Dread and Delight at the Weatherspoon
Featured photo: Anna Gaskell, “Untitled, #35 (hide)”, 1998. Chromogenic print; 36 7/8 x 49 in. The Des Moines Art Center, Iowa; Paul and Anastasia Polydoran Collection © Anna Gaskell, photo by Rich Sanders.
Editor’s note: The following corrections have been made to the online version of this article: The reception is until 7 p.m., not 9 p.m. In the fourth graf, “some” was added before the word “adults.”
“The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.”
So wrote the late Angela Carter in her classic 1979 story “The Company of Wolves,” which turned “Little Red Riding Hood” back into the werewolf tale it originally was, but also changed it from a cautionary warning to a celebration of triumphant and transformative female sexuality.
For Carter, fairy tales were about teeth and fur, fear and desire, loss and being lost, finding and becoming, a naked man twisting out of a wolf skin and a young woman in a crimson cloak delighted rather than terrified by the change. Although she was the first, best and most influential of modern literary writers inspired by the original uncensored folktales the Victorians scrubbed clean and banished to the nursery, visual artists have also been stepping off the path and embracing the deep dark heart of the wild wet woods.
These explorative reclamations, beginning in the 1970s and continuing to this day, are the basis for Dread & Delight: Fairy Tales in an Anxious World, which opens Aug. 25 at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s Weatherspoon Art Museum. On Saturday, there is a reception from 5 until 7 p.m., with food, music and a cash bar. Both reception and exhibition are free and open to the public.
The exhibition’s curator, art historian Emily Stamey, Ph.D., recommends that some adults preview it before bringing children, explaining that images are available at the front desk. “There’s a reason we put ‘Dread’ before ‘Delight’ in the title,” she said on Friday. “This isn’t Elsa and Anna and Olaf.”
Stamey told me that she’d been working on the exhibition for some years now, having become interested in “the question of just when we started seeing so much of this fairytale artwork.” She said that, while fairytale illustrations go back to the earliest days of mass-produced books, it wasn’t until the last decades of the 20th century that the subject matter began appearing in fine art galleries and museums.
This was the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when scholars such as Jack Zipes and Bruno Bettelheim rediscovered fairy tales. “It’s at this moment when we’ve just gotten through all the social movements of the 1960s. Not ‘through them’ in the sense of resolution, but they’ve brought all these things to our attention, especially those issues that align with who the protagonists are in fairy tales.”
Those tales, Stamey told me, are not about “the rich or divine sort of macho hero, but poor people, women, outsiders. And that seems to align with where we’re thinking about people on the margins.” She said that this isn’t the only reason that artists turn to fairy tales, “but I think it sort of gave everybody a reason to dig into them.”
As her vision of the exhibition developed, she focused on “artists who are unpacking or reimagining a specific story.” Rather than choosing art simply depicting fairies or witches, she looked “to see what artists did when they picked a particular fairy or folktale and asked, what’s in that story, what’s in that character.” Accordingly, the exhibition is arranged around seven tales from the Brothers Grimm, “so that when you go through the gallery you can compare and contrast how artists have looked at one particular story.”
Along with “Rapunzel,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Snow White” and “Cinderella,” Stamey included two less familiar stories. One, “Fitcher’s Bird” is a variant on the motif of the murderous husband and the “Bloody Chamber,” in which a young woman is abducted by a sorcerer who imprisons her in a house with a room she must never enter. The other, “All Fur,” is one of a subset of stories in which a princess flees the threat of incest and becomes a kitchen maid in another kingdom.
Twenty-one internationally-recognized artists are featured in the exhibition. These include Ghada Amer, John Baldessari, Natalie Frank (who on Oct. 25 will take part in a conversation at Weatherspoon with her frequent collaborator, the preeminent fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes), David Hockney, Cindy Sherman and Miwa Yanagi. The exhibition’s scholarly catalog also includes “The White Cat’s Divorce,” a new work of fairy tale fiction written specifically for this occasion by UNCG alumna and Pulitzer Prize finalist Kelly Link.
This story is delightfully strange even for its acclaimed author. It’s about a very rich and powerful much-married man and the three sons he sends on quests so their presence won’t remind him he’s getting old, and what the youngest finds on a Colorado cannabis farm run by cats. From there, it gets stranger, with resonances both traditional and Trumpian.
More information about the exhibition, including hours, tours, and links to related programs at the Greensboro Public Library and Triad Stage, can be found on the Weatherspoon’s website.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.