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Fairy tales transformed through the work of artists

Updated: Aug 10, 2021

“Fairy tales tell, as their labels imply, stories of magic, of creatures that fly;

With giants and dragon and ogres and elves, and inanimate objects that speak for themselves.

There’s romance and danger and plotting of schemes; there’s good guys and bad guys and some in between.

A fairy tale also reveals some sort of truth: the perils of choices we face in our youth.”

- Tangled, Disney

Fairy tales excite our imagination and ignite our darkest fears. So it is was with high expectations that I visited the summer exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum of Art. Titled All the better to see you with: Fairy tales transformed the exhibition included 23 national and international artists and covered some well-known stories such as Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, the Little Mermaid and Cinderella.

The exhibition charted the evolution of fairy tales from their origins. The curator, Samantha Comte stated, “as society’s values change, particularly around children, the genre has adapted to those social mores by incorporating those values.” Like many of the characters contained within, fairy tales transform over time. As stories get passed down from generation to generation, alternations are made: some parts embellished, others erased. Similarly, each artist in the exhibition has interpreted the fairy tale genre, transforming it into their own.

The enduring popularity of fairy tales is evidenced in the number of recent remakes, many of which are notably not for children: Maleficent (2014), Into the Woods (2014) and Red Riding Hood (2011). “Comte felt that the current social and political climate was right for a renewed look at the original, darker side of these stories, especially at the time when dystopian narratives – such as the remake of Margaret's Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – have become so popular.” The popularity of these remakes may lie in the fact that the protagonists are all female. In a social and political climate attuned to gender equality, the female heroine has risen in popularity, and resulted in a critical revision of traditional female characters. It is from this vantage point that the exhibition critiques our most popular fairy tales.

It is not surprising then that most of the artists exhibited here are women - a fact that was unintentional according to the curator. Comte believes that women are drawn to this genre as they explore issues of representation and feminism[1]. The critique of gender roles in fairy tales is a thread that linked many works throughout the exhibition. The fact that most of the artists were women may simply be an indication that more women are working within this genre.

The exhibition started with traditional narratives and graduated to more contemporary adaptions. In the first room are Amanda Maburg’s paintings from her series How Some Children Played at Slaughtering (2016), which is based on the cautionary tales of the brothers Grimm. The title references a parable from the original 1812 publication in which the children play at butchering their friend after witnessing the killing of a pig. This story was excluded from a later edition of the Grimms' Fairy Tales, along with some of the more extreme stories, and replaced with others deemed more suitable for children. By the seventh, and more well-known, edition of 1857, there were 211 unique fairy tales. The Grimms stories were edited within their lifetime to make them more suitable to the attitudes of the time.

Maburg’s painting Maiden Without Hands (2016), is a depiction of a story in which a father must cut off his daughter’s hands to escape the devil. Maburg shows a woman standing, arms aloft with her hands cut off, blood dripping to the floor. However the impact is lessened by Marburg’s distinctive style, which she creates through a laborious process. Firstly, she models the figures out of Plasticine, which are then photographed, forming the basis for her paintings. This process renders the paintings with a plastic, toy like quality which is in stark contrast to the macabre subject of her work. The soft pastel colours of her paintings sat uncomfortably against the blood red of the gallery wall.

In the same room was the earliest artwork, that of iconic German artist, Lotte Reiniger. She created a series eloquent short films, using shadow puppetry and shortstop video. The first, Cinderella (1922), depicts the traditional story line made popular by Charles Perrault. Here, traditional depictions of women persist, evidenced in the portrayal of Cinderella and her evil step-sisters. The cut-out silhouettes are intricate and decorative. The figures move in an expressive and endearing manner.

Lotte Reiniger, Still taken from Cinderella, 1922

In Hansel and Gretel (1953-53), Reiniger has simplified her style and added the voice of a male narrator. Notably, she has altered the story line from that of the Grimm Brothers. Hansel and Gretel are young siblings kidnapped by a cannibalistic witch living in the forest in a gingerbread-like house. The children escape by outwitting her. In the Grimm brothers’ version, the siblings are abandoned in the forest by poverty-stricken parents who are unable to feed them. The children later burn the witch in an oven before returning to their parents, arms laden with treats. In Reiniger’s version, with the events of WWII still in her recent memory, the starvation and the burning are excluded from the narrative. Reiniger adapted the story to suit her moralistic sensitivities.

The exhibition extended across three levels, and as one reviewer noted, “each ascent of the staircase feels like a page turn.” This is apt considering the second level saw the introduction of rare books by the Grimm brothers, Charles Perrault and others. The books are small artworks in themselves, with their delicate illustrations. They added an important element to the exhibition, providing a direct link to the past. Perrault published The Tales of Mother Goose in 1697 in France, more than a century before the Grimm brothers. Included were some of our best-known fairy tales, such as Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella.

Red Riding Hood was the most represented tale within the exhibition and as was reflected in the exhibition title, which used a quotation from the story. In Perrault’s original version, both the girl and the grandmother are eaten by the wolf. In the Grimm brothers’ later version, they both escape with the help of the huntsman. Kiki Smith’s Born (2002) is a work on paper inspired by the later account in which the girl and her grandmother are eaten alive, but emerge from the wolf’s stomach unharmed. In this instance, however, they are saved without the aid of a man. The feeling of this lithograph is of one of tenderness and security. The grandmother and the child, wearing matching cloaks, embrace each other, as they rise out of the wolf’s body. They are the victorious heroines of the story.

Paula Rego portrays Red Riding Hood via a series of six pastel drawings, in which she subverts male dominance by showing the mother as the heroine. The drawings have a raw, energetic feel, suggesting they were done from life. Each drawing depicts a different scene. In the final scene, the mother is wearing the pelt of the wolf as a shawl. As with Smith’s work, Rego adapts the story to suit contemporary values by challenging the role of gender in traditional fairy tales.

Turn the page again and one proceeded to the final level. The exhibition concluded with Patricia Piccinini’s Still Life with Stem Cells (2002). A life-sized child is positioned on the floor amongst fleshy blobs that are based on the formation of stem cells. The girl handles them as if they were toys or kittens. As in many fairy tales, the child is at the centre. However, Piccinini’s child appears relaxed and happy, unlike those in traditional narratives which are faced with adversity. Comte chose this artwork with a view to the future, as we cannot foresee how fairy tales will be adapted beyond our time. The contented child served to remind us that children are more adaptable than we think, with Comte stating that we sometimes protect our children too much from the gory, nasty side of fairy tales. Perhaps Comte is suggesting we needn’t censor children’s fairy tales, which is hard to believe when confronted with Maiden Without Hands. Further children are exposed to more graphic violence than ever before. Is she really suggesting we censor their stories less than we already do? Regardless of Comte’s reasons for including Piccinini’s work, it lacked the nostalgia and moral supposition of the other pieces in the exhibition.

Fairy tales have existed for centuries, over which time they have morphed and changed to fit with evolving societal attitudes and values. No doubt these stories will continue to adapt to the future social, political and technological landscape. All the better to see you with: Fairy tales transformed examined this progression to date, by placing the original publications alongside contemporary interpretations. With each turning of the page Comte revealed another transformation. As one review stated, the dense layers within this exhibition, however, will continue to unfold long after you’ve left the gallery.

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[1] Nicolas Carolan, “All the better to see you with,” review of All the better to see you with: Fairy tales transformed, Ian Potter Museum of Art, Grazia, accessed March 3, 2018,

[2] Kirsty Sier, “Exploring the Dark Side of Fairytales at the Ian Potter Museum,” review of All the better to see you with: Fairy tales transformed, Ian Potter Museum of Art, Broadsheet, October 23, 2017,

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