The ornamented snake

I dreamed this past night that a strange young man urged me to enter a house where he would show me that he could charm snakes. He went ahead. Naturally, I followed him.

In there, I actually saw him standing in the center of the room, and in front of him, raised almost as tall as he, a thick gigantic cobra moved its head, following the beats of unheard music.

In the dimness of lights and smoke behind them I could faintly discern a group of spectators. Apparently they were convinced that the snake charmer had the dangerous snake completely under control.

I did not. Arriving late and totally alone, I suddenly found myself standing quite close to the actors. I felt unpleasantly insecure and would have liked to be outside again.

For a moment, I closed my eyes and thought: “The snake has noticed you particularly.” I feared it might be coming close…and then…and then I felt it close to me. It had slithered to my feet….It rose along my body…it chilled me and filled me with terror. I knew that one sting meant immediate death, namely if I showed the slightest fear.

“Introduction” Carl Larsson: The Autobiography of Sweden’s Most Beloved Artist, 1

This seems a strange way to commence the story of your life. After all, this isn’t Jim Morrison we’re talking about here, but a man known primarily for painting placid domestic scenes. No wonder many have described this book as “dour.”

Rather than a snake, it seems to me that the story of domestic design at the turn of the twentieth century is more like a hydra with many heads. The northern outpost of Arts and Crafts differs sharply from the English or Mediterranean variants. But snakes? What gives?

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In the center of the “snail room” exhibited by Italian furniture designer Carlo Bugatti (father of the carmaker) there reside three “cobra” chairs. There is an  example of one in Chicago; I’ll have to look for it the next time I pass through.

bugatti-chair

This piece is completely covered in parchment, a technique which hid all joints. Decorations are made of hammered copper, pencil and paint, and it is covered with parchment and leather.

The snail room was meant for games and conversation. The chair was shaped like a cobra, inscribed with floral and geometric motifs reminiscent of Islamic art. The chair’s open design served a practical purpose, allowing men’s coattails and women’s trains to hang down behind the seat.

It’s not really Arts and Crafts, but rather Art Nouveau, emphasizing ornament over the more self-consciously “honest” styles of the north.

Though they are sometimes lumped together, there seem to be some very important distinctions between the complex emergent styles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

I opened my eyes, and now the head of the snake was close to me, facing me. How magnificent it was! The colors, glittering in the most wondrous shades, were blinding me. The most elegant ornaments were forming in front of my eyes. They curled downward to more rigidly geometrical planes, and on the lower parts of its body, where the colors turned more vulgar, the patterns became coarser and more abhorrent.

But the evil little head with the shield around the neck, which is so peculiar to the cobra, offered overwhelming richness of lines and color.

I had to look at it with an admiration close to rapture. The small eyes of the snake were glittering maliciously. They peered almost laughingly into mine. The head was rocking from time to time, sometimes shooting forward and then pulling back, and then I felt its repugnant spongy body pressing itself closer and closer to mine!

I knew that my life was not worth much by now. However, I seemed to myself triumphantly proud, felt that now I would be able to show those present what kind of man I really was.

Or was I?

Oh no, it was so thoroughly terrible, the tension was horrifying! If only the loathsome garishness would disappear! But if all turned out well, what a hero I would turn out to be! (ibid. 1-2)

It is extremely unlikely, I think, that Carl Larsson and Carlo Bugatti were familiar with each other. Nonetheless, it seems almost as if Larsson’s downright weird introduction to his autobiography might be productively be read as a critique of Art Nouveau. There’s a curious love/hate relationship with ornament across all these different threads of design.

Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, writing in Houses and Gardens (1906) discusses two popular modes of decoration: heraldry and organic motifs. Heraldry, with its deep ties to the English manor house traditions, was old; natural motifs (decorating around some sort of common organic shape, like lotus flowers) were emerging (thanks to the pre-Raphaelites) as a plausible choice to those setting up a home.

Carl Larsson embraced Gustavian design (a situated Swedish variant of rococo), which is perhaps close to an embrace of the sort of traditional heraldic motifs gestured at by Baillie Scott. At the same time, there was a rustic naturalism to his designs. What the English and Swedish outlooks both share is a desire to ornament in such a way that connects with their national identities.

But the cobra did not release me. Now it approached my face, I felt its tongue as if it were fluttering against my lips, but I smiled and remained courageous.

Ah, but I was petrified, and so was my wide smile. Now, now, it stole its narrow, thin, thin, tongue between my lips. I felt it against my tongue. Now I could take it no longer.

I…woke up.

Fortunately it was only a dream, a nightmare.

I immediately realized it was an allegory of my life, as good as any.

You must try to decipher it yourself after reading the memories I have determined to write down.

My steadily smiling face. My hidden horror of life. I certainly was not a snake charmer. It was the snake—life—that charmed me. (ibid. 2)

Not many artists open their autobiography by spinning a tale about french-kissing a snake. I would be curious why Carl Larsson chose this dream, or why Carlo Bugatti chose the cobra as his totem, or the snail. But some things are certain.

The snail room was exhibited at Prima Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte Decorativa Moderna  in Turin in 1902.  It’s primary dictate:  “Only original products that show a decisive tendency toward aesthetic renewal of form will be admitted. Neither mere imitations of past styles nor industrial products not inspired by an artistic sense will be accepted.”

Both Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts stress connections, through ornament, to the lands that birthed them. Larsson had his folk styles and Gustavian ornament, Baillie Scott had heraldry and pagan naturalism, while Bugatti was more connected with Moorish traditions. All are situated in ways both intellectual and geographic.

Carlo Bugatti Throne

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