The Brothers Grimm in Three Transcendent Dimensions: Shaun Tan’s Breathtaking Sculptural Illustrations for the Beloved Tales
By Maria Popova
In his magnificent meditation on fairy tales and the psychology of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien famously asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” — something that has since been echoed by C.S. Lewis, who admonished against considering children a special species, E.B. White, who insisted that one should write up to children rather than down, and Neil Gaiman, who believes that we do a disservice to children by shielding them from darker elements. Hardly any other form of storytelling honors children’s inherent intelligence more than the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, which have been extending a luminous invitation into the dark for more than two centuries.
Perhaps because they bewitch the ageless dimension of the human imagination, a range of celebrated artists have reimagined these beloved tales over the years: Maurice Sendak for a spectacular 150th-anniversary edition, David Hockney for an unusual vintage volume, Andrea Dezsö for the little-known original tales, Edward Gorey for three of the best-known ones, and Lorenzo Mattotti for a retelling by Neil Gaiman. But one of the most uncommon and imaginative comes from Australian artist and author Shaun Tan, creator of such modern masterpieces as The Lost Thing and The Arrival.
In 2012, shortly after the release of Philip Pullman’s retelling of the Grimm classics, which was published unillustrated in the UK and the US, a publisher approached Tan about creating a cover and possibly some internal artwork for a German edition of Pullman’s fifty tales.
Tan was at first reluctant — he had toyed with the idea of illustrating fairy tales over the years and had invariably ended up convinced that these highly abstract masterworks of storytelling, abloom at the intersection of the weird and the whimsical, didn’t lend themselves to representational imagery. In fact, Pullman himself notes this in the introduction, remarking on the flatness of the Grimms’ characters and the two-dimensional, cardboard-cutout-like illustrations of the early editions, which served as mere decoration and did little to enhance the storytelling experience.
But the challenge is precisely what captivated Tan. He found himself suddenly transported to his own childhood — a time when he was obsessed not with painting and drawing but with the imaginative materiality of sculpture. His long-lost love for clay, papier mache, and soapstone was reawakened and magically fused with his longtime interest in Inuit and Aztec folk art.
The result of this testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity is Grimms Märchen (public library) — a glorious German edition of Pullman’s retelling, illustrated in Tan’s breathtaking visual vignettes. Sometimes haunting, sometimes whimsical, always deeply dreamlike, these miniature handcrafted sculptures made of paper, clay, sand, and wax give the Grimm classics a new dimension of transcendent mesmerism.
Complement Tan’s beguiling Grimms Märchen with the decidedly different but no less important early-twentieth-century illustrations by artist and diarist Wanda Gág, who influenced creative legends like Maurice Sendak, then revisit Sendak’s own remarkable vintage Grimm illustrations.
Published May 25, 2015