Natalie Frank’s Grim Fairy-Tale Art

Natalie Frank, All Fur III, 2011-14, Gouache and chalk pastel on paper, 22 x 30 inches (55.9 x 76.2 cm). Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

In 2011, the artist Natalie Frank was sitting with the painter Paula Rego in her London studio. Rego has worked with fairy tales a lot in her work, and she suggested Frank read some of the Grimm’s tales in their original, well, quite grim versions — before they got sanitized by Disney, in other words. Rego felt that the stories aligned strongly with Frank’s interests in women’s bodies, sexuality, violence, and everyday transformations.

“I was so taken by the stories that I thought I knew,” Frank says of reading the tales. “I didn’t know that Rapunzel actually gets her name because her mother is craving rapunzel lettuce, which is growing in the witch’s garden. So she trades her baby, who is Rapunzel, for magic lettuce.” Or, for example, that Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters try to fool the prince into thinking they are that girl from the ball by carving off parts of a foot (a toe here, some heel there) and then jamming it into a golden shoe. Each stepsister makes it onto the prince’s horse and halfway to riches before the shoe spills over with blood and reveals her for a fraud. At the tale’s happily-ever-after wedding ending, two spiteful, justice-serving pigeons swoop down to peck out the stepsisters’ eyes. “There were so many details, really violent and sexual episodes, in these stories that I wasn’t aware of.”

Frank was intrigued. “I knew I wanted to do something prolonged with the stories,” she says. “I have synesthesia … but I’ve never encountered anything like reading Grimm’s in terms of the colors and images that immediately popped into my head.”

Over the next several years, she drew her way through the tales in gouache and chalk pastel so vibrant it’s like neon spilled out of a tube. “The palette got out of control,” she admits, laughing. “I thought it was a nice foil to the dark nature of the tales.” (She also concedes that “This color has gone into my paintings now, too.”)

Frank decided to make a book with her illustrations of the tales and reached out to Jack Zipes, an expert on all things Grimm, for help navigating the history of the 200 or so stories and to provide translations. The book they made starts with “The Frog King” and ends on “The Golden Key,” as almost every edition put out has done, with her selections of 34 tales in between. “I wanted to show some tales that were really unknown and some tales that were well known, but not really known,” she explains of her final selection, which includes 36 tales and 75 drawings. You can also see 25 of the original drawings at the Drawing Center.

Frank also wanted to convey a sense of the original collection’s recycling of several basic story types through different characters. “So ‘All Fur,’ which is one of the stories about incest, contains the ‘Cinderella’-tale type,” she says. “I wanted to show that source, and have that degree of repetition throughout the book.” We’ve excerpted it below, Natalie’s drawings and Jack Zipes’s translation of the story “All Fur.”

Natalie Frank, All Fur II, 2011-14, Gouache and chalk pastel on paper, 22 x 30 inches (55.9 x 76.2 cm). Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Once upon a time, there was a king whose wife had golden hair and was so beautiful that her equal could not be found anywhere on earth. Now, it happened that she became sick, and when she felt she was about to die, she called the king to her and said, “If you desire to marry again after my death, I’d like you to take someone who is as beautiful as I am and who has golden hair like mine. Promise me that you will do this.”

After the king had promised her that, she closed her eyes and died. For a long time the king could not be consoled and did not think about remarrying. Finally, his councillors said, “This cannot continue. The king must marry again so that we may have a queen.”

Messengers were sent far and wide to search for a bride who might equal the beauty of the dead queen. Yet, they could not find anyone like her in the world, and even had they found such a woman, she certainly would not have had such golden hair. So the messengers returned with their mission unaccomplished.

Now, the king had a daughter who was just as beautiful as he dead mother, and she also had the same golden hair. When she was grown up, the king looked at her one day and realized that her features were exactly the same as those of his dead wife. Suddenly he fell passionately in love with her and said to his councillors, “I’m going to marry my daughter, for she is the living image of my dead wife.”

When the councillors heard that, they were horrified and said, “God has forbidden a father to marry his daughter. Nothing good can come from such a sin, and the kingdom will be brought to ruin.”

When she heard of her father’s decision, the daugther was even more horrified, but she still hoped to dissuade him from carrying out his plan. Therefore she said to him, “Before I fulfill your wish, I must have three dresses, one as golden as the sun, one as silvery as the moon, and one as bright as the stars. Furthermore, I want a cloak made up of a thousand kinds of pelts and furs, and each animal in your kingdom must contribute a piece of its skin to it.” She thought, He’ll never be able to obtain all those furs, and by demanding this, I shall divert my father from his evil intentions.

The king, however, persisted, and the most skillful women in his realm were assembled to weave the three dresses, one as golden as the sun, one as silvery as the moon, and one as bright as the stars. His huntsmen had to catch all the animals in his entire kingdom and take a piece of their skin. Thus a cloak was made from a thousand kinds of fur. At last, when everything was finished, the king ordered the cloak to be brought and spread out before her. Then he announced, “The wedding will be tomorrow.”

When the king’s daughter saw that there was no hope whatsoever of changing her father’s inclinations, she decided to run away. That night, while everyone was asleep, she got up and took three of her precious possessions: a golden ring, a tiny golden spinning wheel, and a little golden reel. She packed the dresses of the sun, the moon, and the stars into a nutshell, put on the cloak of all kinds of fur, and blackened her face and hands with soot. Then she commended herself to God and departed. She walked the whole night until she reached a great forest, and since she was tired, she climbed into a hollow tree and fell asleep.

When the sun rose, she continued to sleep and sleep until it became broad daylight. Meanwhile, it happened that the king who was the lord of this forest was out hunting in it, and when his dogs came to the tree, they started to sniff and run around it and bark.

“Go see what kind of beast has hidden itself there, “ the king said to his huntsmen.

The huntsmen obeyed the king’s command, and when they returned to him, they said, “There’s a strange animal lying in the hollow tree. We’ve never seen anything like it. Its skin is made up of a thousand different kinds of fur, and it’s lying there asleep.”

“See if you can catch it alive,” said the king. “Then tie it to the wagon, and we’ll take it with us.”

When the huntsmen seized the maiden, she woke up in a fright and cried to them, “I’m just a poor girl, forsaken by my father and mother! Please have pity on me and take me with you.”

“You’ll be perfect for the kitchen, All Fur,” they said. “Come with us, and you can sweep up the ashes there.”

So they put her into the wagon and drove back to the royal castle. There they showed her to a little closet beneath the stairs that was never exposed to daylight.

“Well, you furry creature,” they said, “you can live and sleep here.”

Natalie Frank, All Fur I, 2011-14, Gouache and chalk pastel on paper, 22 x 30 inches (55.9 x 76.2 cm). Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Then she was sent to the kitchen, where she carried wood and water, kept the fires going, plucked the fowls, sorted the vegetables, swept up the ashes, and did all the dirty work. All Fur lived there for a long time in dire poverty. Ah, my beautiful princess, what shall become of you?

At one time a ball was being held in the castle, and All Fur asked the cook, “May I go upstairs and watch for a while? I’ll just stand outside the door.”

“Yes,” said the cook. “Go ahead, but be back in half an hour. You’ve got to sweep up the ashes.”

All Fur took her little oil lamp, went to her closet, took off her fur cloak, and washed the soot from her face and hands so that her full beauty came to light again. Then she opened the nut and took out the dress that shone like the sun. When that was done, she went upstairs to the ball, and everyone made way for her, for they had no idea who she was and believed that she was nothing less than a royal princess. The king approached her, offered her his hand, and led her forth to dance. In his heart he thought, Never in my life have my eyes beheld anyone so beautiful! When the dance was over, she curtsied, and as the king was looking around she disappeared, and nobody knew where she had gone. The guards who were standing in front of the castle were summoned and questioned, but no one had seen her.

In the meantime, the princess had run back to her closet and had undressed quickly. Then she blackened her face and hands, put on the fur cloak, and became All Fur once more. When she went back to the kitchen, she resumed her work and began sweeping up the ashes.

“Let that be until tomorrow,” said the cook. “I want you to make a soup for the king. While you’re doing that, I’m going upstairs to watch a little. You’d better not let a single hair drop into the soup or you’ll get nothing more to eat in the future!”

The cook went away, and All Fur made soup for the king by brewing a bread soup as best she could. When she was finished, she fetched her golden ring from the closet and put it into the bowl in which she had prepared the soup. When the ball was over, the king ordered the soup to be brought to him, and as he ate it, he was convinced that he had never eaten a soup that had tasted as good. However, he found a ring lying at the bottom of the bowl when he had finished eating, and he could not imagine how it could have got there. He ordered the cook to appear before him, and the cook became terrified on learning that the king wanted to see him.

“You must have let a hair drop into the soup,” he said to All Fur. “If that’s true, you can expect a good beating!”

When he went before the king, he was asked who had made the soup.

“I did,” answered the cook.

“However, the king said, “That’s not true, for it was much different from your usual soup, and much better cooked.”

“I must confess,” responded the cook. “I didn’t cook it. The furry creature did.”

“Go and fetch her here,” said the king.

“When All Fur appeared, the king asked, “Who are you?”

“I’m just a poor girl who no longer has a mother or a father.”

“Why are you in my castle?” the king continued.

“I’m good for nothing but to have boots thrown at my head,” she replied.

“Where did you get the ring that was in the soup?” he asked again.

“I don’t know anything about the ring,” she answered. So the king could not find out anything and had to send her away.

Some months later there was another ball, and like the previous time, All Fur asked the cook’s permission to go and watch.

“Yes,” he answered. “But come back in half an hour and cook the king the bread soup that he likes so much.”

She ran to the little closet, washed herself quickly, took the dress as silvery as the moon out of the nut, and put it on. When she appeared upstairs, she looked like a royal princess. The king approached her again and was delighted to see her. Since the dance had just begun, they danced together, and when the dance was over, she again disappeared so quickly that the king was unable to see where she went. In the meantime, she returned to the little closet, made herself into the furry creature again, and returned to the kitchen to make bread soup. While the cook was still upstairs, she fetched the tiny golden spinning wheel, put it into the bowl, and covered it with the soup. Then the soup was brought to the king, and he ate it and enjoyed it as much as he had the previous time. Afterward he summoned the cook, who again had to admit that All Fur had made the soup. Now All Fur had to appear before the king once more, but she merely repeated that she was good for nothing but to have boots thrown at her and that she knew nothing about the tiny golden spinning wheel.

When the king held a ball for the third time, everything happened just as it had before. To be sure, the cook now asserted, “Furry creature, I know you’re a witch. You always put something in the soup to make it taste good and to make the king like it better than anything I can cook.

However, since she pleaded so intensely, he let her go upstairs at a given time. Thereupon she put on the dress as bright as the stars and entered the ballroom wearing it. Once again the king danced with the beautiful maiden and thought that she had never been more beautiful. While he danced with her, he put a golden ring on her finger without her noticing it. He had also ordered the dance to last a very long time, and when it was over, he tried to hold on to her hands, but she tore herself away and quickly ran into the crowd, vanishing from his sight. However, she had stayed upstairs too long, more than half an hour, and she could not take off her beautiful dress but had to throw her fur cloak over it. Moreover, she was in such a hurry, she could not make herself completely black, and one of her fingers was left white. Then All Fur ran into the kitchen and cooked the soup for the king. While the cook was away, she put the golden reel into the bowl. So, when the king found the reel at the bottom of the bowl, he summoned All Fur and saw the ring that he had put on her finger during the dance. Then he seized her hand and held it tight, and when she tried to free herself and run away, the fur cloak opened a bit, and the dress of bright stars was unveiled. The king grabbed the cloak and tore it off her. Suddenly her golden hair toppled down, and she stood there in all her splendor unable to conceal herself any longer. After she had wiped the soot and ashes from her face, she was more beautiful than anyone who had ever been glimpsed on earth.

“You shall be my dear bride,” the king said, “and we shall never part from each other!”

Thereupon the wedding was celebrated, and they lived happily together until their death.

Translation © Jack Zipes / Drawings © Natalie Frank