Monday, 11 April 2016

Study for 'The Unknown' (1912) by John Charles Dollman

Here's the second in my series of what is, essentially, an artistic ignoramus peering at weird/supernatural pictures on display at Newcastle's Laing Art Gallery. This one is a bit of a mystery, as it seems to relate to no known story. Click to enlarge.



The finished painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy, so Dollman was clearly not some bonkers maverick. Perhaps he was just keen on apes and half-naked girls. But there is something distinctly odd about a bunch of chimps being reproved, enchanted, or lectured by a topless witch, or something.

Is it an evolutionary parable? Does the woman represent enlightenment, language, religion, or just someone who's trying to teach them basic fire-related health and safety procedures? And is she kneeling down or standing in a hole? The fact that one chimp has given upon the whole thing and is shuffling away in the background only adds to the mystery.

Dollman illustrated Kipling, so it's tempting to see it as some sort of 'Just So' story. 'How the Chimps Were Dominated & Developed a Boob Fixation' seems a tad unlikely, however. This was the age of weird fiction, with writers as diverse as Kipling, Machen. Stoker, Blackwood, James (both of 'em), and Wells pushing the boundaries in various directions. So it's weird fiction all right, but I'm not sure what - if anything - it's trying to say.

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