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Art Notes // Influences come back to haunt me (or why dragons need decoding)

I’m doing a degree in Art History in my free time. Currently I’m supposed to be writing an essay, but between this awesome post by my partner and the re-discovery of a pivotal moment in my teen years has distracted me.

So, this blog is called ‘Decoding Dragons’. When I was in  secondary school, I loved English Literature classes. At one point, we studied this wonderful poem called ‘Not My Best Side’ by U. A. Fanthorpe. The poem itself is three stanzas long, with each stanza being the voice of one of the characters in Paolo Uccello’s Saint George And The Dragon. Reading it back now, over 15 years later, I can remember the impression it made on me at the time. The last stanza is particularly cutting in today’s STEM/TECH/GAMING struggles for great representation and the wish to break from the immature stages of the game industry.

The seething sexuality of the painting, the conflict between renaissance order and the violence of emotion, make the Uccello piece very powerful for me. Fanthorpe’s poem re-frames the renaissance values into the modern gender tensions between the roles we want, the roles we create for ourselves, and the roles we’re expected to fulfill. Dragons are relatively rare in the ‘greater arts’, existing as supporting characters for depictions of classic scenes such as St George, or Ovid’s tale of Cadmus (and even then the dragon  is added almost as an after-thought). The dragon always plays second fiddle in these paintings, whether it be to a magnificent landscape such as the piece by Zuccarelli.

While Uccello has placed St George’s dragon centre stage, the two-legged dragon exists to create the structure and rhythm between the divinely sponsored St George, and the noble woman who has literally ‘leashed’ the dragon.

At the time, I was a lonely teenager, who felt ugly and like an outsider. I probably identified more with the Dragon, than with the girl, but the ‘appearance’ related comments in the poem struck me hard at the time. I remember that english lesson, I remember loving the analysis I was doing, and the way it made me look at the painting differently. I remember the way that both together made me look at the world differently. I’m not going to talk about my own relationship with my sexuality, but I had already characterised my depression as a ‘black dragon’ at that point, it’s only a short step to start seeing dangerous dragons as allegories for the turmoil that emotions and sexuality can provoke. And from being able to anthropomorphise and picture concepts and ideas through analogies, it becomes easier to understand and reconcile them.

And this is why dragons need decoding.

Saint George And The Dragon by Paolo Uccello (1470) (c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Saint George And The Dragon by Paolo Uccello (1470) (c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Not My Best Side by U. A. Fanthorpe

I

Not my best side, I’m afraid.
The artist didn’t give me a chance to
Pose properly, and as you can see,
Poor chap, he had this obsession with
Triangles, so he left off two of my
Feet. I didn’t comment at the time
(What, after all, are two feet
To a monster?) but afterwards
I was sorry for the bad publicity.
Why, I said to myself, should my conqueror
Be so ostentatiously beardless, and ride
A horse with a deformed neck and square hoofs?
Why should my victim be so
Unattractive as to be inedible,
And why should she have me literally
On a string? I don’t mind dying
Ritually, since I always rise again,
But I should have liked a little more blood
To show they were taking me seriously.

II

It’s hard for a girl to be sure if
She wants to be rescued. I mean, I quite
Took to the dragon. It’s nice to be
Liked, if you know what I mean. He was
So nicely physical, with his claws
And lovely green skin, and that sexy tail,
And the way he looked at me,
He made me feel he was all ready to
Eat me. And any girl enjoys that.
So when this boy turned up, wearing machinery,
On a really dangerous horse, to be honest
I didn’t much fancy him. I mean,
What was he like underneath the hardware?
He might have acne, blackheads or even
Bad breath for all I could tell, but the dragon–
Well, you could see all his equipment
At a glance. Still, what could I do?
The dragon got himself beaten by the boy,
And a girl’s got to think of her future.

III

I have diplomas in Dragon
Management and Virgin Reclamation.
My horse is the latest model, with
Automatic transmission and built-in
Obsolescence. My spear is custom-built,
And my prototype armour
Still on the secret list. You can’t
Do better than me at the moment.
I’m qualified and equipped to the
Eyebrow. So why be difficult?
Don’t you want to be killed and/or rescued
In the most contemporary way? Don’t
You want to carry out the roles
That sociology and myth have designed for you?
Don’t you realize that, by being choosy,
You are endangering job prospects
In the spear- and horse-building industries?
What, in any case, does it matter what
You want? You’re in my way.

 

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