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Exclusive: Natalie Frank on Painting Feminism into Fairy Tales

When looking at the stunningly impressionistic paintings of Natalie Frank, you wouldn’t immediately guess that you’re staring into the world of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Yet that is indeed the subject matter of her latest gallery show, aptly titled The Brothers Grimm, though not without the wildly evocative and dark touch of Frank’s lurid imagination.

Frank, a graduate of both Yale and Columbia, has turned the familiar worlds of Cinderella and Rapunzel into a lush dreamscape built around the transformative experiences of the women in these canonical stories. Yet her work serves to be a more accurate telling of these tales, a source material that many forget is filled with brutal physical violence and pressing emotional drama. Milk Made’s Jake Boyer spoke to Frank ahead of her gallery opening to discuss her process of unearthing the untold world of the Brothers Grimm, the perils of long days spent in the studio, and the integral role that sexuality plays in her body of work.

When did you first feel inspired to pick up the paintbrush?

I started figure drawing when I was 12 from real life figures pretty seriously. I grew up in Texas so I actually couldn’t do that at school because that was considered pornography. So I started taking lessons at a hippie woman’s garage after school. My mother went with me to make sure nothing bad happened, which of course nothing did. I was 15 was when I got truly serious, I fell in love with oil paintings and figure paintings around that time. And that led me to the University College London’s art school. It’s a magical institution, so many generations of painters have come out of there.

What inspired you to create a whole show on Grimm’s Fairy Tales?

Well I am close to an artist named Paula Rego who’s spent a lot of time studying Freud. She had worked with Grimm’s Fairy Tales and she told me I should look at them, that they might pique my interest, especially what they said with what they have to say about women and sex and violence. I picked them up in 2011 and started to read it and very casually drew them, then gradually I became more and more serious about it. Claire Gilman from the Drawing Center came to me with the idea for a show, and that started about a year and a half ago. I thought I was done after 75 drawings but then I was asked to do covers for each story and so on and it went on and on and on.

What was the research for this project like? Did you learn anything surprising?

Well the original tales of Grimm weren’t translated into English until 1823, by a British translator. Given the morals and values of 19th century Europe, his translation was severely sanitized, taking out a lot of the more unsavory details. And it’s crazy, we’ve been living with these sanitized versions in the English world for most of the story’s existence; we didn’t get the fully unedited versions until 1988.

Is there a certain fairy tale you feel a particular affinity for?

I love Rapunzel, but I loved so many of them. I really enjoyed drawing Rapunzel the most. I made her a nontraditional woman, an older woman with big bushy eyebrows. I enjoyed picking the scenes I thought were important for the story and choosing what I wanted to do. And I didn’t remember the brutality and hardship of the story, in the original she becomes pregnant by the prince and they have to flee and wander in the desert and he even becomes blinded. They reunite as she wanders with her wretched children through the desert, and when they reunite her tears restore his eyesight. It ended up being one of the few drawings I made that’s actually tender.

Tell me a little bit about this idea of the ‘nontraditional woman’ in these stories, I know you mentioned a strong feminist element that inspired you.

Well the Grimm’s Fairy Tales started out as oral tales, passed down mostly by women. The Grimms just recorded the tales originally told and spread by women. They crafted these roles for themselves that had more nuance and complexity than I anything I had ever read in a fairy tale. Strong women have appeared in even older texts of course, Shakespeare, Ovid, all sorts of places. But these tales were so definitely and clearly shaped by women. And it’s nice because there isn’t one firm read on them. I definitely recast the stories, made them my own, with a special focus on a feminist lens. I concentrated on the heroines, princesses or witches, which may sound familiar but none of them are typical. Even if you marry the prince, there’s still some self-mutilation and your eyes getting pecked out. Most people don’t know those interpretations.

Much of your work, in both this show and past work, has a huge focus on sexuality. What about it interests you?

Maybe it will win me some suitors (laughs). Honestly though, I think it was growing up in the South. It aligns with the magic of fairy tales, a place with bad things going on under the cloak of night. None of it’s repressed, you know? I think it mirrors every day life, so those things I see in the real world will make it onto the canvas.

What was your biggest takeaway from this project?

Probably to just trust in my imagination, which I haven’t always done. When you start out with figure drawing in life you’re kind of trained to draw what’s in front of you. So to sustain a project for that amount of time with that much work was kind of exciting for me. I wanted to do something that I could do but haven’t done enough. I really love drawing books, and I learned it’s what I would like to do more. I want to do Don Quixote or The Story of O, there’s a space out there for updating classics with a feminist and humorous eye.

What it is about fairy tales that causes them to resonates so deeply?

I think that they are beguiling. I think they’re seen as simple but they are incredibly complex. There’s a beauty in appearing in such simplicity and the way they reveal themselves with symbols and metaphors and poetry seduces you without knowing. One you’re out you’ve learned all these lesson without really knowing, you got too caught up in the adventurous, pretty, seductive, magic world. Even the violence and brutality becomes part of that seduction, and amazingly, they’re funny, which a lot of people don’t remember.

What’s the most challenging part about being an artist?

I mean, I love every part of it. It’s such a luxury to be able to do it. Though there’s a lot of time alone in the studio which can get a little delusional. There were days I went without seeing anyone, so that was wonderful and slightly terrifying. Sometimes I’d call my grandmother just to speak to another person. But it’s a luxury to live as an artist, so I have nothing truly bad to say.

‘Natalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm’ is on display now at the Drawing Center through June 28th

See Frank discuss her work at a Panel Discussion at the Brooklyn Museum on April 30th

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