Monday, 6 October 2008

Grimm Stuff

Grimm Stuff is an exhibition on at the National Library Gallery until 8th November, and it’s well worth seeing. Don’t worry; I’m not going to dive off into the realms of poetry this time, although it is tempting. The link between art and poetry is a fascinating one as they are both heightened forms of expression that may clarify or obfuscate depending on the intention of the artists.

Anyway, enough of that. This exhibition is made up of folktales and fairy stories from the
Dorothy Neal White and National Children’s collections. Folktales have their origins in oral traditions and they may feature the staples we have come to know – magic; fairies; goblins; witches; ogres. Around the world they are used by authors to preserve the native traditions of their own culture, or of one that is perceived to be threatened.

The tales were gathered by re-tellers such as Madame d’Aulnoy and Charles Perrault (late seventeenth century) and the Grimm Brothers in the late nineteenth century. The Brothers Grimm were supposedly the first to write down the stories without changes, but they actually reshaped the language and the plots. Their work inspired others to collect folk and fairytales, and have since attracted the leading illustrators of each generation.

Hans Christian Andersen created his own stories (The Princess and the Pea; The Tinder Box) and paved the way for the popularity of fairytales in the second half of the nineteenth century through such writers as Charles Kingsley and Lewis Carrol.

The old fairy tales are actually remarkable for their unpleasantness; there are no happy endings and often not even the hero or heroine escapes with their life. The bawdiness seems shocking to modern readers; awaking with a kiss after being asleep for 100 years is far chaster than the story of the rape that woke her in the original version – the quick marriage had nothing to do with love at first sight but was rather about burying the shame of illegitimacy.

In the early versions of Cinderella, her features were also transformed by the fairy godmother along with her gown and accoutrements. She was actually plain and the prince’s task was to recognise her inherent loveliness rather than her physical beauty. This gives the tale an incredibly different aspect from the sanitised Disney version we generally know. Some of these stories are obviously politically incorrect to current audiences and so Little Black Sambo has become The Story of Little Babji.

In the exhibition there are illustrators I recognise and who swoop me back to my childhood, such as Eric Carle (responsible for more than just The Very Hungry Caterpillar); Mervyn Peake (seriously weird); Ernest Shepard (of course more famous for Winnie the Pooh, but he also illustrated Hans Christian Andersen); Quentin Blake (again, more famous for his illustrious – oh, my sides! – partnership with Roald Dahl); and Maurice Sendak – known for Where the Wild Things Are. Parents were afraid those illustrations would frighten children but his view was that ‘through fantasy children receive catharsis for their otherwise ungovernable feelings’. Hmmm.

Jan Pienowski, whom I always thought was a woman, contributes some simply stunning illustrations with trademark bold colours forming the background to stylish, romantic and dramatic silhouettes. There is fairytale menace as well as comedy and beauty here. I love this stuff and remember it well from A Necklace of Raindrops, which was one of my favourite books as a child.

Arthur Rackham is one man who seriously understands the power of myth and fable and the darker side of fantasy. Apparently ‘children relished the thrills engendered by his forests of looming frightening trees with grasping roots and his ogres and trolls that were ugly enough to repulse without being too frightening. And they were drawn to his sensuous but chaste fairy maidens. His backgrounds rewarded close inspection, the observant reader discovering images of animated animals or trees.’ Those trees terrified me – I had nightmares about the ones in Snow White.

More recently we have Anthony Browne with echoes of the great Rackham in his murkily atmospheric backgrounds and animated trees; Michael Foreman with luminous colour washes, and Janet Alberg who claimed her intention was ‘to produce William Morris books at Penguin prices.’

There were other illustrators I’d never such as Lois Elhert who worked with scrap materials from her mother’s material collection and father’s workshop, such as lumber, shavings, and nails. They were brighter than craft paper and easier to reposition – she would only stick them down when she felt happy with them.

Kay Neilsen is a Danish illustrator whose style is influenced by her experience in theatrical design, hence her characters often have impossibly long legs and long flowing dresses. Another, Gavin Bishop, is apparently a noted Kiwi illustrator whose take on The House that Jack Built posits European colonisation as the aggressor; the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat etc.

And so we come to the curious phenomenon that is the Flower Fairies. This sub genre of fairytales portraying fairy children dressed as flowers is different in the Northern and Southern hemispheres. The Northern hemisphere version (as espoused by Cicely Mary Barker) is elegant and romantic; the Southern hemisphere interpretation features cuter, roly-poly fairies who are more scantily clad, as depicted by Trevor Lloyd, Mary Gibbs, and Avis Acres. I have never heard of these, but would like to know if they are responsible for the mawkish abomination that is Anne Geddes.