Friday, December 10, 2021

"Flower Fairies" Pleading for Innocence

One might be tempted to think of Cicely Mary Barker's "Flower Fairies" as "beauty for its own sake" a remnant of the ideas of aestheticism or the arts and crafts movements. But the extreme innocence of the images, and the way they managed to captivate people above so many other beautiful images of fairies means that there is likely more going on. 

The Great War had left people fleeing from the horror that the modern world could bring, and towards what they hoped would be a brighter future of parties, jazz, cars, and a changing moral standard. In this flight they found the problems that come with decadence and thoughtless, self-serving behavior, from a rise in crime to many forms of emotional scarring.

It is likely that "The Flower Fairies" beckon us to return to a more innocent time, to a purer morality.

As imaginative as the flower fairies are, they are in essence portraits of children doing daily things. In essence, they are reminders of childhood, of purity, and hope. 

For Cicely M. Barker the roaring 20s must have been a terrifying time. She was, after all, a devout Christian who had donated much of her money to missionaries and had painted post cards of angels for the “Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge”.

But while her angels guide children, that was before the Roaring 20s. The children in "Flower Fairies" are instead meant to guide us, or at least remind us of what we were before hedonism took over. 

By drawing innocent, cherubic children as fairies she likely hoped to remind people of the purity and wonder of childhood. For her this was likely the path to a better world, not the hedonism of roaring twenties excess that would lead to the Great Depression.

Barker wasn't the first one to use fairies in this way, however. 

Fairies have been used for moralizing purposes for a long time. The Rusalka were said in one fairytale to be leaving Russia because of the immorality of the people. Nymphs taught people morality in Greek Mythology, not the gods.

Fantasy and fairytales are frequently used as a part of moral instruction, and for many that meant tying them to religious themes. Indeed, early fantasy art, whether a painting of “Saint George” battling a dragon or a unicorn which was symbolic of Christian ideals, Krampus who was invented by Christian plays as a punisher of immorality, and the tales of King Arthur, much of early fantasy was entirely about religious morality.

Perrault wrote down fairytales such as “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Cinderella” in hopes of instructing children on proper morals, altering the fairytales to fit with the lessons he wanted to teach. More recently “The Chronicles of Narnia” channeled old Christian plays which used animals as symbols for Christian moralism, with the lion often symbolizing Christ, in order to pass on Christian ideas through a fantasy story.

In the world of art, however, few were so inspiring as Barker whose paintings of pure and innocent fairies became the standard that many people thought of fairies. Obviously, she didn’t exist in a vacuum and there had been other fairies that approached this level of innocence before her, but none so famous, and few so perfect in their display of purity. This was clearly what many people needed from their art.