Natalie Frank

Left: Natalie Frank, All Fur III, 2011–14, gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper, 22 x 30“. Right: Natalie Frank, Cinderella II, 2011–14, gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper, 22 x 30”.

Natalie Frank, an artist whose latest drawings investigate the Grimms’ fairy tales, will have an exhibition of these works at the Drawing Center in New York from April 10 through June 28, 2015, which will then travel to the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin. The work will also be the subject of a reading and panel discussion on April 30, 2015, at the Brooklyn Museum, and in May it will be published as a book by Damiani.

I BEGAN THESE WORKS, which are based on the unsanitized version of the Grimms’ fairy tales, about four years ago. I picked up a copy of Jack Zipes’s The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm after the artist Paula Rego suggested I look at it—she’s done a lot of work illustrating fairy tales and mentioned that no one had illustrated the Grimms’ stories en masse. Arthur Rackham did them, Gustave Doré did some, and Walter Crane, David Hockney, and Maurice Sendak have all done illustrations, but no fine artist has ever tackled a large group of them. When I started to read these fairy tales, I was so taken by them. I’d never read anything like it—they’re so dark, sexual, and violent, and yet I sensed that there were such incredible roles for women in these stories, which I’ve never noticed in most fairy tales.

Originally the Grimm brothers fibbed about why they were doing this project and made it seem like it was a tool of nationalism—that the tales were collected from German peasants—but actually they were taken from the bourgeoisie. I learned that many of these were actually told and collected by women. 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. All the Grimms’ stories borrowed from Shakespeare, Indian mythology, Ovid, Giovanni Francesco Straparola, and so many other sources from preceding centuries. In these tales you can find everything: sex, violence, magic, animals, transformations. Also, because they were oral tales, many of them contain elements of each other. For instance, Cinderella appears within many other tales as a subset of that story, as in “All Fur”—one of two stories about incest. I wanted to show some of the well-known tales, such as “Snow White,” and “Briar Rose,” which is “Sleeping Beauty,” but I also wanted to include some of the more obscure ones like “The Ungrateful Son.” In it, a man who doesn’t care for his father well is cursed to live with a toad on his head, and if he doesn’t feed the toad, like he didn’t feed his father, it eats his face. When I read stories like that, visual images came to mind so clearly that I just sat down and in a very short period of time made the drawing. I used gouache and pastel for all the drawings; twenty-nine will be in the Drawing Center show, and a few more will be in the show at the Blanton Museum when it travels there.

I never thought of these as illustrations—I think of them as drawings. I read through and picked key scenes that I felt were important to represent. To highlight their dark nature, I used bright, obnoxious colors, but mixed with some earth tones to create an unnatural look. For references, I used a combination of photographs of people I lit and dressed for elements of the pictures, and then pulled ideas from some interior architecture magazines and historical photos as well. I think the subject matter of the Grimms’ tales, especially with women trying out these roles with all of this carnivalesque slippage, really appealed to me, so I started to make drawings with an eye toward gathering a group that would read well together. Doing a book of them seemed like a natural extension. Marian Bantjes designed it, and it was so incredible working with her. For a contemporary and feminist take on the Grimms, having Linda Nochlin and Julie Taymor write essays for the book was also important to me. I thought a lot not only about making these stories contemporary from a feminist and personal perspective, but also about some of my favorite artists like 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.