Though ubiquitous and oft-told, fairy tales are not so simple as they seem. This is the theme for a new look at old tales in Cinderella & Co. – Three Fairy Tales Reimagined, now glowing on the white walls of the Brandywine River Museum.
This exhibition is not so straightforward as it may seem. “Fairy tales”—fables, morals, origin stories—appear worldwide. Some cultures pass them down orally, some write them. And when written down, they are most often accompanied by pictures. There is a rich trove of legend and fairy tale illustration in the Brandywine Valley, and in its continuing work seeking to connect with that heritage, the museum has mounted another look at the familiar.
Princesses and pigs
Artists love to draw on the often-labyrinthine interpretive qualities available in these tales, and so there is a constantly growing body of visual work. Here, guest curator H. Nichols B. Clark (founder and emeritus director of the wonderful Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Massachusetts) has chosen to visually explore three iconic tales: Cinderella, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and The Three Little Pigs.
Maybe you read these stories when you were young, or had them read to you, or you’re reading them to a child now. In any case, you know that they are imbued with a certain strangeness, filled with both light and dark. All three anthropomorphize animals, and so they lend themselves aptly both to artists’ interpretations and to Clark’s curatorial premise.
On view are more than 100 artworks (including a few books) that are multiple interpretations from 35 artists spanning the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. The works swing widely in style and multicultural interpretations. One long wall is devoted to each tale, visually differentiated by vibrant colored graphics. There are some traditional illustrators you’d expect to see—Beatrix Potter, Jessie Wilcox Smith, Walter Crane, Edmund Dulac, Leonard Leslie Brooke (whose early 1900s works feature witty details), and even Disney Studios.
Cinderella and Goldilocks go global
The exhibition is also filled with fascinating illustrations by contemporary artists. Especially for Cinderella (the largest section of the exhibition), some chose multicultural renderings that highlight its world-wide appeal. Ed Young (b. 1931) retold Yeh-Shen, A Cinderella Tale from China in gorgeous watercolors, while Tomie dePaolo (b. 1934) set the tale in Mexico. Brian Pinkney (b. 1961) traveled to the Caribbean for Cendrillon, and Reynold Ruffins (b. 1930) placed the story in the Spice Islands of Indonesia.
There are also some delicious, edgy surprises. Mo Willems (b. 1968) has retold the tale in comic-book style as Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs, populated by “a girl who never listens to anyone or anything” and a trio eating bowls of chocolate instead of porridge. William Wegman cast and photographed his famous Weimaraner dogs in Cinderella, with a pumpkin coach pulled by puppies.
Gehry, Wright, and Lagerfeld
But the exhibition highlight has to be the work of American artist Steve Guarnaccia (b. 1953), who directed the illustration program at Parsons (New York City) and was art director of the New York Times op-ed page. His interpretations of all three tales are fabulous mind-benders. He placed Cinderella in the fashion world, populated by images of Karl Lagerfeld, Twiggy, and wannabe fashionistas. In Goldilocks and The Three Bears, our heroine stumbles onto a house where the residents are beatniks and hep cats with mid-century modern furnishings and chairs by famous designers (cunningly called out on the endpapers). And the houses in The Three Little Pigs (published in Italian as I Tre Porcellini) are all by iconic architects—Frank Gehry, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright (of Pennsylvania’s own Fallingwater)—whom Guarnaccia both satirizes and pays homage to.
Cinderella & Co. was organized by the Brandywine River Museum, its sole venue, and has been aptly scheduled to coincide with the museum’s well-loved holiday offerings. The bright graphics and subject matter may appeal to young visitors, but along with the fun of recognition, we grownups will find humor and depth in the work on the walls.