Y’know, there ARE times now and then when I do miss living in NYC.
In my enthusiasm for seeing the exhibition “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth,” which just opened at the Morgan Library in New York, I made the mistake of scheduling my visit for the show’s opening weekend. If the first rule of Fight Club is to never talk about Fight Club, the first rule of exhibitions is never attend an exhibition on opening weekend.
This is particularly the case when the exhibition is about a figure as beloved as J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), author of “The Hobbit,” “The Lord of the Rings,” and other tales that set the standard for fantasy literature in the 20th century. It’s no wonder that the line to get into the Morgan and see Tolkien’s manuscripts, personal items, and art snaked through the vestibule and out onto the sidewalk on Madison Avenue long before opening time, despite the below-freezing temperatures outdoors.
I attended a Robert Williams invite-only opening at Bess Cutler Gallery years ago, and I will NEVER forget it; it was fantastic, just a great night all around. Got to meet Axel, Lemmy, and the great Joe Coleman there, who as it turned out lived two floors below me on 13th Street. After that, I seemed to run into him on the stairs all the time; he was a weird guy, which should come as no surprise to anybody familiar with his work. Anyways.
As interesting as Tolkien’s manuscript drafts and personal objects are, the real draw for visitors should be the chance to explore Tolkien’s artistic output. It becomes clear as one moves through the exhibition that Tolkien was a talented artist from a very early age, and what is perhaps most impressive about his art is the fact that it is far, far smaller in size than one would expect.
In most cases, the works he created are no larger than a standard sheet of paper, and in some instances not even that. As an artist, Tolkien demonstrates a painstaking attention to detail that would have impressed even the most talented of medieval manuscript illuminators. This is all the more surprising given that Tolkien never intended the public to see most of his art, but Tolkien’s publishers were often so taken with the author’s drawings and paintings that they were used as cover art or to accompany the text of his novels.
One particularly interesting example in the exhibition of work that was decidedly not meant for publication are a series of pen-and-ink doodles that Tolkien made on newspaper, a habit he engaged in frequently. Always thinking about the mythology he was inventing, Tolkien would draw on any paper that came to hand as he imagined the peoples and cultures of Middle-earth. Newspapers were a cheap and easy target for his pen, and the exhibition has several examples of them covered with scrollwork, paisleys, geometric patterns, and other designs.
His drawings and watercolors, however, come across as quite contemporary with, and informed by, several of the artistic and design styles that were popular during his lifetime, from Gothic Revival to Art Deco. For example, the show displays several of the badge designs that Tolkien created to illustrate examples of elven heraldry. These reflect the influence of British Arts and Crafts designers such as William Morris (1834-1896) and William de Morgan (1839-1917), whose fashionable textiles and tiles Tolkien would likely have been familiar with in childhood.
Tolkien was an enormously talented man, a true genius back in the days before that word became completely devalued due to overuse. Naturally, though, there’s a catch here, and if you know both Tolkien and NYC you can probably guess what it is.
As enjoyable as it was to see Tolkien’s art in person, not to mention so many items related to his personal life and literary output, I do have one major criticism to pass along.
It seems intellectually lazy, at best, to ignore such a crucially important factor in Tolkien’s personal life, philosophy, and work.
Earlier I referred to the crowded nature of the exhibition as reminiscent of lining up to receive Holy Communion. Yet, strangely, there’s virtually no mention of Tolkien’s devout Catholicism in this show, let alone any exploration of it as an underlying factor in his life and work.
This is a significant and, one assumes, intentional oversight, given that Tolkien stated quite plainly that “The Lord of the Rings” is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” a fact that remains both unacknowledged and unexplored in this otherwise comprehensive exhibition.
It cannot have been lost on the organizers that many Christians will see the show because they admire Tolkien as a man of faith who succeeded in a field largely dominated by those of none. This unwillingness to explore Tolkien’s Catholicism raises questions potential visitors may wish to take into consideration. While no one exhibition can hope to explore every aspect of an artist’s biography or output, of course, in this case it seems intellectually lazy, at best, to ignore such a crucially important factor in Tolkien’s personal life, philosophy, and work.
If one wanted to be charitable about it, this omission could well be explained by its emphasis on JRR’s artwork alone; whether or not his religious faith figured much (or at all) in his paintings isn’t made clear in the article, so it may be that it wasn’t so much ignored as that it just wasn’t there in the first place, I dunno. But I think we all know well enough why all reference to Christianity was excluded, with no need to bother being charitable about anything.
“Intentional oversight”? If it’s intentional, then it ain’t really oversight, now is it?