Financial Times

Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm, The Drawing Center, New York — review

Ariella Budick - May 20, 2015

The artist’s creepy illustrations bring out the grotesque darkness in the Grimms’ fairy tales

There are no adorably bearded gnomes in Natalie Frank’s version of “Snow White”, no pale-skinned damsel cooing at woodland beasts. Instead there’s a senseless woman lying supine on a bier, being groped by a gang of leering old men. The fairy tale has become a nightmare, or maybe a flashback, a dark vision that bursts with lurid colour.
Frank’s creepy illustrations, now on view at the Drawing Center, belong to a rich tradition of reading the Grimm brothers’ stories as almost unbearable vessels of terror. Fairy tales begin once upon a time and end happily ever after. Abandoned children find their way home; the beauty awakens when the poisoned fruit is dislodged; the little girl climbs out, unharmed, from the belly of the wolf. In the sugary versions refined for 19th- and 20th-century children and whipped into marzipan homilies by Disney, the frightening adventures that precede the sunny finales are sanitised too.
But the stories were not born so innocuous. The Grimms collected them in the early 19th century as an ethnographic project with a patriotic goal: to enshrine German folk culture as bone fide literature. The first 1812 edition of “Children’s and Household Tales” was at once gory and scholarly, becoming gradually more palatable with each revision.
Later, the Nazis saw the Grimms’ anthology as a key to the national heritage, inserting the tales into school curricula and turning them into films. In the Nazi version of “Little Red Riding Hood”, an SS officer rescues the damsel from the paws of a stereotypically Jewish wolf. Later, under de-Nazification, the stories were banned from schools and libraries. The taint of race-hatred and poisonous nationalism clung to them like the odour of a rotten apple.
They didn’t vanish for long. The psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor of Buchenwald, scoured “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Cinderella” for clues to the Oedipus and Electra complexes: he considered the glass slipper a symbol of castration anxiety. More recently, feminists have upended the tales in politically direct ways, deconstructing the passive sexuality of the trapped or sleeping heroines and the longing for male salvation from the drudgery of life. In Kiki Smith’s drawings, female archetypes yield to temptation, growing from naive children into enlightened adults. Little Red Riding Hood begets “Daughter” (1999), a four-foot-high creature sprouting a wolf-like mane and wrapped in a hooded red cape. The girl of the tale is not pure, the wolf not frightening. Smith imagines the mating of human and beast and their hybrid, hairy child.
Frank one-ups Smith, deploying radiant, jewel-like hues in the service of horrific scenes of torture, butchery and sexual assault. “It’s like being a decorator and a serial killer at the same time,” she has said. In a teal-painted gallery at the Drawing Center, her illustrations look colourfully virtuosic and gorgeously grotesque. But she is not interested in updating the stories through analytic interpretation or political commentary. Rather, the drawings’ connection to the text is often frustratingly tangential — “a meeting place between the fairy tales and my imagination”, as Frank puts it. She brushes past the morals and layered meanings to plunge into a private landscape of carnal fantasies and fears. The scenes are hectic and sometimes mystifying, a bit like a child’s first confused glimpse of adult sex.
Sleeping Beauty (aka Brier Rose) is not awoken fro
m her century-long slumber by a handsome prince’s gentle kiss, but by a man’s meaty body astride her own. He heaves heavily on top of her, his hands gloved in crimson. She recoils from his predatory touch. Frank might practically have been illustrating, not the Grimms’ original, but Anne Sexton’s retelling from the perspective of the enraged, abject heroine:
It’s not the prince at all,
but my father
drunkenly bends over my bed,
circling the abyss like a shark,
my father thick upon me
like some sleeping jellyfish.
Frank treats the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” (Little Red Cap) with similarly gross physicality. Here, the hermaphroditic Wolf sprawls on grandma’s bed, sporting a pink bustier and reaching for a prominent set of testicles. The little girl approaches, not because she thinks that creature might be her grandmother, but because she is drawn to its virile menace. In the next image, we see her bursting from the wolf’s every orifice, only she is grown now. Her huge hand reaches out of the beast’s gaping mouth, and a thick, fully formed woman pushes out the other end.
The Grimm brothers’ tales are dark; Frank’s iterations are darker still. “Bluebeard” narrates the life of a serial killer who knocks off each successive bride and locks her corpse in a secret room brimming with blood. Frank’s illustration — included in the ravishing book Tales from the Brothers Grimm: Drawings by Natalie Frank but unfortunately omitted from the exhibition — shows us his gruesome treasury, a bazaar of dismembered limbs and human trophy heads arranged in a room decorated with pretty stripes. A blue face with smelly-fish eyes and a dumbly open mouth lingers in the memory.
For all their violence, Frank’s drawings subdue a sea of pulsing horrors beneath a pretty spume. And in fact, the Grimm brothers proved that tough chronicles of incest, enslavement and rape can be softened into a bedtime ritual. A threat — if you wander away something terrible will happen — has its comforting obverse: follow the rules, and nothing bad will befall you.
Today’s children, though, learn early on to see past fairy tales’ flimsy charm. It’s become virtually impossible to channel young fears through age-appropriate literature. They don’t need to read “The Juniper Tree” to witness beheadings; they can find them on YouTube. Amber alerts announce “Hansel and Gretel”-style abductions on electronic signs. Local news brims with items about kids who have been abandoned, left to bake in closed cars, chained in basements, and routinely abused. Fairy tales really do come true.