An Austin-native is serving up the lesser known fairy tales written by the Brothers Grimm — through art. Natalie Frank’s fantastical and grisly paintings are on display at The Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, just a walk away from the Texas Standard Studios. Lauren Silverman, a visiting host for the Standard, went to check out the gallery.
Veronica Roberts, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Blanton is our guide. She says the Grimm’s tales may be some of the most well-known stories in the world, but that was only after they’d been sanitized. This show lifts the curtain. Let’s start with Frank’s uncensored depiction of Rapunzel — as told in the early 1800s.
“She shows Rapunzel as she’s emerging from the womb. The mother looks psychotic. She has multiple eyes and she’s missing teeth and she’s got a kind of wild mouth,” Roberts says.
Baby Rapunzel is hanging upside down, her umbilical cord yellow, just like her golden hair. The very hair that gives her life, is ultimately what saves her from imprisonment in the castle.
“The story is really about Rapunzel’s hair, and she foreshadows that in such a brilliant way that never would have been done in an illustration for a fairytale,” Roberts says of Frank’s work.
Now, if the Brothers Grimm tales scare you, Frank’s depictions might terrify you. But they’ll simultaneously draw you in with their vibrant colors and occasionally violent brush strokes. Her work pushes the boundaries of the grotesque as beautiful: bulging red eyes; pink bulbous noses; leathery frog skin. It’s perhaps not the picture books you’d read to your kids before bed. But neither were the Grimm’s original stories.
“The original stories were absolutely intended for adults and not for children. It was only over time they realized children would be a great market for these stories,” Roberts says.
The pair of brothers are best known for giving fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White to the world, but it was a group of women in Germany who originally told the stories centuries ago. That’s why, Roberts says, so many of the Brother’s stories center on the darker reality of life for women in the 19th century: danger in the woods, child abuse, incest, and death after childbirth.
Which is where the story of “All Fur” begins. For this tale, Frank has done a trio of gouache and chalk pastel works.
“Once again the story begins with a mother dying but before she dies, she tells her husband I want you to remarry. You have to remarry someone as beautiful as me,” Roberts says.
The King is grieving for years and finally realizes the only person as beautiful, and blond, as his deceased wife is his daughter.
“You can see why this one has not been used by Disney in any of their movies,” Roberts says.
That’s for sure. Unsurprisingly, the daughter is less than excited. She says she’ll marry him if he can make her a cloak out of every animal pelt in the forest. In one of the paintings we see the coat made of pig and bird and squirrel — the princess hiding in the trunk of a dark tree, trying to escape becoming her father’s wife.
The artist, Natalie Frank, says it was a favorite of hers. “It was pretty outrageous,” she says.
The paintings can be gruesome, so do people ever tell Frank that her work frightens them?
“Yes, I hear that. For me, I found them incredibly humorous and playful and elegant and so beautifully written. Because the brothers, though they collected these tales from women, they changed the poetics of the stories, and that was very important and I thought they were beautiful,” Frank says. “But this sort of undercurrent of violence and sexuality this is what runs through everyday life. Whether it’s our time or the Grimm’s Brothers time. So it seems like something worth talking about.”
Frank also drew inspiration from the stories she read growing up — Narnia, The Hobbit. She says kids everywhere have visited some of these magic, imaginary places. And now, perhaps as adults, they can explore those worlds again, this time, uncensored.
You can check out the works at the Blanton through November 15th, and you can find Natalie Frank’s paintings in a book, it’s called “Tales of the Brothers Grimm.”