'Oz' art varies, but not the story

The Associated Press

She started off looking like a clownish crazy woman -- her long hair in a wild braid and one eye popped wide open. Her petticoat and baggy skirt were more outlandish than frightening.

That was in 1900, when the Wicked Witch of the West made her debut in "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." But since W.W. Denslow first drew her for the pages of L. Frank Baum's classic children's book, Dorothy's nemesis has changed faces several times.

In 1981, Andy Warhol silk-screened her as Margaret Hamilton, freezing the actress in the green-faced role she played in Hollywood's 1939 production of the story. Four years later, artist Barry Moser turned her into Nancy Reagan, placing the pointy-hatted first lady against a dismal black backdrop.

"I'm playing very close to obvious and corny imagery here," Moser wrote at the time.

The original drawings and reinterpretations of the Wicked Witch and other characters from Oz are on display at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in an exhibit that commemorates the 150th anniversary of the births of Baum and Denslow and pays tribute to the story's staying power.

The exhibit traces the story of Baum's book, from the cyclone that whisks Dorothy's Kansas farmhouse to the mystical land of Oz to the young girl's return home thanks to her magical slippers. Along the yellow brick road, she and her companions -- the tin woodsman, lion and scarecrow -- must confront the powerful wicked witch and find their way to the Emerald City, where the omniscient wizard is revealed as a short, bald man with no real power, who hides behind a curtain.

As the show retells the adventure, it highlights the different ways artists have interpreted the story.

The clean lines of Denslow's Art Nouveau-inspired drawings give way to more elaborate and detailed images in later reworkings of the book.

There's Charles Santore's 1991 depiction of Munchkinland, where blond-haired Dorothy is greeted by a crowd of gnome-like characters that look like a band of leprechauns.

And as Dorothy and her gang burst into the Emerald City in Santore's version, they're overcome by a world of green where the buildings are based on the works of Antonio Gaudi, a Catalan architect known for his highly stylized designs during the early 1900s.

"[Santore] wanted to recognize the most visionary architect who was working at the time Baum was writing his books," said Nick Clark, the museum's founding director. "It shows how these really good artists have a deep sense of history that they're trying to infuse in their own work."

And sometimes those artists just want to jazz things up.

The tin woodsman, for example, morphs from Denslow's monochrome compilation of metal parts to the multicolored beer cans and garbage scraps that became the character's costume for "The Wiz," a 1975 musical.

And Dorothy -- an almost stocky and seemingly stubborn little girl in the 1900 original -- softens in the images inspired years later by Judy Garland's portrayal of the character in MGM's 1939 classic "The Wizard of Oz."

Though the movie helped bring new attention to what was already regarded the most popular children's book of the time, some of the Wizard's purists have a few bones to pick with that version of events. For one thing, it slightly softened Baum's feminist message that girls can figure things out for themselves without falling apart when things get tough.

"Baum's Dorothy was more aggressive and independent," said Michael Patrick Hearn, the guest curator of the exhibit and author of "The Annotated Wizard of Oz" who is writing a biography on Baum. "She doesn't cry all the time like Judy Garland's Dorothy."

The feminist influence was inspired by Baum's mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, the women's rights activist who died just a few years before his book was published.

"All the power in the story is with women," Hearn said. "The good witch and bad witch had the power, and both were women. The Wizard is ineffectual, and Dorothy's three male friends have faults and weaknesses."

The Carle Museum show closes Oct. 22 and will not travel.

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