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The strange appeal of snow globes

THE SNOW globe is a peculiar object, something between toy and decoration. The wintry scenes suspended in liquid may be whimsical but they are not just for children. Among their most famous collectors was Walter Benjamin, a German philosopher: the small “glass balls containing a landscape upon which snow fell when shook,” his friend Theodor Adorno observed, “were among his favourite objects”.

In Europe in the 1930s the snow globe had not yet become the model of kitsch it is today. But Benjamin, who theorised widely about the “auras” of man-made objects, was fascinated by the quasi-magical appearance of these increasingly popular commodities, whose blustering spectacles might represent the imagination in flux or the maelstrom of modern artifice. Such ambiguities have imbued the snow globe with a rich symbolic potential, which explains why they have so often enjoyed starring roles in visual culture.

Today the ornament is often maligned as sentimental bric-a-brac. But a quick glance at the snow globe’s history reveals close ties with the rise of modernity. The earliest models were showcased at the Paris Universal Exposition in 1878; they reappeared again at the event in 1889 that marked the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower, this time as trinkets commemorating the bold architectural feat. The snow globe’s associations with cutting-edge design and, crucially, the glamour of travel, were thus crystallised.

The novelty soon made its way to America. Plastic replaced the glass domes, allowing these keepsakes to be mass produced and transported internationally; by the early 1940s they were everywhere. So ubiquitous was the snow globe that it began to infiltrate Hollywood, most famously at the beginning of Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane” (1941). On his deathbed, the reclusive publishing tycoon clutches a dome featuring a diorama of a snow-topped log cabin. With his final breath, it falls to the floor and smashes, severing his last connection to the cherished memories of his youth.

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As bridges to the past, snow globes have been used to explore states of reverie and yearning in film almost to the point of cliché. The year before the release of “Citizen Kane”, Ginger Rogers starred in “Kitty Foyle”, in which her character’s encounters with a snow globe trigger flashbacks to her childhood. The film would cement the item’s status as a must-have possession in American homes, apparently spiking a 200% rise in sales in the United States.

For all their festive appeal, snow globes rarely appear in film without a tinge of melancholy. Many directors have probed the dark undertones of an idealised world sealed off from the outside. In “The Lovely Bones” (2009), the snow globe is imagined as a dreamlike purgatory where the soul of murdered 14-year-old Susie Salmon is trapped. Here the snow globe blurs fantasy and reality in a way that is both enchanting and nightmarish, but it was not the first time film-makers had linked the memento to murder. Snow globes were used as promotional items for the Coen brothers’ black comedy “Fargo” (1996). Those who bought the special edition video set received a globe depicting policewoman Marge Gunderson crouching over a dead body. This trite souvenir thus becomes a wry metaphor for the film’s plot which centres on a close-knit Minnesota community poisoned by greed.

Visual artists have also found value in subverting the snow globe’s anodyne cheeriness. The decoration caught the eye of Surrealists; in “Boule sans neige” (1927),the American artist Man Ray replaces a snowy idyll with a single eye, reversing the gaze between object and viewer. LigoranoReese (the moniker of a pair of artists) enclose curse words in their snow globes, garbling the souvenir’s wholesome message. Another duo, Martin & Muñoz, bring their own unsettling spin to the form by crafting eerie frigid landscapes populated by dead trees and tiny humans in absurdist scenarios: carrying gravestones, trapped under houses or about to be eaten by giant spiders.

Yet the snow globe’s fairy-tale connotations persist in mainstream culture, particularly in pop music. In the music video for “Lover” (2019), Taylor Swift plays out romantic fantasies in a house encased in a snow globe. The final shot reveals a festive family scene in which a child marvels at the newly gifted dome. The ornament’s reputation for instant gratification and neatly packaged charm is clear, creating a perfect snowstorm of mass-market pop and Christmas consumerism.

As a self-contained world, one suspended between stillness and movement, life and lifelessness, the snow globe is in many ways a fitting image for this strange year. In times of great change, as Benjamin, film-makers and artists have found, the knick-knack seems to represent the vicissitudes of life.

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Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/prospero/2020/12/10/the-strange-appeal-of-snow-globes
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