Thursday, August 8, 2013

Dioramarama: Farrah Field's Miniaturisms and Orson Welles on the Thorne Rooms

I almost forgot to tell you about a little essay I wrote about Farrah Field's new book, Wolf and Pilot. I focused on Field's obsession with size:

In the book’s closing notes, we learn that the first poem’s details are based on a Narcissa Thorne diorama. It makes perfect sense that Field would find inspiration in dioramas (from the Greek roots di-, “through,” and orama, “that which is seen, a sight”), because the poems in Wolf and Pilot have the feel of a scale replica—perfect and delicate like dollhouse rooms. And in “Dalebound,” there’s an embedded effect: We watch the dolls peer into their own diorama, a miniaturized view of the future. 
What are Field’s dioramas made of? Words, of course, and stanzas (Italian for “room”). But also textures—grass, wool, leather, linen. And references—the word “dalebound” is borrowed from a Ross Brighton poem. And Dickinsonian feathers—hope is usually reserved for the future, but these girls look for hope in their past. (Outside of our unreliable memories, the past is as gone to us as the future.) 
Every particular makes sense within the box, with its one open wall for us to peer through (“Someone’s always watching,” Emaline says, “but never where you think.”). But they have uncertain reference to the larger outside world. Do these objects represent reality, reflect and refract it, or does life imitate art? (“We are the girls,” they say. “Everything in the world points to us.”) In our world, up a level, “just like heaven” is a reference to The Cure, but does The Cure exist in the world of the box? Probably not—though the box does have pizza and friendship bracelets, other paraphernalia of pre-teen sleepovers. The girls are older now, old enough for drinks, but not too old to indulge in funereal fantasies, where one discovers who really loved you, and if you’ll be missed.

You can read the full thing here.

I also wanted to share this fascinating little snippet with you. Michael Gushue sent it my way, via our mutual friend Kathleen Rooney, with this note attached: "Hey, will you do me a favor and forward this extract to Elisa? It's from Barbara Lemmings's biography of Orson Welles. I saw that Elisa mentioned the Thorne rooms in her review of Wolf and Pilot. I thought she might find this interesting." Thank you Michael, I do! Here's the bit (From Orson Welles: A Biography by Barbara Lemming):
“And when you go inside I want you to ask somebody to direct you to the Thorne rooms,” he continued. 
When I asked Orson what were the Thorne rooms and why he was so anxious for me to see them, he refused to explain. 
“As soon as you get to Chicago, just go and see them,” he insisted, “and then come right back to the hotel and call me to tell me what you think of them.” 
Fair enough. 
But when I arrived in Chicago, after stops in several other cities, I was tired and wanted more than anything to sleep. At dawn on Saturday morning the phone was madly ringing in my hotel room. It was Orson. Had I taken his walk yet? Had I been to see them? What were they like? What had I thought? 
And so I took the walk Orson mapped out for me, past the magical toy shop that no longer existed, past the bronze lions with their ripping tails, and into the cavernous lobby of the Art Institute, where a guard directed me to the children’s museum in the basement. 
And there they were. 
It was difficult to see at first, because they were set low for children. But when I bent low and looked in, I was mesmerized. The Thorne Rooms were a series of illuminated boxes set into the wall. To see inside, to see inside, you had to look through a picture frame and a piece of glass that separated you from the densely furnished miniature room. The rooms suggested a dazzling variety of periods and places. The picture frames sealed off these richly detailed fantasy worlds, intensifying their sense of strangeness. 
When I arrived in Los Angeles, I brought Orson a surprise from Chicago, a catalogue of the Thorne rooms. We were having dinner at Ma Maison when I gave it to him. At first, as he tore open the package and saw the book’s title, Orson was beside himself with excitement at the prospect of seeing his beloved Thorne rooms again. But hardly had he turned the cover and flipped through a few pages, when he tossed the book on the floor. 
“What’s the matter,” I asked, trying to conceal my agitation. 
“This is useless to me.” 
“This isn’t my magic box. Don’t you see what they’ve done? They’ve cut the frames off!”

When I retrieved the book and opened it, I saw what Orson meant. There were the miniature rooms I had viewed in Chicago, but not the frames that enclosed them. To Orson, the frame had been all, separating as it did the artist’s heightened, imaginary world from the prosaic “real” outside the magic box.
I absolutely love the Thorne rooms, by the way. One of my favorite things in any museum. Funnily enough, before I even finished reading this passage, I thought to myself, I should get a book of the Thorne rooms! And I went with haste to Amazon to search for one. I found a nice-looking coffee table book but noticed immediately that the cover image just looked like any room, because the rooms are so realistic, and when you're not viewing them in person, you lose the sense of scale. ("Scale," I think, is part of the "aura" of the art object; see also the sublime and photographs and aura.) So me and Orson Welles, we're like this.

Top image via Knoxville Museum of Art


  1. I've been in the Chicago Art Institute a couple of times (both occasions were in the mid-1970's), though I didn't see the Thorne rooms, hadn't heard of them before reading your post here.

    Welles' and your comments about the importance of the frames, and about the importance of scale, are especially interesting to me, and -- for me -- raise again the various questions about the difference between reading a poem in a print book and reading a poem on a computer screen. This, among many other things.

    1. I was just commenting to Matthew Zapruder on Twitter this week that it's hard for me to focus on poems online because the rest of the Internet is RIGHT THERE. I like to read poems in books, on Sunday mornings by myself, with coffee.