Tales of the Brothers Grimm: Drawings by Natalie Frank

“CHILD ABUSE, INCEST, rape, fierce sibling rivalry, animal brutalization, rebellion, fratricide”—no, this isn’t the sign-in sheet at the gates of hell; these are the subjects of fairy tales penned by the Brothers Grimm as listed in Jack Zipes’s introduction to this gloriously macabre illustrated selection. The all-too-familiar versions of “Snow White,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “Cinderella” are not the stories that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected in a series of editions beginning in 1812. Even in that less fastidious time, the bloody mayhem was judged to be a bit much for children, and subsequent decades of bowdlerizing and Disneyfication have purged nearly all the raw, tumultuous id that animated the original renditions of these fantastical fictions. Natalie Frank’s illustrations for this collection of three dozen tales reclaim the gore and dig deeper into the psychological implications of those horrific, uncanny events that make the original texts so fearsome. (Uncle Walt declined to show us Cinderella’s sisters hacking off a toe and heel to fit into the golden shoe; for that scene Frank proffers a pair of bloodied feet, one missing a toe, and, faithful to a text that concludes with pigeons pecking out one of each of the sisters’ eyes, an unsocketed orb staring out from the butchered foot.)

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In The Bloody Chamber (1979), the English writer Angela Carter explored—with a strong feminist bent—the corporeal reality of fairy tales, and Frank avidly continues in that vein. Women and girls are portrayed as brooding, grotesque, awestruck, terrified, conniving, ecstatic—their thick-featured faces smeared by Francis Bacon-like slashes, their bodies disproportionate, ungainly, and subject to supernatural imposition. Marked by the palpability of emotional fact as well as the evanescence of dreams, Frank’s female figures bear every consequence of these stories in their extraordinarily labile flesh. Whether depicted garbed in a bra and corset, with a donkey’s head, or giving birth while standing fully clothed and clutching two heads of lettuce (Rapunzel emerges from between her mother’s legs with her tresses already spilling to the floor), these women are the products of a hallucinatory derangement that springs from everyday mental life. The woman from the tale “The Six Swans” (above) is a queen whose mother-in-law, hoping to destroy her marriage, frames her by stealing her firstborn, smearing her mouth with blood, and accusing her of eating the child. Frank’s queen regards us warily, the palm print glistening on her lips; she is bare-shouldered, fresh from delivering the infant. Despite the dire circumstances, there is an unmistakable note of wantonness. The queen is also enduring six years of self-imposed silence (backstory, backstory!) and cannot reveal the old woman’s theft. Yet recognizable in Frank’s rendering of this Freudian Grand Guignol are more familiar concerns: a mother’s ambivalence about motherhood, the clash of familial generations, the sexual undercurrent that necessarily activates all things reproductive. With subversive wit, a brash palette, and pictorial invention, Frank amplifies Bruno Bettelheim’s insight: Fairy tales may be unreal, but they are certainly not untrue.