muggles: telephones, pagers, airport security, drive-throughs, bell bottoms, skinny jeans, the Olive Garden, instant coffee, i-Everythings, cars, expressways, suburbs, urban planning, Brutalism, Abstract Expressionism, plastic, asbestos, reality TV and frozen pot pies.

we would have accessorized differently, but that’s OK

Ruskin’s ideal is evident, to a certain extent, throughout most of the Wizarding World, especially among those whose surroundings are most clearly informed by the natural or vernacular, the artsy-craftsy, the gothic—all of it relevant, workable and delightful in the “modern” world.  No surprise, the heroes of Rowling’s stories exemplify nineteenth-century taste as per Ruskin.  In the archetypal scene to the left, Molly Weasley rushes along Platform 9 ¾, one of the clearest examples of the Wizarding World’s (limited) acceptance of industry (efficiency with no sacrifice of style).  Molly herself is an Arts and Crafts symphony, wrapped in garments that are the product of her own knitting needles (no matter that her hands do not actually touch the needles; her mind is still in control of the production).

comfy: the Burrow

The Weasley family home is also a testament to the commitment the family brings to Arts and Crafts. The Burrow is, by both traditional academic and modernist criteria of judgment, a visual disaster, an aesthetic joke, an artistic catastrophe. But given Arts and Crafts delight in handcraft, in variety and domestic comfort, it is an extraordinary assemblage, a testament to excellent Wizarding taste.

Just compare the Molly’s home to the office of Dolores Umbridge, which is also informed by the nineteenth century, but which presents about as stark a contrast of taste as possible. Here we see more of what Ruskin railed against: the worst of “Victorian” taste.  Everything is over-stuffed, over-wrought, over-done, over-pink (and definitely over-cattified).  All of it, from the draperies to the doilies, mass-produced and lot-dyed to match.  (Except for the animated plates and Dark Magic pen, it’s not too different from the Dursley home, in being a showplace for bland consumption and mob-mentality mass-marketing rather than a place for individual expression of domestic delights.)  Umbridge’s ironic alignment with Muggle fashion is in just as bad taste as her politics.

we must not tell lies: you’ve taught us there is such a thing as too much pink

The Weasley’s identification with handmade, vernacular and Arts and Crafts elements is an informal and individualized manipulation of principles that go back to the Middle Ages, and which are seen most clearly in the most formal and important setting of the books: Hogwarts School.  Built across many centuries, it is a showcase of the many eras of artistic change in Britain from the Saxon to High Gothic periods.  Its foundations can still be discerned in the round-arched Slytherin Dungeon—

the sofas are the creepiest part

in this photo, still waiting for its capitals to be carved.  The later inspiration of early Gothic is visible in the more noble Gryffindor Common Room—

Beauxbatons wants their tapestry back

—which features nascent pointed arches and a tapestry that the Musée National du Moyen Age in Paris thinks it owns.  The flowering of that period is evident in the heart of the building, the Great Hall—

would they still call it a hammerbeam if Wizards don’t swing hammers?

—the symbol of unity within the School.  Although its enchanted ceiling is not “roofed” in the way Muggles understand the word, it is covered in such a manner that is no less lofty, lacy, and ephemeral than the fan vaults that Muggles figured out how to build by the fifteenth century.  Built in a similar time frame, the excellent Study of the Headmasters reveals similar characteristcs—

Gothic + 18th-century gizmos = very cool

—Gothic?  Check.

This stop at the study, seen during the tenure of Albus Dumbledore, suggests the importance of decorative arts to this consideration; Wizard clothing is particularly instructive.  As Prof. Dumbledore (you saw him way up at the top of this post) showed time and again, the best-dressed Wizards are those who adopt the late-nineteenth-century admonition against restrictive, laced-up, body-shaping clothing, in favor of loose, comfortable robes in rich colors that are just as functional when a person is contemplating how to overthrow a Dark Lord as they are when one finds oneself dueling said Dark Lord.  Functional and fashionable—just look at that embroidery!

stand back, or she will blast you with her freakystick

Now on the other hand is the yawn-inspiring, obvious blackblackblackness of the Death Eater, who also tends more toward the fussy trussing of formal dress in the nineteenth century.  Even a barmy cabbage like Bellatrix is always all corseted up.  No wonder she is nutters; blood has not been able to flow properly to her brain since she hit puberty.

Bellatrix brings up another point: it is a truth through all history, that cultural values are revealed not only by what a civilization makes and builds, but also by what it destroys.  Case in point: here is the darling who laid waste to the Great Hall, and who is the poster child for the devastation to be rained down on the whole of Hogwarts in the last battle.  Bellatrix’s destruction (like Umbridge’s decoration) is further evidence of a truth communicated in the stories:  not all Wizards are cut of the Weasley and Dumbledore cloth.  They are given away not only by their willingness to unleash an Unforgiveable Curse, but also by their inexcusable decorative arts.

maybe it’s the dragon’s fault?

The Darkest of Dark Wizards (and other shifty characters) seem to take pleasure in aesthetic categories that Ruskin warns us from.  Although they are never shown in a fully-industrialized setting (and indeed, they do some pretty significant damage to Norman Foster’s Millennium Bridge in London), they often appear in settings that would seem innocuous to the untrained eye; but would set off a Sneakoscope attuned to decorative arts.  In addition to the stuffy Umbridgian interior, the simillary oppressive language of Classicism, in all its forms and iterations is a sign of potential treachery.  Witness Gringotts Wizarding Bank which, while not evil in and of itself, is a symbol of authority conveyed through a woppyjaw wizadish version of Classicism while attempting to mask the shady character of the goblins who run the place.

grim even without Kreacher

More specifically however, it is the Dark families who are associated most directly with this idiom.  Witness the Black family home, Number 12, Gimmauld Place.  It is a grim old Georgian place indeed.  However, it is worth noting that it must have been the city home for the Blacks, as it is relatively small for such a prestigious and ancient family, and built only in the later eighteenth century.  The Black country house must have been older, and of a different style, perhaps like Malfoy Manor.  That manse, which appears from the exterior to have been built in that unfortunate “Elizabethan” period that blends High Gothic and Renaissance features, must have been “updated” in a later period, as seen through interior views of the Great Room (see below), which received a Classical makeover as a more appropriate setting for creepy Death Eater festivities.  Wizarding theory of the Orders must assume that the curve of the volute in those Ionic capitals is not the symbol of a woman’s curled hair, but rather is the coil of the snake.

“Draco, don’t you know that Vitruvius was a filthy Mudblood?”  “But Father, that’s not what my architecture history professor said!”  “She’s a filthy Mudblood, too!”  “But she has a Ravenclaw t-shirt!”

Of course there are variances within this matrix, oddities that, by breaking the rules, would seem to disprove them.  But the murky quality of certain, select characters in the Wizarding World—as in the Muggle one as well—, reveals only the aesthetic complexity of both.  And no more significant person embodies, and is embedded with, this contradictory aesthetic nature than Severus Snape.  Where does Snape belong?  Is he the shifty potions master plotting Harry’s demise in the round-arched, Slytherinesque dungeon?

Saxon Snape?

Is he the virtuous professor striving to impart the intricacies of his challenging subject to his students, whom he meets in the delicately vaulted lecture room?

Gothic Snape?

Is he the Dark villain who stands idly by as humble vernacular homes of goodly half-giants are blasted to oblivion?

Blast-the-vernacular-hut Snape?

Is he the gloomy recluse who maintains his dodgy family home in a crummy industrial town to be near the birthplace of his lost true love?  The richness of diversity among these settings reflects the depth and mystery of Snape, whose taste, as a reflection of his character, resists easy categorization.

Absolute consistency in the exercise of taste is only possible in academic screeds and fictional portrayals, when “characters” are subject to the laws of clarity that are expected of inventors, architects and authors, including those who write fairy tales and architecture theory.  Not in the real world, Wizarding or otherwise.

Even in a crummy workers flat: we always trusted you

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“apostles of beauty” (arts and crafts exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago)

crop morris cray 1885

"Cray" panel (William Morris, ca. 1885)

The new exhibition at the Art Institute (click here for the website) certainly delivers the beauty. Only a biased Modernist or partisan Classicist would fail to find something to love in this show, which is stuffed with furniture, textiles, lithographs, ceramics, metalwork and a dozen other kinds of art, most of it dating from the 1870s to the 1910s, and all of it related one way or another to the Arts and Crafts movement that began in mid-nineteenth-century Britain.

But that vastness of enterprise is part of this imperfect exhibition’s undoing. Its broad sweep goes far beyond the content that appears to be announced in the exhibition’s advertisement as Arts and Crafts from Britain to Chicago. By reading the advertised subtitle, one might expect to see and learn about art and design in those two places and the transmission of ideas between them, and not a collection of Arts and Crafts goods that somehow found their way to area collections. The curators have used the preposition “to” rather broadly; the journey of Arts and Crafts ideals is actually from Britain to a dozen other places in America, and finally to Chicago—but then beyond: the show concludes with Scottish furniture and German criticism. And, although the approach to the Arts and Crafts as a philosophical point of view more than a stylistic movement is valid, the exhibit uses this as an excuse to bring unexpected disciplines into the tent while leaving some we’d expect to find there at the periphery, if not abandoning them out in the cold.

D. G. Rossetti Beata Beatrix 1871

Beata Beatrix (D. G. Rossetti, 1871)

The exhibition begins promisingly enough, with a brief acknowledgement of the movement’s founding fathers: A. W. N. Pugin, John Ruskin, William Morris, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Beatrix, at left, represents all of the Pre-Raphaelites). It’s a brief overview, but reasonably solid, although the suggestion that Pugin’s Catholicism was an excuse for his medievalism is stated in terms that are a little strong. (But more of him later.)

The immediate impact of these progenitors as portrayed in the following room provides the strongest display in the five-part exhibit. Fans of the Arts and Crafts will thrill at the very walls shouting out the glories of the movement with well-known quotes from Morris and C. F. A. Voysey, with some of their famous works close at hand. It’s a wonderful collection, chockfull of things you expect to see in a big Arts and Crafts show: Philip Webb’s iconic Morris chair (see one by clicking here), a range of Voysey and Morris textiles, the Kelmscott Chaucer (see another copy by clicking here), metalwork by M. H. Baillie Scott. And there are some unexpected delights (which is what a big exhibition is supposed to have, right?), like two big Edward Burne-Jones cartoons for stained glass windows (click here). Better yet, the kinds of things I was hoping to see in a Chicago-centric show: Marion Mahony Griffin’s lush renderings (on satin!) of Wright designs and Chicago illustrator Will H. Bradley’s zincographs for the locally-published Chap-Book are delightful and on-point. Also interesting is the small section on Ukiyo-e prints as part of the concurrent “Japanism” in the later nineteenth century, which touches on the influence of Japanese prints in America, specifically among Chicago collectors and the impact of Japanese goods at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 that was followed by a Ukiyo-e exhibition at the Art Institute designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1908. There were enough compelling ideas in that one corner to mount a separate exhibition.

bradley chapbook

Chap-Book (Will Bradley, 1895)

The intellectual clarity and visual thematic purpose so clear in that display fell apart upon crossing the threshold; the rest of the show gave me the distinct impression that the curators had filled out the rest of the exhibition with whatever was lying around upstairs, and/or got tired and forgot what it was they set out to accomplish in the first place. Ostensibly this part of the exhibition was intended to portray the general sweep of Arts and Crafts influence in America, but it was not comprehensive enough to really do that job, nor did it enhance the “Chicago” angle of the exhibit. With the exception of two small pieces by Midwestern jewelers Marie Zimmerman and Mildred Watkins (whose pendant necklace is one of the loveliest objects in the exhibition), the exhibition takes an artistic and intellectual freefall into a realm that includes admittedly nice things (Greene and Greene furniture, Arthur Wesley Dow paintings, more than enough of the Gustav Stickley catalogue), but they do not enhance the Britain/Chicago angle. At all. And their selection seems incredibly hit-or-miss. This is especially true of the display of some two dozen Pictorialist photographs which apparently have some philosophical underpinning in common with the Arts and Crafts movement, but their inclusion was really a stretch. Mind you, there are worse things you can do with your time than look at Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, but this part of the exhibition in particular reveals significant mission drift—especially on the heels of what felt like a really good start.

The exhibition increasingly suffers just from plain old bad design: wall text without clear connection to displays, elements strewn far and wide through the room. Even in the one corner set up like a little sitting-room, the objects were treated so individually that it became painfully obvious just how challenging it is to show the Arts and Crafts—a movement tied to the “total work of art” environment, and the intimate domestic scale if ever there was one—in a museum setting (although, for the record, it’s not impossible: the Delaware Art Museum displays a fine collection of Arts and Crafts decorative arts and Pre-Raphaelite painting in a colorful gallery complete with Morris Wall paper and period-appropriate furniture that visitors are allowed to use). The irony of this movement, dedicated to beautifying ordinary objects and obliterating the notion of “fine” art, sequestered in a museum that has the gall to charge $60 for a family of four to visit, suddenly dawned on me as a sad legacy of this exhibit.

teco

Vase (Teco Potteries, ca. 1910)

The final room is the most disappointing for anyone who came for a celebration of Chicago design in the context of the British Arts and Crafts movement. Such parallel movements as department store development (earlier we read a note about Liberty of London and see a tiny sampling of Liberty goods; how interesting it would have been to compare Mr. Liberty with Marshall Field), social reform and education are all alluded to, but not really taken up. Text and a photo reference Hull House, but I could only find a single example of its craft production on display. Instead of looking more deeply into these lesser-known subjects—which have a very strong philosophical connection with the roots of the movement in Britain—, we get another load of Wright furniture and Sullivan ornament which is, you know, fine and all, but we’ve seen these things before. There’s a little (actually, too little) from local craft firms Teco, Gates Potteries and the Kalo Shop; their pottery and silver are both Chicago-specific and Arts and Crafts-inspired. More of this—which would have emphasized the role of Chicago like the exhibition title suggests—and fewer pieces of crummy Mackintosh furniture—allegedly part of the proof of the international quality of the movement, which again seems off-point—would have been very welcome. A few local goods that are rarely seen, and maybe for good reason, includes some incredibly clunky pieces by George Maher, and an orange velvet curtain with a thorn design that is really pretty great—but, it hung in a house that Maher designed for some very wealthy folks in Evanston: not exactly an example of the reformist story that is suggested (but not illustrated very well) on the other side of the room.

By the time I was at the end of the room and ready to exit—nearly blinded by one more far-too-brightly-lit stained glass by you-know-who (which reminds me: honestly, do we need another exhibition poster featuring another Wright window?)—I had the same feeling as I do when I am grading an essay by a student with a really good thesis, but who feels compelled to include every scrap of research he’s completed. That is understandable for a college student learning to self-edit; it’s not OK for the curatorial team for a big fat exhibition.

Lastly, my disappointment bordered on distraction by a final bit of wall text featuring a quotation by Hermann Muthesius (from his publication The English House—although the exhibition doesn’t tell us that), who, it turns out, is the source of the reference to “apostles” in the exhibition title. In 1901 he wrote of the Arts and Crafts:

Once the movement had gathered momentum, another way out emerged: the way of modern art. The essential means towards it had been the ethical values practiced by those apostles on the basis of medieval art, the sincerity, faithfulness, and pleasure taken by the workmen in their work, in general: the good workmanship, genuine materials and sound construction, in particular. The medieval forms that the apostles had advocated as indispensable concomitants of these values disappeared at last and out of the ashes rose the phoenix of modern art.

Muthesius is a provocative and significant choice to physically cap off the exhibition space that was opened with Pugin, the most medieval of the “apostles.” The means by which Pugin’s moralizing design theory eventually was hammered and bent into the ideas which spawned the Modernist movement of the 1920s is a fascinating road: you can draw a line (maybe not a straight one, but a line nonetheless) from the Red House to the Bauhaus. But that little intellectual thrill is only available if (1) you have read a whole bunch of books about this period and (2) if you go looking really hard for some sort of (intellectual) saving grace in this show.  But more importantly, interesting as the Pugin-Muthesius connection is, it too is off-message.

Because of the curators’ inconsistent treatment of their subject and scattered design of the galleries they don’t really accomplish the aim of making the exhibit more about Arts and Crafts philosophy than turn-of-the-century style; nor does it follow through on the promise of celebrating its host city.  In spite of the exhibition’s uneven quality and shifting points of view, it does accomplish the task of bringing together a variety of aesthetically delightful objects, from chairs to jewelry and from books to textiles.   The ultimate message of the “apostles” may be obscured in its translation from mid-nineteenth-century Britain to twenty-first-century Chicago, but the beauty of the objects transcends even a clunky exhibition.

crop voysey purple bird 1899

"Purple bird" (C. F. A. Voysey, 1899)

“Apostles of Beauty: Arts and Crafts from Britain to Chicago”runs from November 7, 2009 to January 31, 2010