Fairies Light to Dark: The Many Forms and Creatures

What comes to mind when you think of fairies? Most might think of a beautiful human-like miniature figure with wings of a butterfly. Fairies are not always in this image, they actually have many shapes and sizes. They also carry different meanings. Fairies have been around for ages, appearing in many stories myths and legends, originating mainly from European folklore. Fairies are often associated with plants and springtime, depicted as pure figures who possess magical powers. In the tales of fairies, they are more often than not mischievous creatures with dark and evil intentions. The Latin root word for fairy is ‘fay’ meaning fate. This could signify the purpose of fairies within myths, fairies in stories are constantly messing with the fates of humans. Fairies in these myths may be of the more cartoonish variety and signify simply love, magic and springtime, but most signify things like death, sexual depravity, abduction and general immorality. This exhibition looks at representation of fairies within art of many different mediums and time periods. The works selected are meant to show the images of fairies that go beyond popular connotations of fairies just as human-butterflies. As seen, the images of fairies depicted here gradually become darker and darker.     

You cannot examine fairies without looking at fairy tales. One of the most popular and beloved fairy tales is Cinderella. This tutu was made for the National Ballet’s first production of Cinderella that premiered in 1968. Along with the Fairy Godmother, Cinderella was visited by four other fairies, each representing the flowers of spring. This exquisite tutu is a costume meant for one of the spring fairies. This object perfectly encapsulates the more typical and popular culture representation of fairies.
Nymphs are a classic example of a different type of fairy. They are still beautiful figures associated with springtime, but are life-size maidens. Nymphs come from ancient Greek mythology and usually represent a location like a river or a forest. They are constantly admired for their beauty and are victims because of it as well. Within Greek mythology nymphs are constantly chased and raped by their admirers. The satyr seen dancing with the nymphs is another mythological creature known to sexually assault women. This pastoral scene by Claude Lorrain is very picturesque and lovely. But the subjects of this painting are often in myths featuring a sexual aggressor.
Another popular depiction of fairies is in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is a depiction of Titania, Queen of the Fairies, at the moment when, drugged with a love potion, she becomes enchanted with the artisan Bottom, who has been magically turned into an ass.
This is a depiction of the fairy Queen Mab and her fairy carriage. Queen Mab first appears in Mercutio’s speech in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. She is described as a fairy midwife who appears in people’s dreams and puts blisters on the lips of unchaste ladies. This painting has an element darkness to it as the artist Richard Dadd painted this work in the Bethlem Hospital where he was sent after murdering his father and being declared insane.
This is a depiction of a water sprite. Sprites along with pixies and elves are in the same mythological grouping of fairies. According to myth, the violin music of the Water Sprites tempts people into the water, where they drown.
This painting is by John Bauer, a Swedish artist very well known for his depictions of fairies. This painting depicts the tale of the princess Tuvstarr and Skutt the Moose. The Moose takes the princess from the Dream Castle meadow to the great forest. There she meets elves who take her crown away from her. Then the witch of the woods steals her silk dress and in the end the deep tarn takes her golden heart. The princess does not want to leave the pond, but stays with her heart and lose because of that both mind and memory.
This is another fairy depiction by John Bauer. This painting is of Helena Nyblom’s tale Bortbytingarna (The Changelings). The story is about a troll father who is so taken with the little princess Bianca Maria that he steals her from her cradle and replaces her with his own troll child instead. ‘Changelings’ occur often within fairy myths, fairies abducting children and replacing them with their own.
The creature shown here on top of the woman is an incubus. An incubus is a male creature that appears in dreams of young ladies and rapes them.
This is a drawing of Gabdulla Tukai’s fairy-tale Shurale, derived from Russian folklore. A Shurale is a creature that brings people into middle of the forest and tickles them to death.
This contemporary-made figure of fairies perfectly embodies the nature of fairies. These figures are typical in their bug-like wings and tiny size. But they are also very ugly and somewhat creepy looking like how many fairies appear in all types of folklore.
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