Art

Reclaiming the Lost Feminism of Fairy Tales

Natalie Frank, "Little Red Cap I"  (2011-14) (courtesy of the Drawing Center
Natalie Frank, “Little Red Cap I” (2011–14) (all images courtesy the Drawing Center)

In the back room of the Drawing Center, Natalie Frank‘s lavish pastels conjure fairy tales in all their grisly and gorgeous glory. Inspired by the grotesque details of the Brothers Grimm stories, which she has read closely, her work diverges remarkably from the sanitized images most of us hold in our heads of Disney princesses. Frank’s work is an energizing opportunity to re-picture and reclaim these stories.

For example, in “Little Red Cap I” (2011–14), Frank gives the Wolf a man’s legs and a man’s scrotum but the face of a beast. Why? Because, she is visually acknowledging that Little Red Riding Hood is a cautionary tale about rape and sexual abuse. Men turning into wolves and going berserk is an old metaphor for grown, hairy men violating the vulnerable when they should know and act better. Most artistic depictions gloss over the wolf as rapist. But Frank does not shy away from it. The creepy Christian Schad–style portrait of Red Riding Hood, with a black eye but strangely sensual lips that seem to writhe against her wishes, suggests what cruel fate awaits.

Frank is not seeking to glamorize child abuse, rape, or the oppression of women in the many stories she depicts. She is seeking to create images that acknowledge the bitter and inconvenient truths about atrocities women can be forced to endure, and to open a dialogue and educate. That is the purpose of cautionary tales. And they can only be true to this cautionary role if the imagery is somewhat unsavory.

Each work is a visual poem on two levels. First, one immediately recognizes the characters and places them within the narrative of the story as the viewer knows it. Second, one starts to observe several unfamiliar details that seem unusual and unsettling. This second layer challenges the viewer to reexamine the narrative, to unpack its meaning with some close observation, hard thinking, and perhaps an actual re-reading of the text. Laminated versions of the Grimm’s stories are available in the Drawing Center gallery, so that viewers can glean more from this important source for Frank’s work.

Natalie Frank, "Hansel and Gretel II" (2011-14) (courtesy of the Drawing Center)
Natalie Frank, “Hansel and Gretel II” (2011–14)

The works ooze with color. Part of why the colors are so arresting is the special way that Frank mixes gouache and pastel. She has spent hours mastering how to layer these two mediums together to get these rich, saturated reds, radiant, popping yellows, and strident, sickly greens.

And Frank understands how to play colors against each other to maximum optical effect. For example, in “Hansel and Gretel II” (2011–14) the witch’s eerie, green gown shines because it is framed by a red-and-white frame. Red and green are complimentary colors and rev each other up. These vivid colors add a dreamlike intensity to the depictions that is entirely appropriate for fairy tales. Not every artist can claim to be a colorist like Frank. And color is one of the major X factors in her work that sets her apart and above.

It is temping to see “Snow White IV” (2011–14) as an allegory for the women who invented fairy tales and are seldom acknowledged as the authors. Instead, credit goes to men who first wrote the stories down and compiled them into books. Frank is trying to reclaim a woman’s and feminist perspective on fairy tales. Just as Snow White seems poisoned and unable to speak, there has been an ongoing problem of muffling the voices of women as the narrators and originators of fairy tales. In order to contextualize how Frank is reclaiming the feminist strands imbedded in fairy tales, let’s dissect the poisoned apple of fairy tale history.

Natalie Frank, "Snow White IV" (2011-14) (courtesy of the Drawing Center)
Natalie Frank, “Snow White IV” (2011–14) (click to enlarge)

The earliest compendium of today’s most well known fairy tales is a book published in Paris in 1697 by Charles Perrault. That slim volume contains the first extant published versions of “Sleeping Beauty,” “Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” and “Puss in Boots.” Perrault would go on to influence Hans Christian Andersen, whose fairytales span 1837–74, and the Brothers Grimm, who wrote from 1812 until 1857. These later books are thicker than Perrault and include many more stories. Folklorists in between also made efforts that there is not the space to acknowledge. Despite giving credit to the women storytellers they interviewed in their forwards, these men are still referred to as the authors.

The ancient Roman author Apuleius (125–180) was blunt in his acknowledgment of older women’s roles in crafting fairy tales for young women in the only ancient Roman novel to survive in its entirety. In Metamorphosis (late second century), Apuleius wrote this often-quoted section which clearly describes a fairy tale as a message from a wise woman to a young one.

The old woman sighed sympathetically “My pretty dear,” she said, “you must be cheerful and stop worrying about dreams. The dreams that come in daylight are not to be trusted, everyone knows that, and even night-dreams go by contraries. For example, that one is weeping or being beaten or even having one’s throat cut, is good luck and usually means prosperous change, whereas to dream that one is laughing, stuffing oneself with sweets or having fun under the bedclothes is bad luck and a sure sign of illness or unhappiness. Now let me tell you a fairy tale or two to make you feel a little better.”

Reading Apuleius with modern eyes, one is struck by how the old woman is basically telling the young girl 1) You have PTSD. 2) It’s good to have flashbacks and weird feelings because you aren’t in denial. 3) It’s possible to get through it. 4) Now let me tell you a story both grotesque and uplifting to make you feel better.

Marina Warner’s landmark book From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers (1995) gathers together all the primary and historical sources across the centuries like this Apuleius excerpt to document and demonstrate the major role women played in inventing and circulating fairy tales as a way of speaking about things that were often left unsaid. Just as Frank depicts Rapunzel’s birth in “Rapunzel I” (2011–14), it is vital to appreciate how these heroines that suffer but prevail were invented and “birthed” by women.

Natalie Frank, "Rapunzel I"  (2011-14) (courtesy of the Drawing Center)
Natalie Frank, “Rapunzel I” (2011–14)

How can visual art integrate and visualize this insight that fairy tales were by women and for women? That’s one of the questions that Frank has grappled with the past few years as she created this series. Just as mothers sometimes need to tell their daughters about the grisly realities of staying safe as a woman, the images start by vividly acknowledging the traumas the heroines bear.

Frank moves beyond the reductive happy ending paradigm. What good comes from this nightmarish charge? Just as Apuleius’s crone argued that nightmares and fairy tales soothe, it can be healing for trauma survivors to process and release their pain through stories and dreams. Alas, many of us also have our own bitter moments that these stories may also echo and trigger. But these works can offer a counterintuitive opportunity to contemplate and heal. It’s unorthodox to make this claim since today’s pop-psycology valorizes the positive and minimizes the negative at all costs. But Natalie Frank, like the storytellers that came before her, provocatively celebrates the oxymoronic power of the fairy tale as the beautiful nightmare.

Natalie Frank, "Brier Rose III" (2011-14) (courtesy of the Drawing Center)
Natalie Frank, “Brier Rose III” (2011–14)

Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm continues at the Drawing Center (35 Wooster St, Soho, Manhattan) through June 28. 

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