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Take a look back at Hockney’s illustrations of the Grimm Fairy Tales


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In 1970, Petersburg Press released Six Fairy Tales – a compilation of six of Jacob and Wilhem Grimm’s stories – accompanied by illustrations from David Hockney. These illustrations helped redefine the darkness and imagination of the original tales for a generation sanitised by Disney.

The 20th Century saw Disney reimagine Fairy Tales such as Snow White with their colourful, decorative, and doe-eyed depictions of beloved characters. But this glossed over the insidious nature of the original tales. The Grimm brother’s retellings of myths and legends were shockingly gory.

The first edition of the Grimm tales was only recently translated in 2014 and stayed true to the horror of the original; Rapunzel is impregnated by her prince, Snow White’s own mother plots to kill her, and How the Children Played at Slaughtering needs no explanation as to its horror.

Although less gruesome, Hockney’s illustrations of six of the tales are necessarily dark, existing purely in black and white. They offer as an interesting comparison to the colourful Disney adaptations that were being produced at the time.

As well as draining the illustrations of colour, the characters were by no means as attractive or innocent as Disney’s Snow White – which Hockney purposefully chose to omit from the collection – and instead were allowed to be ugly, unassuming, and vacant. The use of negative space also allowed the viewer’s imagination to roam freely through his harsh etchings of the haunting buildings, landscapes, and the imagery of the tales.

Rather than merely choosing iconic scenes or key events to depict, Hockney instead chose to imaginatively respond to the descriptions in the texts, in order to conjure mood and tone.

Hockney said: “They’re fascinating little stories, told in a very very simple, direct and straightforward language and style; it was their simplicity that attracted me. They cover quite a strange range of experience from the magical to the moral.” This reflects the simple way in which he illustrated the stories, in addition to his psychological interest in their moral elements.

He also chose interesting methods and materials to create the illustrations. During the 60s, he turned to etching because he had run out of painting materials and for these works he employed three different techniques: Etching, creating soft lines, Drypoint, producing dark and dramatic accents, and Aquatint to yield broad areas of tone. Purely from a stylistic standpoint, these illustrations are interesting, choosing to depict the Grimm Fairy Tales in harsh, intricate, and dark new ways.

Referencing artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Breughel, and Bosch, Hockney created sophisticated drawings in keeping with his style as an artist; he was fascinated with storytelling, human emotion, psychology, and finding new techniques to perceive old narratives.

Currently, a selection of the drawings can be found at The Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, bringing his work back to the county of his birthplace – Yorkshire.

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