New York-based Austin native Natalie Frank’s exhibition The Brothers Grimm opens at the Blanton Museum of Art on July 11, 2015. Frank explores and illustrates these classic fairy tales with strong consideration of their violent origins and how the initial narrative and roles have transformed over time. Frank opened up on some of these concepts and intentions with Conflict of Interest Co-editor Rebecca Marino. Here we discuss the connection between her series and protofeminism and debatable links with contemporary feminist discourse. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Rebecca Marino: I remember when I discovered the original Grimm’s fairy tales as a kid. I was totally entranced by the repulsive nature of humanity and fascinated by the way it’s sort of buried or hidden away. Can you talk about your first experiences with these fairy tales?
Natalie Frank: I started by reading Jack Zipes and was enthralled. Beyond the stories being beautiful and elegant and humorous as literature, to begin to learn about the stories in the context of their time has been fascinating. There are so many symbols and multiple meanings in every scene and person and narratives that we can relate to today and others that are firmly rooted in the 19th century. For instance, throughout the 19th century, people believed in magic and talking animals and would try animals for crimes. So, a story like Puss and Boots or the Bremen Town Musicians is well understood in this context.
RM: Do you see your drawings as a part of that continuing history, or do these works exist outside of the trajectory of the stories and how they have been manipulated throughout time?
NF: I absolutely hope that my drawings will be a continuation of the changing forms of the Grimm’s fairy tales and their history of illustration or picturing through interpretation.
RM: I’m a big fan of Linda Nochlin, who wrote an essay for the illustrated Grimm’s fairy tales book you’ve created. How do you feel her writing informs the work?
NF: She’s been a heroine and friend for many years. I wanted various feminist viewpoints to be represented in the book; Julie Taymor and I also have a conversation about the tales. Of course, Linda is where feminist art history began, and she had written a little about fairy tales and art before, but this essay for Grimm was a comprehensive look at the subject and at my drawings. To have my Little Red Cap drawings and some of my paintings considered by her was one of the most important parts of the book for me, especially as I reimagined and drew so many different types of women represented in these Grimm tales.
RM: Your website notes that in Tales of the Brothers Grimm, you draw “special attention to the roles of women in the original form of these fairy tales: these were stories told and collected by women and Frank’s drawings, for the first time, recast these characters as complex feminist protagonists.” Can you talk a bit about the motivation behind recasting these characters in this way and what it means to be a complex feminist protagonist? Additionally, why choose the violent Grimm’s fairy tales for such a recasting?
NF: These were tales about life at the time, and lives and stories that primarily revolved around women and their experiences. Complex feminist protagonists to me are ones who acknowledge the range of roles and traits of women—evil, divine, flawed, powerful, vengeful, prudent, and everything in between. In drawing these women, I was enthralled by some of the traditional patriarchal representations—some of which I wished to subvert—and also some of the early feminist characters such as the Clever Farmer’s Daughter. Many of the women in the Grimm’s fairy tales rebelled against family and traditional roles embodied in the state and church. It is this humanist strain that I was interested in teasing out of these stories.
RM: I agree that a complex feminist protagonist is one who acknowledges the range of roles and traits of women. I feel like there’s a tension there, though, between that and presenting women through these archetypes—as opposed to creating a single female character who represents the range of qualities you mentioned. Do you agree? Perhaps you can share with our readers some examples of complexity within single individuals in these narratives.
NF: To be clear: I didn’t want each and every woman to represent everything all at once. I wanted to draw and represent different women, who as a whole, through the series, could embody a spectrum of roles and types. I wanted to reference some of these archetypes, both patriarchal and otherwise—at times to poke fun at what can seem now outlandish: incest and cannibalization and, less severely, extreme patriarchal control. At times I also drew to allow women to inhabit these roles in hopes of subverting them from the inside out by showing their absurdity. Both patriarchal and protofeminist—and everything in between—are represented in these stories; through many approaches in drawing and representation, I tried to play with, subvert and celebrate the myriad roles of women.
The Brothers Grimm will be up at the Blanton from July 11 – November 15, 2015. You can also hear Frank and Blanton curator Veronica Roberts speak about the work on Saturday, July 11, at 3 p.m.