A Fairytale Nightmare


“I don’t think of these as illustrations. I think of them as drawings that represent a story,” artist Natalie Frank says, while sitting in a room surrounded by 25 of her most recent works. Each of these vividly colored, abstract figurative pastel drawing represents a chapter within the larger collection, a collection that chronicles the original, uncensored, macabre world of The Brothers Grimm.

For Frank, who previously employed traditional oil painting techniques on canvas, this series of pastel drawings is the first of its kind. The exhibition, “Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm,” which opens tomorrow at The Drawing Center in New York, and its accompanying book, Tales of the Brothers Grimm, recount the unedited versions of fairytales more commonly recognized through Disney’s abridged—or sanitized—versions. In her drawings, Frank adapts scenes from stories like “Rapunzel,” “Snow White,” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” revealing violent truths that we may have rather kept unknown, and redirecting our attention toward the role of women and men within the storied tales.

While the New York-based artist could have taken a literal illustrative approach toward the series, she instead infuses each story with her own imagination. “I’m not an illustrator,” she explains. “I didn’t want to make didactic pictures. I’m all about interpreting the stories, putting myself in them, and creating a world that’s mine.” Within the 25 images in the exhibition—which are only one third of the entire series—Frank represents herself as well as people in her life, including a neighbor in Canada, an ex-boyfriend, and a college roommate.

Just after her works were installed, we sat down with Frank at The Drawing Center, where we spoke with the Columbia University MFA grad about everything from the origins of this project to her lack of three-dimensional vision.

NATALIE FRANK: [These stories] were published in editions spanning 1812-1857 and they were sanitized within that time period. Originally, they weren’t illustrated either. The third brother actually illustrated them for one of the sanitized, later editions. They thought it would increase sales, and the originals were too dark for children.

EMILY MCDERMOTT: Even some of the sanitized ones are too dark for children.

FRANK: Well, it depends on what you want your children to see. So in the original, he actually rapes Sleeping Beauty while she’s in a coma and she becomes pregnant—quite different from the version we know. I wanted to pick a mixture of really well-known stories that you might not know the real story, like Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, which in the end, the step-sisters self-amputate [their toes] and then have their eyes picked out by birds.

MCDERMOTT: I just went to see Disenchanted, an off-Broadway musical comedy that parodies Disney princesses. It’s kind of funny that these two shows are opening concurrent to one and other.

FRANK: I started this project in 2011, so it was before all the Grimm TV shows, and Once Upon a Time. It seems like in the past two years there have been so many Grimm especially related stories.

MCDERMOTT: I love the Rapunzel drawing.

FRANK: She’s our neighbor in Canada. I put her in a lot of works. For some reason, I really respond to her face.

MCDERMOTT: I know you sometimes base your works off of images and real people, but oftentimes just take an eye or a lip from them. Is she one of the only people you actually—

FRANK: No, I took quite a few of these from actual people for this. She is someone who used to model for me. This is a friend of mine, who is a painter, as Snow White.

MCDERMOTT: How do you come up with the people you incorporate?

FRANK: Whenever I meet someone and I’m drawn to their face, I’ll ask them if I can photograph them. I usually like to go to their home, light them, dress them, and then photograph them. I keep the pictures, and then when I start a painting or a drawing, I go into that pile and pull out whatever seems appropriate. But with these stories, I knew right away what figures I wanted as the protagonists, and most of them are women. I did try to interpret these tales, or read them from the vantage point of being a woman, but also because of their feminist sources.

MCDERMOTT: Would you consider yourself a feminist?

FRANK: Absolutely. Yes. [laughs]

MCDERMOTT: I’m sure you knew the Disney versions growing up, but when did you first come across the unsanitized Brothers Grimm versions?

FRANK: I found the unsanitized probably five or six years ago. I’m close with Paula Rego, an artist who’s worked a lot with fairytales. I was visiting with her in the studio one day, and we were talking about subject matter and what we were reading. She was like, “You should really look at these stories. They’re right up your alley with sex, violence, play acting, and women.”

So, I picked up Jack Zipes’ book, but I wasn’t even aware of who Jack Zipes was; I just happened upon it. I was so taken with the stories and started to read through this 700-page book. Then, I started to do research, read the history of the Grimms, and more of Jack’s books, and realized he’s one of the main Grimms scholars and translators. Then I really started, in earnest, on the project. I was so shocked by the original, unsanitzed forms, that I knew I wanted to do something with it.

At that point, I had never done drawings like this. Because I trained from life drawing, from an early age, it was almost like the imagination was kind of put to the side and drawing was observation. This was the first time I had done a real series of drawings, not just observational drawings. It struck the perfect chord for me and unlocked everything and allowed my imagination to really come through in the work and my interests in narratives, storytelling, women, their bodies, the grotesque, and the fetish…

MCDERMOTT: Have you always been interested in these themes?

FRANK: I started working from life when I was 12, 13, and then seriously when I was 15, doing life drawing after school. I found that the artists I was always drawn to [were] figurative artists using narratives with the body to tell stories about what it means to be human. Käthe Kollwitz, and the brutality, but empathy that is in her work, and the storytelling, and the fact that she was a woman who was celebrated in her lifetime, but certainly had her share of hardship. Her diaries and journals are probably the first thing I ever seriously read. Her drawings are in her journals.

So Kollwitz, Max Beckmann, [Osckar] Kokoschka, Goyathose artists drew me in when I was really young and I don’t think my interests have changed one bit. But I do enjoy moving from form to form. Like now I’m doing a residency at Dieu Donné and painting with pulp and making paper. It’s been interesting to do these different forms, and also to make a book, and then go back to my painting on canvas.

MCDERMOTT: What is that like for you, when you start working with a new medium very seriously?

FRANK: Really exciting. It’s different with oil painting, just by the nature of the material. It’s not as immediate—it can be, but it’s very easy to lose that immediacy—and you can’t work in a way of layering as quickly as you can with drawings. And the size—my paintings are human size, so this is much easier than a big painting. These are really quick and immediate, but as a testament to the stories, there is so much in them.

MCDERMOTT: What is it like for you to infuse stories that already exist with your own imagination? Is there a filter that you process the stories through, in a way?

FRANK: That’s a great question, because I found myself drawn to different characters in different stories, and different stories. There are over 211 in the book and I only chose 36. I found myself often being drawn to the weirder characters in the stories, the outliers—the evil witch or the pathetic, scorned person.

A lot of the portrayals of women are devilish, including hairiness or some kind of animal characteristic. I think a lot of them have a touch of evil in them, which is why I like them, so they’re all hairy and a little menacing. Like, Snow White wasn’t as interesting to me as a figure, as much as what happened to her body, and the dwarfs, and the different ways they tried to kill her, and how she came back to life. That was more interesting than her face, so I tend to cut off her head.

I [also] loved how many male idiots were in the stories. The women were really complex characters, much more interesting. Even Rapunzel is interesting, because she is named after the Rapunzel lettuce. The Rapunzel lettuce grows in the witch’s garden and the mother craves the lettuce and trades Rapunzel for the lettuce, which is how the witch ends up with Rapunzel.

In “The Ungrateful Son,” it’s a man who doesn’t feed his father and tend to him properly, so he’s cursed with a toad that lives on his head. If he doesn’t feed the toad, like he didn’t feed his father, the toad eats his face. So I thought they should share a tongue, and this became sort of like a self-portrait and kind of representative of the whole series, because the transformation from person to animal, the gender bending, all of that was in this very short story.

MCDERMOTT: This project obviously had an immense amount of research. Do all of your projects include this much research?

FRANK: No, because I’d never worked from literature before. I thought if I was going to work with something that had such a history that I should learn about it. There are very different interpretations of these stories, based on who translated it, and also which scholars. Jack is kind of the Marxist scholar. They all see them from different vantage points. So, I had never done any work with literature before, ever, but boy, do I want to continue.

MCDERMOTT: Do you have any idea of where to go now?

FRANK: I do. I’m speaking with some publishers and authors about illustrating further fairytales. I’d also like to work with a contemporary feminist writer and do something very contemporary with a pairing of drawings and short stories or non-fiction, or something like that. I think it would be interesting to take this pairing of fine art—not illustration, but drawing—and pair it with a contemporary author; take it away from fantasy and more into the real world.

MCDERMOTT: What do you think of the use of the word fairytale in relation to these works?

FRANK: Fairytale, in the history of fairytales, folktales, and wondertales, has a very specific meaning. These are the Grimms’ work categorized as fairytales. There’s some differentiation that Jack would be able to expound on between how much magic and how much reality is used and that differentiates fair, folk, and wonder.

MCDERMOTT: Did you meet with Jack throughout this process?

FRANK: I’ve never met him. I just found his number online and called him up because I obviously needed his translations for the book. I also wanted his guidance because this is not my world and he’s a great scholar on this book. From the beginning, he was like, “I will be your fairytale guide.”

MCDERMOTT: He was your fairy godmother.

FRANK: My fairy godfather! [laughs] So he advised on the book and the fairytales I chose. In every edition of the Grimms it begins with “The Frog King” and ends with “The Golden Key.” That’s non-negotiable, so he said, “You have to do those two. You can pick the order of the ones in between.” As I was going through the stories, we would email and he would advise on what things meant and gave me a reading list.

MCDERMOTT: So what was one of the biggest struggles that you faced while working on this series?

FRANK: I became so engrossed in the work that it almost became hard to distinguish reality outside of the studio. It started to become this world in the studio. I was very happy, but it was pretty engrossing, work-wise, in a way that I’ve never encountered.

MCDERMOTT: How does it feel having it completed?

FRANK: I walked in here with the curator and burst into tears. To have the work be shown at The Drawing Center, I’m still in shock because it’s such a storied institution. They show so many incredible artists and are the only institution devoted to drawing. Drawing is so important and I think it shows the insides of an artist.

MCDERMOTT: Well that’s why you see so many exhibits of Picasso’s sketches. So you’re working on oil paintings now?

FRANK: Yeah, and I have been. I had a show in Chicago, but it was oil painting on wooden marionettes with arms and legs that moved and were hinged-very inspired by the Grimms, very different from anything I had done before.

MCDERMOTT: What made you want to bring it into a three-dimensional representation?

FRANK: I think some of my interests in figure shape shifting led to this anthropomorphic, 3D. The figures would also collapse—their heads would fall between their legs, or the legs would open, and they would become other forms. But it was about a year and a half or two years ago that I discovered I don’t have 3D vision. So that played a part in making 3D work, when I started to see a little bit in 3D.

MCDERMOTT: Can I ask a silly question? What about 3D movies because they have those special glasses?

FRANK: Never been able to see one. It doesn’t work for me.

MCDERMOTT: Even now that you have correctional lenses?

FRANK: No, and it makes me nauseous. [laughs] Anything involving car rides, skiing, moving in space, makes me a little queasy. [laughs] I’m a terrible driver.