- Tales of the Brothers Grimm ed. by Karen Marta
Taking on the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm is a difficult business for artists, in part because it has been done so well by artists and illustrators of the past (e.g., Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham) and by more contemporary artists (e.g., Kiki Smith, Paula Rego, and Claire Stigliani). Natalie Frank has [End Page 413] risen to the challenge in her visual reworking of an astonishing number of the Grimms’ fairy tales in Tales of the Brothers Grimm, a large, handsome coffee table book. The unsanitized stories presented here consist of a large selection of the tales from the 1812 and 1815 volumes. The early versions of the stories are salacious and bawdy, as well as downright bloody, with many thought-provoking or unhappy endings. Inspired by Jack Zipes’s translations of these tales, artist Natalie Frank set out to visualize an unprecedented number of them. In an April 2015 interview for Art Forum, Frank states that her drawings are not meant to be merely illustrations but rather drawings that build on the stories and expand their meanings to include contemporary feminist concerns and a personal perspective. She also says that she was influenced by favorite artists Mike Kelley and Robert Gober, “who engage with ideas of corporeal transformation, magic, and the everyday, while also bringing in the grittiness and violence of the banal” (Art Forum, April 7, 2015). In his introduction to Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Jack Zipes suggests that the Grimm brothers appreciated when people changed their stories, as they did not believe the narrative plots of their stories were absolute (4). He goes on to mention that possible “sweetly conventional and Disneyfied meanings” of the tales “are dashed by Frank’s carnivalesque approach” (6).
There is much truth to this interpretation of Frank’s drawings. Done in gouache and pastel, the images are dark and startling: there is a lurid lasciviousness to this work and an unfettered, rudderless anger at times, reminiscent of Willem DeKooning’s primal and terrifying 1950–1952 Woman series and of German Expressionist painting. This anger seems to be intentional. After learning that many of the oral tales the brothers collected were passed down by women, Frank decided that “through the mutation of oral tales, women were creating these roles for themselves that were unprecedented in literature. Here, women play the evil, the divine; every single role is accessible to them, whereas at the time, because of the church and state, they wouldn’t have been allowed to inhabit those positions” (Art Forum, April 7, 2015). This seems a bit of an overstatement; certainly much literature before the 1800s contained these types of roles (e.g., Euripides’ Medea). And for every Grimm story that has a new role for women, there is an equally patriarchal story, such as Bluebeard’s wife having to call to her three brothers to save her. The stories in this volume still have plenty of princes and princesses living happily ever after, though a lot of blood and guts tends to be spilled first.
During a 2015 panel for the book at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (www.youtube.com/watch?v=LoCiXykTTnY), Zipes points out that for the most part the original versions of these tales are patriarchal and that even to this day many Disney films of the tales are terribly sexist. He notes that Frank’s drawings [End Page 414] give the tales a more feminist spin, but he adds that Frank’s macabre and complex drawings move beyond a strictly feminist interpretation. He refers to her drawings as sensual “retellings” of the Grimms’ tales that force the viewer to deal with universal human issues in the tales that are relevant even today, such as the theme of child abandonment in “Hansel and Gretel.” Frank’s drawings, he says, demand that viewers “start asking questions about themselves and the world.”
I agree with Zipes. A strictly feminist interpretation of Frank’s drawings is limited. Nor do I feel...