Mythic Creatures Come to Life in Newfoundland


Albrecht Dürer, The Beast with Lamb's Horns (c. 1496–97), woodcut on laid paper, 38.8 x 27.9 cm. NGC

From ghosts to fairies to tales of giant squid attacking fishing boats, Newfoundland is a place where folklore and legend often blend together, reflecting the island’s history, while providing a way to communicate what happens in daily life. This long-held attachment to the fantastical makes it an ideal province to host the National Gallery of Canada’s travelling exhibition: Beautiful Monsters: Beasts and Fantastic Creatures in Early European Prints.

“Newfoundland has a really interesting history about ghosts, the unknown and the uncanny and that is very much soaked in our history,” says Mireille Eagan, Curator of Contemporary Art at The Rooms, St. John's, NL. “This place is laden with folklore and magical narratives, so bringing in this exhibition speaks to that.”

Sonia Del Re, the National Gallery of Canada’s Assistant Curator, European, American and Asian Prints and Drawings, curated the exhibition, which brings together 47 European prints from the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, all drawn from the National Gallery’s collection of etchings, engravings and woodcuts. The creatures, beasts and human forms range from handsome to hideous, real to fictitious, strange to surprising. 


Andrea Mantegna, Battle of the Sea Gods (left side) [c. 1485–88], engraving on laid paper, 28 x 42.7 cm. NGC

“I went back to the original meaning of ‘baroque,’ which refers to misshapen pearls. That led me to thinking about other deformed objects,” says Del Re. “I realized that the National Gallery has numerous representations of fantastical creatures, whether they are mythological or part of apocalyptic narratives. That’s how it all started.” 

Del Re also delved into the Latin root of the word “monster” for inspiration and insight. “It’s from the Latin verb monstro, which means “to show or reveal.” I thought that was interesting,” she says, “because it suggests something bad is about to happen. So it’s not only about legends and things that exist in our minds alone, but also about reality, the world in which we live, and how we conceive of that world.”

When it comes to Newfoundlanders, the world of today, just like the world of yesterday, is often described through the actions of fantastical creatures and mythological monsters. When Eagan first moved to Newfoundland, she was warned to sleep on her side, because if she slept on her back the Old Hag would get her. The Old Hag is a colourful explanation for sleep paralysis, in which an old witch literally sits on a person’s chest, preventing them from moving or breathing. 

“In Newfoundland there are a lot of stories, and lots of narratives to explain a personal experience,” explains Dr. Cory Thorne, Head of the Department of Folklore at Memorial University in Newfoundland. “When you say you saw the Old Hag, everybody knows exactly what you mean. You don’t have to provide every detail.”


Jacques Callot, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (second version) [1635], etching on laid paper, 35.6 x 46.2 cm trimmed with platemark to borderline; image: 31.3 x 46.1 cm. NGC

Thorne says parents often warn children not to stray too far from home because, if they do, the fairies will get them. Is this warning issued because there are actually fairies in the woods, or because Newfoundland is a sparsely populated place with woods in which people often get lost? The answer is perhaps not as important as the simple reality that the fantastical has become a part of the way Newfoundlanders contextualize everyday life. Legends aside, Eagan is confident that people will enjoy the quality of the art itself.

“These are extremely high-calibre prints,” she says. “It is not often that people here get to see an Albrecht Dürer — who is just one of the prominent printmakers in this exhibition — which is another major reason why we wanted to bring it here.”

Beautiful Monsters is divided into five themes: religious chimeras, mythological creatures, sea monsters, war horses and decorative motifs.

Del Re says that some prints, such as Andrea Mantegna’s famous Battle of the Sea Gods, depict mythological or allegorical themes. Others, like The Whore of Babylon by Dürer have a more moralistic message. Regardless of the theme, tone or meaning, however, it is hard to look away.

“It’s that push-pull relationship we have with the Other, with the unknown, that is the true subject of this show” says Del Re. “Monsters embody certain anxieties and tensions. That’s why we’re fascinated by them.” 

Beautiful Monsters: Beasts and Fantastic Creatures in Early European Prints is on view at The Rooms in St. John’s, Newfoundland until January 4, 2015. For more information, please click here.

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