Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Lolita: Genealogy of a Cover Girl

Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Lolita: Genealogy of a Cover Girl

Article excerpt

[Lolita] One of my all-time favorites... when I first encountered this edition I assumed our supposed Lolita's pose was flirtatious. One knee bends in front of the other-in almost a curtsy. She seems locked in some sort of stylized sexual demurral. However as time passes (and my reading of the text evolves) I begin to factor in the stark, ominous lighting, and the gaze of the photographer becomes threatening; the pose of the subject is one of real discomfiture. The knee crosses protectively. What seemed to me at first as "come hither" has evolved into "please don't." (Mendelsund, 2011, para. 7)

Like Mendelsund's comment above, this article brings new light to a stereotypical piece of visual culture: the covers of multiple editions of Lolita (Nabokov, 1958). Using discourse analysis (Rose, 2001), I considered 185 different Lolita covers and an additional 60 images from a book cover design contest that asked artists and designers to rerepresent the novel. This study, inspired and informed by previous research projects, generates insights into presentday cultural myths in general and the genealogy of "Lolita" myths in particular (Savage, 2009, 2011a, 2011b). As pedagogical practice, cultural myths and their sociohistorical underpinnings are ripe for student inquiry. This article illuminates how one novel and its long-misunderstood heroine have come to be represented through mythic visual narratives of girlhood "gone bad." Challenging and critiquing such narratives is important, Barthes (1973) argued, because "we reach here the very principle of myth: it transforms history into nature" (p. 129). This transformation, he suggested, does more than enable the concept of myth; it naturalizes it. Indeed, the eroticized girl seen so often in popular visual representations has been naturalized by contemporary culture (Bordo, 1998,1999; Durham, 2008; Levin & Kilbourne, 2008; Savage, 2009). This article encourages art educators and their students to question how culture perpetuates myth, and more specifically, why.

Background

When Russian-born authorVladimir Nabokov first published the controversial novel Lolita (1958), he insisted there never be a girl featured on the cover of his book (Vickers, 2008, p. 8). For Nabokov, 12-year-old Dolores Haze-referred to as "Lolita" in the novel-was meant to be unveiled slowly. She existed in the margins, her voice rarely heard, her image a series of metered descriptive phrases that resist coming together into a cohesive form (Bouchet, 2005; Shute, 2003). The reader finds little about Dolores that causes empathy, though she was sexually molested starting at age 12. Not relatable, or even likable, her abuse has been somehow less important to the story than her blameworthiness (Bayma & Fine, 1996; Bordo, 2003; Savage, 2011 a). Nabokov argued that a girl should never appear on the cover of his book, but his edict was ignored.This study of 185 Lolita bookcovers1 published between 1958 and 2011 makes clear that publishers disregard of the author's request has continued to sell the mythic version of Lolita and her bad-girl reputation.

A book cover, originally used to protect the delicate pages, is most often used today to advertise paperback novels that are quickly bought, read, and often as quickly recycled. Covers attract attention, indicate the book's contents, and-most important in our fastpaced world-do so in an expedient manner. The original European printing of Lolita (1955), from Parisian publisher Olympia Press, carried no image and was a two-volume set (Appel & Newman, 1970). What the plain green cover did do, however, was alert United States Customs agents to its pornographic content as Olympia's Green Traveler series was well known as books with salient themes (Appel, 1991). Since the American publication of Lolita in 1958, the majority of Lolita book covers have used eroticized imagery to represent the same salient themes, often highlighting Lolita's blameworthiness (Savage, 2009). …

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