Grimm by Hockney

Grimm's been everywhere lately; in high concept trash like the TV series Grimm and the movie Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, and in a high minded new translation by kids-lit behemoth Philip Pullman. Grimm Tales: For Young and Old is his reaction against all this post-modernisation, with the stated aim of producing ‘a version that is clear as water’.

He's gone back to the original stories, which appear on the page unadorned by contemporary trappings, or even any pictures. But as Alice so wisely said, ‘what’s the point of a book without pictures?’ Not a lot I thought – particularly when it comes to something as visual as the Grimm tales. To prove the point I thought I’d have a look through some of my favourite illustrated tales from Grimm from the last hundred or so years.

We begin with a little gem by David Hockney that I picked up in Soho picture book mecca Gosh! a few weeks ago. Six Fairy Tales is a mixture of well known classics like Rumplestiltskin (or Rumplestilzchen as it appears here) and ones I hadn't heard of like Fundevogel.

It would appear that he chose the stories almost as an artistic challenge. Writing in his book Portrait of David Hockney Peter Webb says ‘he chose Old Rinkrank because it starts with the words 'A king built a glass mountain', as he was fascinated by the problem of drawing a glass mountain.’

Hockney worked on the Grimm tales in 1969, interrupting one of his most famous pieces, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, a painting of his friends Ossie Clark and wife Celia Birtwell. It would appear that he didn't forget the couple completely during this time – as his pictures for Rapunzel show. The long haired heroine (top) bears a striking similarity to Celia, while the enchantress, rather more unflatteringly, has Ossie's nose (though perhaps the hairy breasts are hers alone).

My personal favourite is The Boy Who Left Home To Learn Fear. It follows the travails of a ‘stupid and good for nothing’ boy with an unusual problem: A lack of fear that leads him into a series of increasingly horrible situations, culminating in three nights spent in a haunted castle.

It’s a prototype of the modern psychological horror story – the mounting dread comes not from the terrors the boy faces, but from his own emotional shallowness. In the face of fear he is blank eyed, leading him to thoughtlessly dispose of the living and dead who are out to cure him of his problem.

The accompanying illustrations are some of the most varied in the book, and owe much to classic horror films. We open with a plate ‘Home’, which wasn’t originally intended for the book, but produces that familiar calm before the storm feeling. He then uses splendid cross hatching to capture the castle, cast in magnificent shade. The medium also allows ghouls and apparitions to effectively appear out of the shadows.

I think Hockney’s very modern style would compliment Philip Pullman’s clear as water adaptations perfectly. They're timeless and beautifully uncluttered, bringing a fresh interpretation to the stories without losing their original purpose and impact.


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