In a personal reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, artist Marina Abramović has illustrated the story with her own childlike pencil drawings: sharply-cracked eggs, crude raindrops, fat cobblestones, cats with coquettish eyes. Available at the end of February and published by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark, it’s the second in a series of Andersen books created in collaboration with artists. (The first was Yayoi Kusama’s wondrous retelling of The Little Mermaid.)
When Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling was published in 1844 — in New Fairy Tales. First Book. First Collection. 1844 — he did not include the phrase “told for children” in the title. The book, of course, was intended for a young audience, but Andersen felt the themes were mature and relatable enough for adults, not least of all himself. He’d one day confess to the critic Georg Brandes that he needn’t write an autobiography; he already had, he explained, when he wrote The Ugly Duckling.
As she writes at the end of the book, Abramović felt the same way: “As a young child and growing adolescent, I felt a complete identification with the story. I, too, was the ugly duckling … My teenage years were desperately awkward and unhappy … I had a baby face with an impossibly big nose.” She goes on to say that “Unlike the swan in the story, I discovered my identity and strength before the public realized it too … the moment I stepped in front of the public in my first performance, I experienced my transformation immediately, like I was hatching out of an egg.”
Considering Abramović’s clear lack of empathy in spite of her experience — her brutally racist comments about Aboriginal Australians revealed she has no problem, as a white woman, treating people as the other — it’s hard to sympathize with her plight. It’s not that the very rich and successful aren’t entitled to difficult upbringings (nobody who sat across from her during The Artist is Present paid attention to her nose, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t once hate it), but one would hope they learn something — anything! — about kindness. (She later apologized for the racist comments.)
Still, for my own reasons, I once loved The Ugly Duckling. By the second grade, I was not a pretty child, and the book brought me little comfort. The swan had simply been brought up among the wrong species, and that was not the case for me — my humanness was as steadfast as my own ugliness. So I doodled my own race of children with a biracial mom and Jewish dad and gigantic features; as I grew older, I realized the story didn’t imply that beauty was granted only to those born a swan. Rather, once you felt safe and supported, your loveliness would become self-apparent.
Abramović’s own pencil illustrations are charming, and look drawn by an elementary-schooler, as if she stepped into her childhood imagination. There are bushy-tailed ducklings, farms with thatched roofs, and a graceful swan, all resembling the work of an unusually nuanced nine-year-old. The mother duck’s eggs look like a pile of shaky Christmas baubles; the growing swan, his fuzzy tufts of hair becoming more streamlined as he ages, is sweet. The drawings will feel familiar to children, and the story remains, as ever, an uplifting tale of finding your people, your chosen community. (Your best community, of course, is probably more willing to call you out for your ugly comments.)