In my enthusiasm for seeing the exhibition “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth,” which just opened at the Morgan Library in New York, I made the mistake of scheduling my visit for the show’s opening weekend. If the first rule of Fight Club is to never talk about Fight Club, the first rule of exhibitions is never attend an exhibition on opening weekend.
This is particularly the case when the exhibition is about a figure as beloved as J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), author of “The Hobbit,” “The Lord of the Rings,” and other tales that set the standard for fantasy literature in the 20th century. It’s no wonder that the line to get into the Morgan and see Tolkien’s manuscripts, personal items, and art snaked through the vestibule and out onto the sidewalk on Madison Avenue long before opening time, despite the below-freezing temperatures outdoors.
Perhaps if the show featured large-scale works, like mythological canvases by Peter Paul Rubens or spider sculptures by Louise Bourgeois, being jostled about by a crowd in a spacious gallery on opening weekend would have been passable. Yet “Tolkien” is composed largely of elements that are often diminutive, so they have been placed in a low-ceilinged, somewhat compact gallery place, rather than in a large hall or series of rooms.
From photographs to letters to hand-drawn maps, nearly everything on display is on such a small scale that close attention is required, which made seeing the exhibition on this particular weekend rather difficult. To examine the objects and read the accompanying placards, one had to shuffle along, waiting for those ahead in line to finish. At times it felt like standing in line to receive communion.
Yes, J.R.R. Tolkien Was an Artist
As interesting as Tolkien’s manuscript drafts and personal objects are, the real draw for visitors should be the chance to explore Tolkien’s artistic output. It becomes clear as one moves through the exhibition that Tolkien was a talented artist from a very early age, and what is perhaps most impressive about his art is the fact that it is far, far smaller in size than one would expect.
In most cases, the works he created are no larger than a standard sheet of paper, and in some instances not even that. As an artist, Tolkien demonstrates a painstaking attention to detail that would have impressed even the most talented of medieval manuscript illuminators. This is all the more surprising given that Tolkien never intended the public to see most of his art, but Tolkien’s publishers were often so taken with the author’s drawings and paintings that they were used as cover art or to accompany the text of his novels.
One particularly interesting example in the exhibition of work that was decidedly not meant for publication are a series of pen-and-ink doodles that Tolkien made on newspaper, a habit he engaged in frequently. Always thinking about the mythology he was inventing, Tolkien would draw on any paper that came to hand as he imagined the peoples and cultures of Middle-earth. Newspapers were a cheap and easy target for his pen, and the exhibition has several examples of them covered with scrollwork, paisleys, geometric patterns, and other designs.
His drawings and watercolors, however, come across as quite contemporary with, and informed by, several of the artistic and design styles that were popular during his lifetime, from Gothic Revival to Art Deco. For example, the show displays several of the badge designs that Tolkien created to illustrate examples of elven heraldry. These reflect the influence of British Arts and Crafts designers such as William Morris (1834-1896) and William de Morgan (1839-1917), whose fashionable textiles and tiles Tolkien would likely have been familiar with in childhood.
By way of complete contrast, another work in the show, “The Shores of Faery” (1915), illustrates the celestial city of the elves in a style reminiscent of Futurism, an art movement that was at its peak around the time Tolkien painted the piece. Too early to be Surrealist, and too late to be Symbolist, the painting somehow reminds one simultaneously of later works by both Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and Joan Miró (1893-1983). It’s fascinating to see how the same artist who created the geometric precision of the elven badges could also paint such a visually complex, yet predominantly abstract image of an imaginary place.
Clear Japanese Influences, As Well
In examining the sketches and paintings that Tolkien produced over the course of many decades, he appears to have been heavily influenced by Japanese art, particularly Japanese woodblock prints and painted scrolls. In this aspect of his artistic output, Tolkien was following a tradition first embraced by the Impressionists, and later by artists and artisans of the Art Nouveau era.
In “Bilbo Comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves” (1937) for example, the simplified tree and water forms are clustered into a composition that leads the eye along a curving river, which vanishes just around the bend where the sun is coming up from behind a mountain. The painting recalls Meiji period art, such as the work of Taki Katei (1830–1901), in that at first glance it seems simple, yet to pull off requires a great deal of visual sophistication and careful editing by the artist.
Another piece in the show, a watercolor illustrating Sauron’s stronghold of “Barad-dûr” (1937), also appears to be heavily indebted to Japanese art and design. This is clear from the architectural style of the fortress itself, whose construction recalls Samurai castles more than it does the Norman ones with which Tolkien would have been familiar in Britain.
Similarly, the almost monochromatic rendering of the scene on a parchment-colored ground is highly reminiscent of a Japanese painted scroll. Tolkien may perhaps be teasing us visually by truncating the depiction of the tower at its base, suggesting there is more of the image to unroll even though there isn’t.
Perhaps the single most famous example of Tolkien’s art in the exhibition is his instantly recognizable 1937 dust jacket design for the first edition of “The Hobbit.” It’s one of those rare book covers that is so arresting and memorable that most people could identify the book immediately even if the textual component was missing.
Yet the cover’s final appearance is not entirely what the author-artist intended. Tolkien wanted both the sun and the dragon featured on the dust jacket to be bright red, but his publisher literally whited them out—a change that is visible when examining the object up close—to reduce the cost of printing from a five-color cover, to the more familiar four-color version in blue, green, black, and white.
Where the Heck Is Tolkien’s Faith?
As enjoyable as it was to see Tolkien’s art in person, not to mention so many items related to his personal life and literary output, I do have one major criticism to pass along.
Earlier I referred to the crowded nature of the exhibition as reminiscent of lining up to receive Holy Communion. Yet, strangely, there’s virtually no mention of Tolkien’s devout Catholicism in this show, let alone any exploration of it as an underlying factor in his life and work.
This is a significant and, one assumes, intentional oversight, given that Tolkien stated quite plainly that “The Lord of the Rings” is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” a fact that remains both unacknowledged and unexplored in this otherwise comprehensive exhibition.
It cannot have been lost on the organizers that many Christians will see the show because they admire Tolkien as a man of faith who succeeded in a field largely dominated by those of none. This unwillingness to explore Tolkien’s Catholicism raises questions potential visitors may wish to take into consideration. While no one exhibition can hope to explore every aspect of an artist’s biography or output, of course, in this case it seems intellectually lazy, at best, to ignore such a crucially important factor in Tolkien’s personal life, philosophy, and work.
That being said, this is otherwise an excellent show, and one well worth your time should you find yourself in New York during its run. There is much to see and learn, and the accompanying catalogue is a jewel of a book, well worth its price. Although ultimately a critically incomplete examination of Tolkien’s life and work, the exhibition should bring about greater interest in and closer examination of Tolkien’s work as an artist, an aspect of his creative output that deserves to be better-known and further explored.
“Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” is at the Morgan Library through May 12, 2019.