With the Little People

Charles Doyle was the father of Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. That rationalist proponent of scientific induction also believed in fairies; in 1917, he threw his considerable authority behind two young girls in Scotland who claimed to have photographed woodland sprites in their garden. The Cottingley fairy photographs were revealed as hoaxes decades later; by then, the genre of fairy painting had already faded.

Why the interest in fairies now? Like the Victorian era, our age has seen the revival of druidism, crystal worship, and a host of ancient spiritual practices. And like Victorians, we live in a retrospective era, when innovation often takes the form of backward glances. A casual survey of contemporary art touched by the fairy spirit would include Petah Coyne's hairy animal bowers; Ava Gerber's lacy, bewitching constructions; Jim Hodge's cobwebs and flowery dissections; Virgil Martí's pseudo-Gothic installations; Tony Oursler's gnomic video dolls; Shazia Sikander's revisions of Indian miniatures; Annette Messager's taxidermied spirits; and the private altars of Joe Brainard, that perennial Victorian.

Lewis Carroll counted 165 fairies in Joseph Noël Paton's The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania (1849).
Antonia Reeve; © Edinburgh National Galleries of Scotland
Lewis Carroll counted 165 fairies in Joseph Noël Paton's The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania (1849).

Details

'Victorian Fairy Painting'
The Frick Collection
1 East 70th Street
Through January 17

Fairies are suffusing recent film and fashion--will nectar soon appear on restaurant menus? And according to Janet Bord, author of Fairies: Real Encounters With Little People (1997), tiny spirits still await our discovery. Between the naked, winged lady on a can of White Rock soda and the lily pads trembling suspiciously in the Frick's garden pond, there's room for the imagination.

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