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ESSAYS Mousse 71

The Sleeping Beauty Concept Works

by Sabrina Tarasoff

 

Eyvind Earle, Steep Hillside, 1994. © 2020 EEP

 

Like Lord Alfred Tennyson, might we imagine the Briar Rose as perfect form, not for the sake of objectifying a sex, but for the details that adorn her enchanted sleep? Could we too be tricked into slumber for a hundred summers, where for lack of a “conscious” self, surface might be allowed to reign? In “The Day-Dream” (1842), Sleeping Beauty awaits her kiss within a Baroque tableau: she is recumbent on her chaise above a “purple coverlet,” body contoured beneath a “silk star-broider’d coverlid,” “gold-fringed pillow lightly prest.”1 In all this dazzle and wicked texture, Tennyson is asking us to daydream not only of the Sleeping Beauty, but of the beauty of her sleep’s circumstances: its artifice, tactility, and transformations.

 

“She sleeps, nor dreams, but ever dwells
A perfect form in perfect rest.”
—Lord Alfred Tennyson, “The Day-Dream,” 18422

 

Central to the tale’s various versions, from Charles Perrault’s to Disney’s, are these psychic spills and dimensional slips. There are textures that touch in order to move the narrative from one state of consciousness to another, like skin to a spindle or lips to snap a spell. There are witch duels, shape shifters, and fugue states. Dreams that resemble waking life, deathlike sleep, and sleep that mutates the real. Far from a tale of a lethargic princess, the Briar Rose story’s soporific spin is precisely what springs to life the material metamorphoses at its core: in sleep, far from passive, the princess is “animated,” quite like Marcel Proust’s Albertine, “by the unconscious life of plants, of trees, a life more different from my own, more alien, and yet one that belonged more to me.”3 In her sleep, Briar Rose becomes foreign and enigmatic, lifeless, an inversion of the animism that stirs broomsticks into action and blows spirit into blossoms in fairy lore. Her charmed sleep rouses an imagination anxious for precisely the liveliness or access to an inner life, which it professes to lack, while also, so often, speaking volumes of the psychological composition of its context. Stilling a subject in sleep is one way of focusing on the shifting form of the fantasy. It calls attention to the psychic glitter that sits at its surface. 

Sleeping Beauty is a pageant,” Disney art director Michael Giaimo said of the concept drawings made for the 1959 animation by Eyvind Earle, lead stylist on the film, describing the brilliantly somnambulant procession of gem-toned, statuesque excess that enchants its panoramic frames.4 Earle hails the princess Aurora’s stilled form with a simplified, Gothic restraint, dreamlike shifts in mood, and incandescent color schemes. His Sleeping Beauty unravels in the millefleurs of medieval tapestries, each scene a decorative tableau stitching together the tale’s senses of danger, possession, idée fixe, fascination, and the hypnotic. A poise, or elegance, or imperturbability—refusal?—freaks forth in towering silhouettes of dark, angular trees or the arabesque roots, thorns, and ivies in their foreground; in allusions to forests made of formally arranged, analogous colors and mannered shapes; and in the strong verticals perfectly positioned to stretch the already stately to Gothic heights. While it’s perhaps too easy to say that these landscapes are direct representations of the characters’ psychological states—shimmers of sentiment, feeling, or even foreboding—something about their composition certainly calls to the unconscious. Like walking into someone else’s once upon a dream, one is granted a glimpse into some heady place, but no means of entry, no agency. Or, as Giaimo put it, “No one really walks through it.”5

 

Eyvind Earle, Enchanted Forest, 1981. © 2020 EEP

 

Earle’s vision is sharpened by this instinct for inaccessibility. Each sequence sketch and panoramic background painting places the viewer at a distance, in one-point perspective, by employing techniques on loan from some of Earle’s “favorite artists”: Albrecht Dürer, Jan Van Eyck, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and the Duc de Berry’s canonical Très Riches Heures (1412-1416). Enclosed into these “medieval tapestries,” as Earle described them, are also details adop-ted from Arabic decoration, patterns from Persian miniatures, and references to Japanese painting, “especially,” as he wrote in his autobiography, Horizon Bound on a Bicycle (1990), “in the close-up of leaves and overhanging branches.”6 Contrary to cartoon animation’s traditionally rotund logic, Earle’s stylized Gothic privileges the sublime stillness of the decorative to articulate a tension between the theme of sleep, the alluring foreignness of its form, and the formalism that holds together the film’s tableaux. His drive to simplify, stylize, and straighten what otherwise should curve or communicate etches into the picture’s pastoral theme an elusive edge: an order as literal as it is symbolic. Courtly silhouettes of trees, or figures rendered not as people but (as Earle incanted) as icons or sculptures create an atmosphere of emotional distance on par with how Marina Warner has grappled with the grimness of faerie: “It doesn’t totally undermine or horrify you because it’s in this other place: once upon a time.”7 

Consider the color shifts that lead to Aurora’s slumber. The princess is emotionally distant and unspeaking from the minute she steps back into the castle on her sixteenth birthday; the movement from dissociative sadness to spellbound sleep is instead articulated in how colors and textures kiss in the artwork. Upon her return, sadly besotted with “that boy she met in the woods” and dismayed by the royal duties that await her, she has ditched the natural pallor of her woodland self to better suit the castle’s regal scheme. Hair flaxen to match the blossom-blue dress made by the fairy godmothers, she stares motionless into a mirror as they lower a scintillating crown upon her head. Though the hexing is yet to happen, she is already far, far away in some fugue state. As the fairies give her a moment alone, she folds her face into her arms in silent sobs, only for an orb to appear in the hearth. Looking up from her woes, the princess is transfixed, already transformed: she is eerily unnatural, corpse-like in its phosphorescent light. Whether spellbound or seduced, she walks in its wake to the tallest tower, where it transforms into the fated spindle and, with a prick of her finger, is revealed as Maleficent herself, as tall and tenebrous as the Gothic towers that set the scene.

 

Eyvind Earle, Orchard, 1984. © 2020 EEP

 

Like so, Sleeping Beauty unfolds in sequences of isolated excess—or excessive isolation—wherein a counterpoint of styles and values poses a sharp separation between what is given and what is stirred up in fantasy (and in the image when put to motion). Each jewel-box frame, whether enchanted forest or castle chamber, entices the viewer to enter into its exquisite quiet and illusory depth, yet all the hypnotic abstractions, iconographic clashes, and exalted layers keep it always feeling out of reach, elsewhere—elusive, motionless, immense. Fantastical drift is glittered in solitude, stillness, and fragmentation, which gain momentum in a preoccupation with what might in theory be called the death drive—our innate tendency toward the inanimate—but, in service of keeping Disney delightful, could more magically be thought of as a fixation on the image, representation, artifice, or in other words, art. If the backgrounds display a preoccupation with arrested movement, like tableaux vivants, albeit eerily devoid of figures, it is to enhance the elegance—the éclat!—of the film’s progression when animated.

“Only once did Walt ever criticize or try to steer me in a special direction,” writes Earle. “It had to do with an overlay, painted on a transparent cell, that moved at a different speed than the background, as the camera panned across. An effect that gives the illusion of three-dimensional depth. Well, my overlay had almost no depth at all. On the screen it looked like a flat cut-out.”8 Summoned here is the significance of not surface but surface effect, which is perhaps the difference between the self-enclosed image, the image in stillness, where “all the elements [of fantasy] are conjoined” (to sneak some Deleuze in), and the image in sequential motion, as it surprises in the unfurling of a destination, change, metamorphosis, in the moment of arrival.9 Sleep’s isolation, its fantasies of death, enchanted transport, daydreaming, feeling far, far away, dulled, or dissociated: the central tensions of Earle’s work on Sleeping Beauty arise in how visual structures can be set up to dissolve form into dreamlike drift. To return to some early idea about detailing enchanted sleep for the sake of entering its dreamy lairs, the secret shared in Earle’s works relates to how things retain a sense of wonder in suspension, even—or especially—when touching on shady states of being, that is, the dissociative, senseless, or otherwise stunned. Fantasy gains momentum in stasis; its power lies in patient waiting.

 

Eyvind Earle, Medieval Promenade, 1983. © 2020 EEP

 

Earle left the Disney studio shortly after the release of Sleeping Beauty, having alienated many of the top animators by, on his own admission, being “too narrow-minded, too intent on being the best artist I knew how to be,” and, after establishing his own animation studio, returned to painting full time in the late 1960s.10 Though these late-career works ditched the fairy lore, the instinct to frame fantasy in formal stricture persisted from the Disney period. With Sleeping Beauty, Earle exalted an anxious tension at surface by setting the film’s brilliance in the pitch dark of its decorative foliage, garment details, and thorn thickets.11 Later paintings deliver shocks of wonder from the more tenebrous, twisted, acid-laced aspects of the artist’s style. Deeper shadows, postnuclear colors, and harsher contours cultivate the landscapes in ways that recall the irradiative, gem-like diorama of Tetsumi Kudo: a garden of metamorphosis. Many of them hold an iconic Western scenery at the center of their dark sublime. Some of the works, like Monument Valley (1985), push a more Looney Tunes ideal of nature, while others, like Orchard (1984), are more sinister in their vision, seeing faraway forests as black clouds scantly glittered with green. Like Kudo’s “bodies changed into new forms,” Earle’s metamorphosing plains operate on a postlapsarian edge, or escape into a place beyond population—a place other to disappointments, personal injuries, baggage.12 Nature was a dreamy lair of the imagination, he writes: “In nature when I look at trees some of them are such that they thrill me with their perfection and their sweeping lines and certain mood they seem to have… In every tree I feel as though I could see the soul of that tree.”13

 

 Inka Essenhigh, Seaside Cemetery, 2016. © Inka Essenhigh. Courtesy: the artist; Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago; Miles McEnery Gallery, New York

 

For Earle, the forest—not figure—professed the possibility of getting lost, mastering fear, magic, wonder, transfiguration, finding oneself, or at least versions of oneself, especially in what appeared distinctly other. But also of art’s power as it comes across in still life, or stilled lives: life stilled in sleep. How to put it? He was thinking into the psycho-aesthetic effects of its paradoxical immobility—the way in which figures asleep, like stoic, slowly living things found in nature, perfectly represent the self as estranged, isolated, even dead, or deadened, though it is not so much the macabre that’s expressed in Earle’s landscapes as something slightly fucked up and wholly marvelous that he noticed in nature’s representations. The uncanny? Amped up with the “stupendous infinity of nature,” as he put it?14 Or was it the ability of nature to mirror some stillness inside of oneself? Like looking at the living put to sleep for a hundred hot summers, the forest appeared to Earle as an enclosed, closed-off world that was to be considered, in all its inanimate life, for its mythological transformations.

Earle was bewitched by nature’s ability to appear unnatural, eerie, delirious. (Because of sheer size, immensity, virtuality? Gaston Bachelard’s aching for a foot in: as “a philosophical category of day-dreaming.”)15 He writes frequently of “putting the world to sleep to dream to sigh,” “changing the world to something strange as though / the past had disappeared and left it so,” and tuning into the infinite: “Art encompasses all aspects of existence. Life and truth and consciousness and color and sound and feeling, all are the same thing. Seeing, we call it painting.”16 So the synaesthetic, or some equivalent brain rave, is seen (“painted”) in radioactive cloud castles, coulisse-like forests, hallucinogenic color schemes, vertiginous treetops, slopes steeped in wraith-like shadows, toxic smog, ever-present blackness menacing form. Shocks of tone, hue, and contrast, which allow for the allegorical to light up like a special effect. A pastoral cut in dreamlike sharpness, stroboscopic in the way flashes of light make moving objects appear stationary. Whatever he is tracking in the landscape—the uncanniness of representation, some element of wonder, God, or its Gothic, Disneyfied double—probes “perfect form,” kind of like Tennyson, but without a sense of resolve: no happy ending, or perhaps no ending at all. 

 

Jason Yates, Family Secrets, 2017. Courtesy: Wasserman Projects, Detroit. Photo: PD Rearick

 

Sleeping Beauty’s slumber hits pause on the princess in order to shift our focus to the special effects of its somnolent magic, but what happens when the spell snaps? The plot resumes, but to what end? What has been delivered—if not in the surface of the story itself, then in those who are left to contemplate “‘the special significance of fantasy,’ that is, the form of the fantasy”?17 Scenes that are dreamed or dramatized, delayed in sleep and suspended in waiting serve to exalt (or simulate) an underlying anxiety in the artwork, which in the best of cases is never really resolved. It is what primes our attention, haunts memory, makes for repeat visits. What we experience as unresolved or unsettling is often the result of carefully skewed perspective: a special effect. As Norman Klein writes in The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects (2004): “It has been set up to deliver elaborate shocks. Within these shocks, an allegory emerges.”18 Not only stillness, then, but silence animates Earle’s works—the baroque muteness of what’s been shocked into being, textures that “talk” because of surface magic, creatures that spring to life but cannot articulate their existence, people who are put to sleep, turned to stone, or magically transformed. “These scripted shocks suddenly feel prophetic, painfully close to how power actually operates,” Klein continues. “Even when they look very blithe and dreamy at first: underneath, they are designed to convert terror into a friendly ride.”19

Somewhere in the midst of the Los Angeles winter, Michael Giaimo and I had a conversation about Earle’s influences on Disney house style, popular culture, and contemporary art. Giaimo, who cites Sleeping Beauty as the first film he ever saw, spoke vividly on Earle’s brilliant color schemes, counterpoint style, and emotional distance. He also spoke of Earle’s difficult aesthetic legacy at Disney, where tentacles of his influence could be found, and how elements of Earle’s work were folded into his own styling on films like Pocahontas (1995) and Frozen (2013). Giaimo’s personal style brings classic Disney into a digital era with Earle-esque special effects, doing the necessary work to wrangle CGI so it “does not run over the art.” He can be thanked for dressing Governor Ratcliffe in Valentine tones against the West Virginia landscape or detailing Arendelle’s cached palace with its pinpointed, Scandi-noir steeples. “Like Eyvind, we used a lot of black in our characters,” Giaimo recalled in reference to Earle’s unprecedented use of the color. “There’s a commonly held idea in illustration that black doesn’t read. But why does everything have to read?”20 The effect is often more than enough.

Perhaps the allure is that simple. Family resemblances found around sparked this interest: the matte mutiny of Los Angeles–based sculptor Jason Yates’s shadow creatures; Inka Essenhigh’s funereal fantasies; Tetsumi Kudo’s neon-toned death drive diorama. Those stone sculpture monsters from Dr. Who: Weeping Angels. Earle found a way to still perspective into a position where it could be skewed, safely, and where it would say something about our personal fears and fallibilities, without all the unnecessary anguish of “real life.” He found the perfect vantage from which to view fantasy as it rubs against the real. 

 

[1] Lord Alfred Tennyson, “The Day-Dream,” 1842, accessible at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/8601/8601-h/8601-h.htm#chap66.
[2] Tennyson, “The Day-Dream.”

[3] Marcel Proust, “The Captive,” in The Captive (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 85.
[4] Michael Giaimo, “Eyvind Earle’s Influential Art,” lecture at the Hilbert Museum of Art, Orange, California, 2018.
[5] Giaimo, “Eyvind Earle’s Influential Art.”
[6] Eyvind Earle, Horizon Bound on a Bicycle: The Autobiography of Eyvind Earle (Los Angeles: Earle and Bane, 1990), 235.
[7] Thea Lenarduzzi, “Marina Warner on Fairy Tales,” FiveBooks.com, fivebooks.com/best-books/fairy-tales/.
[8] Earle, Horizon Bound on a Bicycle, 245.

[9] Gilles Deleuze and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Masochism (Brooklyn: Zone Books, 1999), 72.
[10] Earle, Horizon Bound on a Bicycle, 245.
[11] Author’s conversation with Michael Giaimo, February 10, 2020.

[12] Doryun Chong, “When the Body Changes into New Forms: Tracing Tetsumi Kudo,” in Tetsumi Kudo: Garden of Metamorphosis (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2008), 24.
[13] Earle, Horizon Bound on a Bicycle, 245.
[14] Eyvind Earle, director, My Life, 1997, DVD.

[15] Gaston Bachelard, “Intimate Immensity,” in The Poetics of Space (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), 201.[16] Eyvind Earle, My Life.
[17] Deleuze and Sacher-Masoch, Masochism, 74.
[18] Norman M. Klein, The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects (New York: New Press, 2004), 13.
[19] Klein, The Vatican to Vegas, 13.
[20] Author’s conversation with Michael Giaimo, February 5, 2020.

 

Sabrina Tarasoff is a writer based in Los Angeles.

 

Originally published in Mousse 71

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