The Fairy Paintings of Ernie Sandidge
text by Terri Windling
Although today we think of fairies as the sweet, sexless, diminutive sprites of children’s stories, the fairies of folklore were earthier creatures who came in many forms, including those of human size and appearance. Artists have been depicting them in shapes both large and small since at least the 18th century,when Henry Fuseli, William Blake and other leading artists of the day produced paintings inspired by Shakespeare’s fairy plays for Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery. (Blake, in fact, was a believer in fairies and reported having witnessed a fairy funeral.)
In the 19th century, a new interest in folklore crossed the Channel from Germany (where it had been fostered by the German Romantic writers) to Victorian England, creating a passion for all things magical and fey. Richard Dadd, Charles Doyle, Joseph Noël Paton, Daniel Maclise, Thomas Heatherly, John Anster Fitzgerald and numerous others contributed to the golden age of Victorian fairy painting,creating works that drew from Celtic myth, old English folk tales, and literary sources including Spencer, Drayton, Pope, Keats, and Tennyson in addition to Shakespeare. These were paintings for adults, not children, containing distinctively sexual overtones, as well as references to opium dreams and other hallucinogenic experiences. (Opium medicines like laudanum were both legal and common, called the "aspirin of the 19th century.") Painting fairies allowed artists to render sensual,barely–clad female forms at a time when expressions of sexuality were most repressed in polite society — female nudes were somehow more respectable if they sported a pair of fairy wings. The bucolic fairy paintings of the period, in which fairies floated in misty, unspoiled landscapes and dallied in tangled forest groves, were also a reaction to the Industrial Revolution — while large swaths of English countryside disappeared under mortar and brick.
It was not until the late–19th/early–20th centuries that fairies were rounded up, scrubbed up, and herded en masse into children’s stories, no longer considered appropriate subjects for serious adult artists. Though many folkloric painters then channeled their work into the booming new children’s book industry, some continued to paint magical subjects in works intended for adult audiences — including the Celtic Revivalists in Scotland at the dawn of the century, the Surrealists in Europe and Mexico between (and directly after) the wars,England’s Brotherhood of Ruralists in the 1970s and America’s New Romantics in the 1980s. Indeed, some of the most interesting artists of modern times have worked with symbols drawn from folklore and children’s tales, including Paula Rego, Kiki Smith, Cindy Sherman,Sarah Moon, and Shelly Silver, among others. To this list we now add Ernie Sandidge, an American painter from East Tennessee, whose recent series of fairy paintings uses folkloric symbolism in a thoroughly contemporary way.
Sandidge’s fairy art was first shown at the Zito Gallery in New York in an exhibition titled I Was Dumped by a Fairy, loosely grouped around the theme of fairies and sexual fantasy. Although the artist himself is reticent to ascribe one particular meaning to the work, Zito (owner of Zito Gallery) was intrigued by the ways Sandidge’s fairy paintings could be seen as an exploration of the difference between fantasy ideals and the reality of the human body.In his view, the paintings suggest "that the media fascination with eternal youth and idealized sexual perfection has crippled our response to real people. Our intimate relationships have become laden with heavy expectations borne of illusionistic fantasies — fantasies that can never be realized. By painting himself and other models semi–clad in fairy costumes, [Sandidge] brings up the point that, despite the ideals we cultivate in our dreams, what we are really faced with in the waking world is a real relationship with a real human being."
I found this to be an interesting take on the work, for my own response was quite the opposite: by representing real people as fairies (or is it fairies as real people?), the line between the two becomes blurred, and I see the magic inherent in ordinary bodies and/or the ordinariness of magical beings. As I view them, Sandidge’s figures become "characters in a fairy tale for grown-ups," as Diane Arbus once described her portraits; they confirm my belief that fairy stories and images are still just as relevant to our lives todayas they’ve been for hundreds of years before us.
The artist himself says: "Many viewers try to ‘read’ paintings literally like a text, interpreting symbols for their meanings. Personally I am more interested in the ‘how’ than the ‘what.’ How was a particular image arrived at? Not what does a particular image mean. It is easy to speculate about why an artist might paint fairies. But what can we say about the interaction of purple and orange? Or the relationship between drawings and finished paintings? I find these questions to be more relevant to my work, more closely related to the daily struggle than questions about the ‘meaning’ of the image."