Apollo Magazine (UK)
Cutlery has defied artists to find new forms. For inventiveness in tableware, animation holds the key, writes Thomas Marks
Disney’s table dramas
Modern artists never got far with knives and forks. Take the set of silver-gilt cutlery that Salvador Dalí designed in 1957: the bowls of spoons reenvisaged as asymmetrical artichoke leaves; a fork done up like an elephant, with three tines for its tusks; and a knife handle in the form of a snail stuck to a leaf, from which drip four tears made of rock crystal. As a group of small sculptures these utensils are diverting. But it would be an ordeal to find them laid out for you at a dinner party.
Cutlery is among that class of objects, like wheels or violins, that settled into its shape long ago. Yes, the epicurean elite of the great baroque courts commissioned ostentatious cutlery handles, which were carved, inlaid or otherwise ornamented; the ivory handles of one late 17th-century set in the V&A are fashioned as a pride of peckish lions, straining from their case. But the basic forms of the tools that we use to slice, pierce, scoop and shovel haven’t changed much since the table fork acquired its fourth prong in the 18th century. In modern times to redesign knives and forks, even with their function in mind, has usually meant edging towards the surreal, however inadvertently. More than six decades since it was first manufactured, Arne Jacobsen’s tableware still looks strikingly unfamiliar: the scalpel-like knives bring a touch of Tulp’s anatomy lesson to the dining table.
It is the ever-so-ordinary appearance of knives and forks, perhaps, that has encouraged animators to play around with them. Animation, after all, is a medium that enjoys bending objects out of shape before usually restoring them to their regular form. As early as the 1930s, the artists at Disney had defined ‘squash and stretch’ as one of their operating principles: you can see it at work in the dancing crockery in The China Shop (1934), one of the animated shorts in the Silly Symphony series (1929–39). In another short, The Cookie Carnival (1935), two slices of devil’s food cake wield dessert forks as diminutive pitchforks.
The Disney Studios had fun with silverware in Beauty and the Beast (1991), which alongside Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959) is one of three animated features that are the focus of ‘Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative
Arts’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (until 6 March). As curator Wolf Burchard explains in the exhibition catalogue, Walt Disney and his artists repeatedly took visual cues from gothic and rococo works of art, finding in the latter style an impetus for their own efforts at ‘animating the inanimate’. Mrs Potts, the benevolent teapot in Beauty and the Beast, has the pink, white and gold colour scheme that became a calling card of the Sèvres manufacture in the mid 18th century.
The cutlery in Beauty and the Beast has no such distinctive characterisation, which is perhaps befitting given the standardised form of such objects. Instead, knives, forks and spoons make up the chorus line in the film’s most ambitious set piece, ‘Be Our Guest’, which reimagines the act of laying a table as a grand cabaret number. Like a troupe in a Golden Age musical, spoons dive from the rim of a tureen into a pool of soup to perform a synchronised swim. Knives are recast as springboards. Forks dance a cancan perched on the frame of a chandelier. ‘No one’s gloomy or complaining,’ sings the candlestick, Lumière, ‘While the flatware’s entertaining.’
Another animator to have pressed cutlery into service is the Czech film-maker Jan Svankmajer. As in Disney films, in stop-motion animations such as Dimensions of Dialogue (1982) and Meat Love (1989) inert objects take on a life of their own. But here everyday objects are suffused not with sympathy but with cruelty. In the opening section of Dimensions of Dialogue, a head made from kitchen utensils – forks for hair, spoons and ladles for eyes, nose and lips – faces off with an animated Arcimboldo head, all bread, fruit and vegetables. The one devours the other, shredding and slicing it, before its metal components are in turn bent and broken by a third head forged from stationery and artist’s supplies. In another film, Food (1992), a man nails a fork to his hand: the tools we take for granted, Svankmajer suggests, are less distant from barbarism than we like to think.
Can’t a cartoon fork just be an ordinary fork? In Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989), Ariel, the mermaid heroine, finds one in a shipwreck, adding it to her collection of objects discarded from the human world she longs to join. To her it’s a mystifying artefact, so she asks a seagull friend what it does. It’s a ‘dinglehopper’, he says, which humans comb their hair with, twirling up his plumage with the prongs so that it looks like spaghetti. We count on animation to transform objects, but Ariel’s fork defeats those expectations. It doesn’t bend, squash or stretch, but holds its shape while losing its purpose: it is a fork without function.