This May D.A.P. will publish Natalie Frank’s Tales of the Brothers Grimm, which features the texts of the stories alongside Frank’s dysmorphic, therianthropic characters, currently on view in an exhibition at The Drawing Center. In all, the book includes 79 large color drawings done in gouache and chalk pastel on a heavy Arches paper, this alongside 36 title and border pages, drawn in the same materials in black and white.
“I started drawing them for fun,” Frank said, of how she came to the book, having not read it in childhood but discovering it on a trip to Paula Rego’s studio in 2011. “But then I was so taken with the stories, I just found them charming and elegant but dangerous and funny at the same time, so I started to draw them seriously.”
Frank worked from the Jack Zipes translations of the tales, which appear alongside her drawings, and Zipes, in his introduction to her book, strives to tell readers “just how close she is to the Grimms” and their tales of “child abuse, incest, rape, fierce sibling rivalry, animal brutalization, rebellion, fratricide, and other issues that were problematic in the lives of the people in their time.”
And that’s only the short list. Frank’s paintings always tend to have a narrative feel to them anyway–the experience akin to reading some kind of meticulous and elegant horror comic book, with the panels stacked on top of each other, Bacon’s popes meet Guernica–but here every page dances with color and emotion. Take for example her “Rapunzel,” which features an opening drawing of a lettuce munching woman (in the Grimm version Rapunzel’s mother is obsessed with valerianella locusta a.k.a. rapunzel) giving birth to a baby with golden hair already in long strands, the shape falling into a pair of scissors at one point, the sorceress who kidnaps her standing in the background, topless.
“I don’t find the stories grotesque,” Frank said. “I find them really elegant and funny and representative of real life at the time–that’s, I think, the biggest key. What we see in movies, the sanitized versions, is not the way the world is. So why draw them that way?”
The Grimms’ stories weren’t widely illustrated, or popular, until after they were cleaned up by their other brother Ludwig, and the English lawyer Edgar Taylor, who did things like make it so that the queen in Snow White chokes on her own envy, rather than dance in heated iron shoes until she dies, as the Grimms had it.
Consequently, Frank’s Cinderella is far from Disney. The scene where Cinderella receives her golden dress has the prince headless in the background, or the one where she’s admiring it has him as a little parrot or troll creature at her side, because “he wasn’t that important” to the story, actually, Frank said. Their wedding is foregrounded by the malformed feet of Cinderella’s stepsisters, who cut off their toes to fit into the prince’s shoe. Cinderella herself appears a bit troll-like at that point as well.
“None of the heroines are traditionally beautiful,” Frank said. “Like in Rapunzel I was really aware, as I was drawing, of traditional notions of beauty, but none of the characters who were most interesting to me came out traditionally beautiful.”
In the book Frank offers 36 of the 210 tales the Grimms accumulated in their lifetime out of German nationalism and published between 1812 and 1857, and though the stories can be absurd and disjointed at times, Frank found herself taking a feminist angle in many of her interpretations.
“I think that was something I was getting from the stories,” she said. “I felt that many of the roles and the characters of women were so rich, whether they were irreverent, or violent, or evil, that I hadn’t seen depictions of women like that in fairy tails, and so it struck me.
“The sanitized versions everyone is familiar with are very, very different,” she added, “and I think one of the big differences is the power women had in the original stories. Whether they’re doing good or bad things in the story, they still have it.”
Take the story “All Fur,” which features the grand-slam combo of animal cruelty, kings, and incest. A king’s wife dies and he decides to marry his daughter, noticing that she has the same blonde hair as her mother. She refuses until he gives her a cloak made from the skin of every animal in the kingdom. She then runs off to a neighboring kingdom wearing the cloak and, through a series of Cinderella-esque hidden identity bumbles, comes to marry a different king. So while it was like Cinderella, Frank said, “it’s not your traditional story of woman cast into the lower class meets a king, gets married, and is saved.” (Her father-king wears a donkey’s head, and winds blonde hair around a fetish stick, ruling from bed rather than a throne.)
If the Grimms seemed to repeat certain things, like in “Cinderella” and “All Fur,” Frank said part of her enjoyment in doing the book was discovering such tropes. If people are always turning into animals, well, what better way to symbolize our own complicated relationships with nature and the id? If there are a lot of stepmothers, that was probably because of high rates of maternity death. Storks, for their part, were likely tied to childbirth because of the pointy masks contemporary gynecologists would have worn. It was a harsh time, and not so different from our own.
And then there are the woods, which serve in the background for much of Frank’s drawings, as it does for many of the stories, like “Little Red Riding Cap.”
“The idea of going out into the forest was really a dangerous activity,” Frank said.