Fay's Fairy Tales: Doggish by direction

September 15, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

ART REVIEW

What: Fay's Fairy Tales: William Wegman's "Cinderella" and "Little Red Riding Hood"

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near North Charles and 31st streets

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through Dec. 5

Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students; $1.50 ages 7 through 18; free Thursdays

$ Call: (410) 396-7100

All the world loves a good fairy tale, and all the world loves William Wegman's dog photographs, so what could be a better match than fairy tales illustrated with William Wegman's dog photographs?

It would be nice to say nothing in the world, but actually there are problems here. Wegman has recently produced two books based on famous fairy tales (or one should say directed, since he directs a crew of up to 10 dogs in front of the camera and up to 10 people behind it): "Cinderella" appeared earlier in the year and "Little Red Riding Hood" gets published this fall. Meanwhile, the Baltimore Museum of Art has organized an exhibit of the full-sized (20-by-24 inches) photographs for both books that opens today.

Over the past two decades, Wegman has shown so well his ability to bring out dogs' personalities in individual pictures that series of pictures based on narratives are a natural step. And these two tales are great fun, especially "Cinderella."

The combination of sets and costumes, the Weimaraners' expressive faces and Wegman's genius at working with them results in books with a lot of charm. The dogs seem at times uncannily to inhabit the roles assigned them. When "Cinderella" goes to bed after seeing her stepmother and stepsisters off to the ball without her, Battina -- the dog who plays Cinderella -- has such a forlorn look on her face that it seems she must know what emotion she's supposed to project.

But for all their cleverness these books disappoint in a number of ways, and so does the exhibit. In "Cinderella," Wegman sometimes uses human limbs -- an arm, a hand, a foot -- in combination with the dogs' faces, a device that tends to minimize rather than enhance the illusion of the dogs' humanness.

Battina, who plays the title role in both stories, looks just the part in "Cinderella," but she's simply too old to play the little girl in "Little Red Riding Hood." Maybe that's one reason why Wegman chose mostly long shots of her rather than close-ups. Nor does Fay look old enough to be the grandmother. Only Chundo, who plays the woodsman and the wolf thoroughly looks his parts.

The major problem with both books, though, is the writing of the stories, by Wegman with help from two others. A sense of wonder and magic is necessary to the successful telling of a fairy tale, and the magic just isn't there in these tellings.

"[Cinderella] awakened to a glowing light, which she at first mistook for morning. Turning toward the window she saw before her a vision so lovely, radiant, and serene it could only be . . .

" 'Cinderella, I am your Fairy Godmother,' a sweet voice said."

Pretty flat, yes?

In the exhibit, the pictures are accompanied by brief labels -- not the full retelling of the stories -- with so much left out that parents will have to fill lots of blanks. On the other hand, the exhibit benefits from the size of the pictures and the fact that they are darker than those in the book, adding a moodier, more dramatic feeling to the tales.

None of the above should be taken as recommending against a visit to this show, which no doubt everyone will like to some degree. Maybe it's just that one expects so much of Wegman that he seems to have let us down somewhat here.

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