Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Review: L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, illustrated by Graham Rawle

Collage artist and author Graham Rawle’s 2008 edition of The Wizard of Oz features his cut-out, constructed, borrowed, photographed, glued, and photoshopped illustrations, whose wild hybridity make them appropriate modern companions to L. Frank Baum’s original text. The novel was first published in 1900, but Rawle admits to knowing the story primarily through the 1939 film adaptation, which reached its current iconic status through repeated US television airings beginning in the late 1950s. So it seems fitting that Rawle combines household objects and bits of trash with more traditional collage elements in digital layers to create an Oz that is simultaneously nostalgic and new.

His Oz is, like the Technicolor universe in the film, lush and bizarre and dependent on contemporary technology for the shocking aesthetic that marks it as a true otherworld. But while Rawle uses photographs and other mixed media combinations for a number of minor characters, Dorothy and her travelling companions are all intact, poseable toys, each vintage or reconstructed to look old and worn. The expressions of these characters remain frozen, their gestures stiff, but as the reader accompanies the homely playthings on their adventures through the bright, fantastical landscape, they become increasingly familiar and imbued with personalities. These toys, especially Dorothy, with her matted, patchy hair and homemade doll’s clothes, evoke a wistful air of remembered (or imagined) childhood play in an ambiguous earlier era. And yet the settings against which they pose could not exist without the aid of digital manipulation, and for this reason Rawle’s images seem to be themselves a kind of multi-layered play: they revel in building a comprehensive make-believe world from ordinary objects, project complex personalities onto beloved toys, and delight in the possibilities of new technology, showing it off in images that can include up to 200 digitally arranged layers.

Meanwhile, the large, heavy format of the book and the mixed-font excerpts of text inset on the margins of most pages hint at who is meant to join in this play. Although it can be read straight through, Rawle’s edition feels more like a coffee-table book for adults to flip through, looking at the illustrations and skimming the enlarged quotations as if reading a magazine (indeed, Rawle has also written a novel composed entirely of collaged words from women’s magazines). Thus Rawle’s The Wizard of Oz is in many ways a celebration of a now-past childhood experience of that story. The more disturbing images in the book invite adult readers to consider what role the strange, frightening, and unsettling play in childhood, and to examine their current uses for and reactions to this edition in this light. Meanwhile, the accompanying text, ‘complete and unabridged’, offers the opportunity for this self-referential edition to serve as the defining experience of The Wizard of Oz for a new generation.

The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum

Illustrated by Graham Rawle

London: Atlantic Books, 2008

Hardcover, 352 pages

ISBN: 978-1582434551


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