By Jacqui Reid-Walsh and Colette Slagle
After spending some time with quasi diplomatic description and focusing on the fonts, styles and languages of the text of the metamorphic books, Colette and I have turned back to the four of five sets of woodcut images that populate all the books from the 17th century Beginning, Progress and End of Man though all the later versions of the Metamorphosis; or a transformation of pictures, whether printed or homemade. No matter the number of panels, the first set is always Adam, who turns into Eve, the intended transformation of Eve into a mermaid, and the (presumably) unintended one of Adam in into a merman. While there is text to support the first three figures, there is nothing to describe or comment on the merman.
Just as the anonymous verse is biblical or traditional, the sources of the woodcuts are unknown, although thought to be medieval. This turn to the visual also connects with a post sabbatical project of Jacqui’s that was based on “critical making” a facsimile of the first panel of the Bodleian library version dated 1688/9 version. This was undertaken using a period printing press and facsimiles of the woodcuts that were made for Jacqui by the library (please see the Bodleian Library blog entry in the Conveyer for Feb 6, 2017). Richard Lawrence did the actual printing, and The BlockShop in Liverpool made the first set of blocks from the line drawings made from the Bodleian version (1788/89).
What was revolutionary for Jacqui when she saw the first panel being made was that there were actually only two blocks: Adam and the Mermaid. Since the paper is laid horizontally and the long edges turned down and up to make flaps, the mermaid is printed first so she is the prime image! When the two edges of paper are folded to meet in the middle, the Adam woodblock is placed over the break.
This ordering is the opposite of how we encounter the images textually by reading the words, following the instructions, and lifting the flaps up and down. Eve does not exist as a woodblock. She is formed only by the reader-viewer-player who follows the instructions to “turn Up the Leaf,” causes the image to transform into Eve. This sequence of images is perhaps an attempt to enact the biblical story of Eve coming from Adam’s rib.
To make matters more mysterious, there is a fourth figure that also emerges from the movement of the flaps, either by design or inadvertently. This is the merman—He is formed two ways. One is inadvertent. After lifting the top flap to create Eve a reader is instructed to “turn down the leaf” to see the mermaid at the end of sequence. But due to the design and weight the top flap tends to fall down to form a merman, who is not in the verse at all! Alternately, a disobedient reader-viewer-player may choose to turn down the lower flap first instead of lifting the top as instructed. The Adam transforms into the merman before he does into Eve. In all cases the effects and playability are only possible by the way the sheet is printed with the mermaid as the prime block on the underside of the unfolded paper strip.
This impels Jacqui to ask what is the importance of the primacy of the mermaid in the making of the strip? Is there any significance from the playful engagement of the flaps to create a merman? In order to think about this, what if we take a different approach to engaging with and interpreting the narrative? What would happen narrative if we examine it from a printerly view?