Not Your Average Princess: Humanity and Complexity in Natalie Frank’s depictions of The Tales of the Brothers Grimm

On December 21, 1937, Walt Disney studios released their first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The movie, based on the story by the Brothers Grimm, grossed nearly $8 million during its initial release (just over $132 million by today’s standards). Nearly 80 years since this resounding success, Disney has continued to mine historical fairy tales, twisting them into something almost unrecognizable for family audiences. I don’t mean to be unkind; I love Disney films and grew up with my favorite characters literally painted on my bedroom walls. I, like most people who grew up with Disney, never knew the original tales, and as a child, I would not have been prepared for the unhappy endings or the titillating details of the original stories.

Yet to blame only Disney studios for the sanitization of these stories would be unfair: the Grimm Brothers started to make them more “kid friendly” over the course of forty years. The original stories are filled with dynamic and interesting characters, complex relationships, and true human suffering. Modern day soap operas could only dream of this much intensity. Luckily for avid fairy tale lovers like me, Natalie Frank, the New York-based, Austin native, has created 75 gouache and chalk pastel drawings that illuminate the beauty, complexity and humanity of these original stories. On July 11, the Blanton Museum of Art will open the exhibition Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm, showcasing 36 drawings from the series. As the feminist art historian Linda Nochlin writes, “These are Grimms’ fairy tales before the PC censors got ahold of them.”

Natalie Frank
Rapunzel II, 2010-2014, gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper, Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Purchase through the generosity of the Houston Endowment, Inc., in honor of Melissa Jones, 2014.

These are not illustrations, but rather, Frank’s feminist interpretations of the stories. She is interested in the multifaceted and complex women she admires in the stories. According to Frank, “I always look for images of feminine beauty that are atypical and complicated because that is how I saw their roles, and a lot of the roles of women in these stories.”[1]

In Frank’s drawing, Rapunzel II, we see an older woman’s face coming out of a tower window. Her bushy hair and eyebrows, ruddy cheeks, and large nose make her an unlikely candidate for the starring role. But, according to Frank, she wanted to depict a woman who has been held in captivity: a woman who had been used by the only people she had ever known and literally given away for vegetables by her true parents. Her story is intricate and complex, and so is she.

In the original 1812 version of the story, a husband and wife had been wishing for a child for many years. At the request of his pregnant wife—who is wasting away due to her desire to eat rapunzel (the lettuce)—her husband jumps the fence and steals it from the fairy’s garden. When confronted by the fairy, the man explains the situation and the fairy agrees to give the couple as much lettuce as they like in exchange for the child. In fear, the man agrees.[2] (In later revisions, the fairy is a sorceress and she threatens them with more than just the withholding of veggies.)

The child Rapunzel “grew to be the most beautiful child under the sun.” Ironically, this beauty is the cause of her cruel imprisonment. She grew up completely isolated and never knew anyone aside from the fairy she called Mother Gothel. When Rapunzel meets the prince, there is no mention of love. In the 1812 telling, “Rapunzel was terribly afraid, but soon, the young prince pleased her so much that she agreed to see him every day and pulled him up into her tower. Thus, for a while they had a merry time and enjoyed each other’s company.”[3]

(In later revisions, the Grimm brothers added moralizing overtones, thoughtful contemplation of love, a marriage proposal and a plan for escape.)

Rapunzel gives away that she is having nightly rendezvous with the prince when she asks Mother Gothel why her “clothes are becoming too tight.”[4] She is unaware of her own changing body and the consequences of her evening soirées and her naïveté gives away her pregnancy. The fairy, the only mother and woman Rapunzel has ever known, “banished Rapunzel to a desolate land, where she had to live in great misery. In the course of time she gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl.”[5] (In later revisions, the brothers change the focus away from the pregnancy (although she still has twins) to make Rapunzel more foolish rather than just tragically naïve. The golden haired vixen asks the sorceress why she is so much heavier than the prince, resulting in her banishment.)

Natalie Frank
Rapunzel III, 2010-2014, gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper, Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Promised gift of Brent Hasty and Stephen Mills.

Frank’s final depiction in this series, Rapunzel III, shows Rapunzel and her prince reunited. The couple embrace and her tears clear the eyes of her blinded lover. The prince has a squirrel tale, because, according to Frank, he is most like an animal since he has been wandering in the desert. The twins are upside down, indicating their “wretchedness.” Rapunzel has become more beautiful through the course of her suffering and she is the one comforting the prince. Behind the couple, the kingdom is in the background, maybe signaling the hopeful future they will have together.

What makes these original stories distinctive from the ones Disney has disseminated is not the beauty and magic of true love, but the humanness and suffering that makes personal growth and transformation possible. Frank’s drawings celebrate that suffering and highlight the emotion and physical transformations endemic to human life. By focusing on the gritty, the not so shiny and the moments of sadness, Frank makes our own sufferings a little more bearable and the moments of compassion that much sweeter.

Amethyst Beaver is a curatorial assistant in modern and contemporary art at the Blanton.

[1] Natalie Frank in conversation with the author, April 20, 2015.

[2] Jack Zipes, trans. & ed., The Complete First Edition, The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014), p. 37-38.

[3] Ibid., 39.

[4] Ibid.,39.

[5] Ibid., 39.

2 thoughts on “Not Your Average Princess: Humanity and Complexity in Natalie Frank’s depictions of The Tales of the Brothers Grimm”

  1. Great article! I didn’t even know Disney ‘used’ the stories of Brothers Grimm. Yet I’ve known both: as a child I watched a lot of Dinsey movies on VHS, but my mother also read out a book full of Grimm fairytales to me.

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