- Grimm Girls: Picturing the Princess
A woman sits on a sofa beside a wild boar. The boar is dressed in the scarlet suit of a soldier and has his massive head turned toward her, his mouth open. The woman engages the boar in what appears to be civilized conversation over afternoon tea. A child and a wolf encircle each other. Of the same [End Page 169] height, they are engaged in an interaction of equals, the complexities of which are beyond us; yet the chalky, dreamtime darkness of the forest convinces us that it is a serious and significant interaction. A girl is alone in a forest. With her hand on a pine tree and her feet on its outstretched roots, she balances above a rushing red river. Neither she nor we can see what lies in front of her, yet she collects up her skirts and looks curiously into the blue-gray darkness.
Walter Crane’s illustration of “Beauty and the Beast,” Gustave Doré’s “Little Red Riding Hood,” and John Hassall’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”—these three images appear in the Grimm Girls: Picturing the Princess, an exhibition curated by Dr. Anne Anderson and supported by the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy. Both an exploration of the changing role of the fairy-tale princess and a celebration of high art in the nursery, Grimm Girls explores six fairy tales through their illustrations, presenting stunning examples of Pre-Raphaelite, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and modern art, from Walter Crane to Edmund Dulac to Arthur Rackham, from Eleanor Vere Boyle to Honor C. Appleton to Jennie Harbour. The Sussex Centre also hosted an associated symposium, which featured talks from Maria Nikolayeva, Terri Windling, and Jack Zipes and included a heated debate about the role of Disney in relation to the fairy tale.
What are a tale’s most crucial moments? When Red Riding Hood leaves the path? When Cinderella makes a wish? When Beauty stays? For illustration expert Edward Hodnett these are moments upon which illustrations depend. Designed around this concept, the exhibition shows each turning point through a multitude of perspectives. Both the uniformity and the diversity of images are striking. Beauty’s father may encounter a knobbly ogre (Edmund Dulac), a claw-footed merchant (Arthur Rackham), a silk-dressed ass (Rene Cloke), or a blue-black walrus (Eleanor Vere Boyle), yet the horror in which he makes his bargain does not change.
What of the princesses? The exhibition catalogue states: “Princesses are no longer prissy, they fight back.” Yet what struck me were the complexities of power that have been attributed to the Grimm girls since their illustrations began. In contrast to her father, Beauty does not cower, and with her presence the Beast engages, whereas to her father, he simply rages. In Walter Crane’s final image the invisible barrier between the two is thrust aside as Beauty lays atop the chest of the supine Beast, watching him with an intensity that seems to carry transformation in its very gaze.
Contemplating the illustrations for “Little Red Riding Hood,” there is no doubt that, whatever mother, grandmother, or hunter may think, the meeting with the wolf is her own to negotiate. One of the most striking images is the exhibition’s only painting, an oil by Sean Jefferson. Here, a girl in a red hoodie and stripy leggings is surrounded by mossy, yellowing trees and twisted, human-like fairies. The girl stands small but firm before a bespectacled wolf in [End Page 170] a long coat. She carries a daffodil behind her back, as if she knows to carry a token in order to be allowed past the underworld’s gatekeeper, and yet she keeps it close, hers to offer when, and if, she chooses.
As for Cinderella, was she once a witch? The question had never occurred to me until I stood in front of her images. For Warwick Goble and Honor C. Appleton, an “absent-minded” Cinderella appears to call up other possibilities by the intensity...