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Waxworks

A Cultural Obsession

2003
Author:

Michelle E. Bloom

Waxworks

A provocative and wide-ranging exploration of wax as cultural metaphor

In Waxworks, Michelle E. Bloom explores the motif of the wax figure in European and American literature and art and offers a provocative cultural history of this enduring—and disturbing—art form. Bringing her discussion to the present, Bloom examines the work of contemporary artists who use the medium of wax in ways never imagined by Madame Tussaud.

Intelligent and accessible, Michelle Bloom tells a lively tale about modern culture’s fascination with wax figures.

Philip Watts, University of Pittsburgh

London, 1921. The world’s greatest wax sculptor watches in horror as flames consume his museum and melt his uncannily lifelike creations. Twelve years later, he opens a wax museum in New York. Crippled, disfigured, and driven mad by the fire, he resorts to body snatching and murder to populate his displays, preserving the bodies in wax. “In a thousand years you will be as lovely as you are now,” he assures one victim. In The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), director Michael Curtiz perfectly captures the macabre essence of realistic wax figures that have excited the darker aspects of the public’s imagination ever since Madame Tussaud established her famous museum in London in 1802.

Artists, too, have been fascinated by wax sculptures, seeing in them—and in the unique properties of wax itself—an eerie metaphoric power with which to address sexual anxiety, fears of mortality, and other morbid subjects. In Waxworks, Michelle E. Bloom explores the motif of the wax figure in European and American literature and art. In particular, she connects the myth of Pygmalion to the obsession with wax statues of women in the nineteenth-century fetishization of prostitutes and female corpses and as depicted in such “wax fictions” as Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1841). Filmmakers, too, have sought inspiration from wax museums, and Bloom analyzes works from the silent era to such waxwork-themed Hollywood horror films as Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and Mad Love (1935). Bringing her discussion to the present, Bloom examines the work of contemporary artists who use the medium of wax in ways never imagined by Madame Tussaud. As extravagant new wax museums open in Las Vegas, Times Square, and Paris, Waxworks offers a provocative cultural history of this enduring—and disturbing—art form.

Waxworks

Michelle E. Bloom is assistant professor of French and comparative literature at the University of California, Riverside.

Waxworks

Intelligent and accessible, Michelle Bloom tells a lively tale about modern culture’s fascination with wax figures.

Philip Watts, University of Pittsburgh

Waxworks is an innovative and gripping exploration bringing together case studies of literature and science, aesthetics and popular media culture. Modern as well as postmodern cultures are haunted by one of the most intriguing myths of Western civilization, Pygmalion's animation of his statue and re-invention of Woman. In her thorough examination of wax figures and wax museums, Bloom addresses the boundaries between life and death, animate and inanimate, human and inhuman, masculine and feminine.

Catherine Nesci, author of La Femme mode d'emploi

Waxworks

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction

1. A Brief History of Wax
2. Metamorphosesof Wax
3. The Dissolution of the Pygmalion Myth
4. Melting Wax in the 1930s Hollywood Horror Film
5. Fantasizing about History in the Wax Museum
6. The Business of Wax in Dickens
7. The Art of Contemporary Wax

Conclusion

Notes
Bibliography
Filmography

Index