Art history: Aurelia: Art and Literature Through the Eyes and the Mouth of the Fairy Tale

Course content

An ‘aurelia’ is the chrysalis of a butterfly and is derived from the Latin word meaning golden. The metamorphosis of the caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly is a magical transformation: a zoological fairy tale, with a golden touch.

Vladimir Nabokov, lepidopterist, author, and  fairy tale enthusiast (his favourite was ‘The Little Mermaid’) wrote a short story entitled ‘The Aurelian’. At the centre of the tale is an elderly dreamer, a collector of butterflies, named Paul Pilgram, who enjoys good food. Like Nabokov’s protagonist, fairy tales are in search of a better life and a full belly. After all, the fairy tale gives even the little guy hope for more money and plenty of food, insisting that one deserves to be happy and free. This concept has been celebrated by such Marxist philosophers as Ernst Bloch and Jack Zipes, who find hope in the utopian politics of the fairy tale. As  Bloch puts it: ‘All fairy tales end in gold.’

Aurelia is a homonym with oralia, a word coined by the American literary scholar Michael Moon, suggesting both the oral tradition of the original fairy tales and the fairy tale’s affinities with eating, especially when it comes to the great literary fairy tale: Alice in Wonderland.  

Of importance is the fact that the original fairy tales of Charles Perrault, Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen are not benignly sweet: they are violent.  Like the fairy tale sadists—‘Bluebeard’ who murders his wives—the stepmother in ‘The Juniper Tree’ who kills her stepson and feeds him to his own father in a stew (‘My mother she killed me, my father he ate me’)—the witch who fattens up ‘Hansel’ to make him more delicious—this course favours the fairy tale as ‘not yet “vaccinated” or censored … with puritanical ideology’ (Zipes).

‘Aurelia’ awakens the fairy-tale realm in a wide range of authors, artists, books and objects. Beyond the expected Brothers Grimm and Lewis Carroll, there are more surprising inclusions, like the magical materiality of glass; the discovery of Lascaux as a fairy-tale dream of finding our own subterranean world of enchantment; the role of the fairy tale in Nabokov’s Lolita; Langston Hughes’s brown fairies for America’s children of ‘colour’; the photograph by the Japanese artist Miwa Yanagi of the grandmother and Little Red Riding Hood as an image of the horror of Hiroshima; Jean-Pierre Gorin’s documentary film, Poto and Cabengo (1980), about German-American twin girls and their invented language, with sixteen ways to pronounce potato (their beloved food).

The course aims to acquaint students with how works of modern art (painting, sculpture, film and especially photography) can be interpreted and analysed in relation to the fairy tale. The connections between the utopian novel and the fairy tale will be understood. Careful attention will be paid to issues of class, hope, race and beauty.

Type of assessment
  • Category
  • Hours
  • Exam
  • 84
  • Lectures
  • 56
  • Preparation
  • 280
  • English
  • 420