In the mail: The sleep of reason produces snowmen

In today’s e-mail, announcing the holiday issue of the New York Review of Books:

(#1) The text is all about Marcel Dzama’s cover art,The sleep of reason produces snowmen — an explicit homage to Goya, with a touch of Krampusnacht (12/5); not your daddy’s jolly Xmas snowman

Digression on snowmen. Your daddy’s jolly Xmas snowman hasn’t always been so jolly, as you can see from Bob Eckstein’s — yes, the cartoonist Bob Eckstein, about whom I post so often on this blog — delightful The Illustrated History of the Snowman (2018):


From the publisher’s blurb:

A thoroughly entertaining exploration, this book travels back in time to shed light on the snowman’s enigmatic past — from the present day, in which the snowman reigns as the King of Kitsch, to the Dark Ages, with the creation of the very first snowman. Eckstein’s curiosity began playfully enough, but soon snowballed into a (mostly) earnest quest of chasing Frosty around the world, into museums and libraries, and seeking out the advice of leading historians and scholars. The result is a riveting history that reaches back through centuries and across cultures — sweeping from fifteenth-century Italian snowballs to eighteenth-century Russian ice sculptures to the regrettable “white-trash years” (1975-2000). The snowman is not just part of our childhood memories, but is an integral part of our world culture, appearing — much like a frozen Forrest Gump — alongside dignitaries and celebrities during momentous events. Again and again, the snowman pops up in rare prints, paintings, early movies, advertising and, over the past century, in every art form imaginable. And the jolly snowman — ostensibly as pure as the driven snow — also harbors a dark past full of political intrigue, sex, and violence.

But the text from the NYRB newsletter …  By art editor Leanne Shapton. In its full complexity:

The cover for the Review’s holiday issue was hand-drawn and painted by the multimedia artist Marcel Dzama. As I wrote last year, our holiday covers tend to skew dark, favoring doom and gloom over comfort and joy. With the spirit of Krampus in mind, I thought of Marcel, whose work veers from cinematic to Edenic to apocalyptic and back. For our cover, he painted a pair of snowpeople on a sort of evening passeggiata, surrounded by owls, some hungry red birds, and a menacing cat. [NOAD on the (Italian) noun passeggiata: ‘a leisurely walk or stroll, especially one taken in the evening; a promenade (used with reference to the tradition of taking such a walk in Italy or Italian-speaking communities)’]

He titled it The sleep of reason produces snowmen. Maybe it’s the Canadian in me, but I love a good winter night scene, where the snow glows blue and the shadows are eerily bright.

Dzama was born in Winnipeg — a city notorious for its winters, long and snowy even for Canada—and like fellow Winnipegger Guy Maddin, the chilly landscapes and hearty wildlife of the northern prairies have worked their way into much of his art. As Dzama told me over e-mail this week:

Winnipeg gets a lot of winter, so I had a lot of experience making snowmen and snow forts. Growing up I saw bears, moose, beavers, and tons of other wildlife that all ended up in my drawings…. The winters in Winnipeg can last up to six months. When I go back now, I find myself overwhelmed by the beauty of the snowy landscape. I think that is where I truly began my practice as an artist. I didn’t understand how much I was influenced by the landscape at the time. When I look back on my early works, I see that they are mostly very sparse, minimal backgrounds with very few characters in the forefront. I didn’t realize it, but I was drawing the prairies in winter.

Many of Dzama’s paintings, drawings, and books are peopled by anthropomorphic bats, goats, and human-animal hybrids. One of his most familiar works might be his untitled 2000 painting of a woman with a swarm of rodents for legs dueling a lizard man, which was used as the cover art for Sianne Ngai’s book Ugly Feelings.


This sort of dark whimsy had some of its foundation in his childhood. “Growing up I loved the Grimm’s fairy tales and anything to do with mythology,” he told me. Together with a teenaged visit to the Winnipeg Art Gallery — “They have the largest collection of Inuit art in the world. They have a beautiful collection and I was for sure influenced by it” — this engagement with the folkloric has imprinted his paintings with the deceptively cheerful look of old children’s books, somewhere on the unsettling borderlands between human emotion and animal savagery.

Dzama now lives in Brooklyn, where he is “surrounded by a lot of beautiful parks. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a favorite. I also like traveling short distances away from the city with my family, to Fire Island or upstate New York.” The change of scenery is perhaps reflected in his recent paintings, which are characterized by ornate backgrounds and a rich color palate. Some of this work is on view now at Child of Midnight, a solo show of Dzama’s paintings and films at David Zwirner’s London gallery. The show, which encompasses themes of climate change and the fleeting nature of time, includes tropical and oceanic seascapes populated by swimmers and royalty and masked dancers.

I asked Dzama how, aside from the change in landscape, his life in the United States may have affected his work — did the snowman couple on the Holiday Issue cover perhaps reference American Gothic? — and he explained where the title of his painting came from:

I was recently looking at the Goya print The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, which I think is fitting for these times. Since I live in New York, I think I am in a bit of a bubble. It’s hard not to pay attention to the news when it’s as grim as it has been. I don’t see myself as a political artist, but politics manage to creep their way in. Hopefully, it is a therapeutic purge to get it out artistically!

About Krampus. From my 11/22/14 posting “On to St.Nicholas and Xmas”, on Krampus, the evil twin of Santa Claus; recall that Krampusnacht is the evening of 12/5:

(#4) The demonic Krampus on a greeting card; black and hairy, with horns, tail, protruding tongue, and at least one hoofed foot

About the Goya. From my 1/13/16 posting “Pittman, Dickinson, and Goya”:

On Goya’s Los Caprichos, from Wikipedia:

The work was an enlightened, tour-de-force critique of 18th-century Spain, and humanity in general. The informal style, as well as the depiction of contemporary society found in Caprichos, makes them (and Goya himself) a precursor to the modernist movement almost a century later. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters in particular has attained an iconic status.

(#5) One of a number of the Caprichos swarming with demonic bats, birds (especially owls), and other creatures (like the cat above).

The demonic creatures wish you a merry Christmas season in the snow.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: