FAIRY TALES AT IAN POTTER MUSEUM
Exhibition: “All the better to see you with”
Image by Kiki Smith
The constant re-interpretations of the fairy tale narratives and tropes in literature and the fine arts are evidence of the way fairy stories articulate the key issues of human existence, human relationships, human society. Such re-interpretations are also vital tools in re-shaping responses to those issues, in re-defining roles in relationships and societies. Uppermost in many Australian minds right now is the matter of the re-definition of marriage. I remember when same sex marriage became legal in New Zealand in 2012. At the time, one of the most potent images shown on television was that of the Disney Cinderella kissing the Disney Snow White outside the court after the decision was announced. Whatever you may think of Walt Disney, he did give one happy couple the signifiers for the moment. We are not here to discuss Walt Disney. We are here to witness the marriage of story and the visual arts.
It is with particular delight that I stand among you, and among these thrilling and disturbing works of art, linked as they are to the treasure trove of fairy tale, to the world of hallucination and transformation, under the inviting yet sinister banner of ‘All the better to see you with’.
This teasing phrase summons up the essential elements of the story of Red Riding Hood, but it also, in the context of an art gallery, suggests the contemplation of works of art, the act of seeing, the gift of sight, the benefaction of inspiration and understanding. Art by its nature expands the experience of life, images constructed by artists can have a powerful effect on the way people make meaning. In art the impossible becomes manifest – the monsters, the mermaids – unicorns move silently through the forest, the wings of angels fill the dome of heaven.
For my sixth birthday I received a thick book with a smooth dark blue leather cover. It was the collected tales of the Brothers Grimm, and physically it resembled a Bible. The pages were tissue thin, the illustrations were dense little black and white etchings by the Victorian illustrator George Cruikshank. He created a grotesque and vivid world that gripped my mind and haunted my imagination. To me there was something malevolent and alarming about the very medium of the dense black and white etching. I would stare captivated and intoxicated by the pictures, gripped with fascination and dread, even at the ones that were intended to be joyful. They seemed to come from a twisted pen with an undertow of horror leading back and forth into the abyss. Two rather interesting details from Cruikshank’s life: he rewrote some fairytales as rather dull texts for teetotalism – and he had eleven illegitimate children with the family servant. His drawings would seem to be a long way from the wonderfully extravagant gestures of the works in the gallery tonight – Patricia Piccinini’s startling living child, Allison Schulnik’s apocalyptic claymation video of the Danse Macabre – yet Cruikshank’s pictures and these works before us have a similar power to enthrall, a similar ability to stimulate the mixture of delight and terror that is the mark of fairy tale. Illustration is intimately bound up with language in the history of tale telling. The words conjure the images; the images nourish the words.
But to return to the title of the exhibition, ‘All the better to see you with’. It is a clear signpost to the tale of Red Riding Hood, giving me the opportunity to dwell on this narrative which is one of my very favourite topics. I just can’t tell you what a joy it was to be invited to speak under the banner of those words: All the better to see you with. I often hear people say that telling stories is one of the key characteristics of human beings, and of course it is. But some people, myself included, want to go further and suggest that perhaps the telling of stories, like dance, and the making of music and images, is somehow encoded in human DNA. Having offered you that idea, I must return to the forest, the girl, the grandmother, the wolf. All the better to see you with.
Folkloric research suggests that the bones, if I can say that, of this narrative can be found in many cultures long before the French writer Charles Perrault published his version of it in 1697, setting it on its way as what is called a ‘literary fairy tale’, a story with its own astonishing career of seduction of the western mind and heart. It got to the point where Charles Dickens later wrote these arresting sentences: “Little Red Riding Hood was my first love. I felt that if I could have married Little Red Ridinghood, I should have known perfect bliss.” That is one of the wackiest things I have ever heard, and I have never been quite sure of how to take it. Was he somehow casting himself in the role of the wolf? Or the woodcutter? Some prince outside the story? What?
Be that as it may, and irrespective of how and for what audience the story is told, I believe that in your heart of heart you know that this story is about nothing but rape. With a kind of carefree yet knowing innocence, the girl leaves the goodness of the family home, taking home-baked nourishment to her feeble grandmother who can only be reached by a solitary walk in the forest. Danger in the form of a creepy sweet-talking male figure will cross the girl’s path and trick her into bed and rape her, and in fact destroy her. It doesn’t really matter how you choose to save her, resurrect her, or how much agency you give her, how she triumphs in the end – whichever way you look at it, the story is about sexual violence. Last century Roald Dahl gave the girl a gun and she shot the wolf. Hilarious! But it’s still that same stranger danger story. It is still a story that works with the primal abuse of power. You might want to check out Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs singing ‘Hey there Little Red Riding Hood’ on youtube. I find the insistence of the adjective ‘little’ in the girl’s name a disturbing element of the whole thing too. Diminutive, powerless – the words hold a seductive and sinister rhythm, Little Red Riding Hood.
Since Jill Meagher was raped and murdered in Brunwick in 2012, I can never think of Red Riding Hood without remembering Jill Meagher. And the terrible terrible thing is that with all the myriad incarnations and transformations of Red Riding Hood in story after story, in image after image across the centuries, nothing could save Jill Meagher in 2012. So I descend into a bleak chasm of sorrow and despair as I realise that, powerful as stories certainly are, they are only one part of the answer to the great questions of how to address the matter human of cruelty, viciousness, injustice and depravity. Artistic response is another part of the answer. Or another chapter in the story.
Looking at the works in this exhibition, you can see new templates, new possibilities, shifts in emphasis, shifts in power, you can see determination for change, for revolution. Horror, rage, love, joy. What you do not see is acceptance. This is an exhibition that suggests modulation and change. The works here are subversive, ambiguous and mesmerising, and they come from a range of disparate sources.
When I began to construct this speech, my plan was to be pleasant and maybe amusing and upbeat, but the material took me, as I think was inevitable, into the darker regions behind the scenes. And the works here will take you into the dark, believe me. However, what illuminates all the works in this intoxicating exhibition by twenty-one artists from near and far is one of the most important elements ever given for the salvation of the race – and that is WIT. Whew – I thought I would never get there.
Wit. I don’t necessarily mean humour – although often it is humour, comedy, farce that lift tales into the category of classics. It’s the ones that disturb the most, the ones with the sharpest cruelty, sometimes bonded with the finest beauty, that have become the ‘classics’. Snow White, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid. The wit can enter the unconscious mind of the listener or the viewer – the consumer if you like – not as a bombshell, but as the finest filament of spider-web. These are not called fairy tales for nothing. They enter the deep consciousness and endure. Often the endurance is in the form of an everlasting puzzle, for the great fairy stories nearly always pose as many questions as they answer. That is part of their attraction too, part of their charm, part of the enchantment they have cast over human beings forever. In other words they cast a spell. And as you know, spells can go either way – they can damn or they can heal. Embedded in the stories is the thread of inextinguishable hope, and hope, that indestructible creature left behind in Pandora’s box, is one of the little engines that keep the stories moving. Hope keeps people coming back again and again to contemplate the images and to listen to the narratives. By bringing all these works of art together in one place, the Ian Potter gallery has made a glorious statement of confidence in the ability of the marriage of stories and the visual arts to raise the consciousness of human problems, and to sometimes point the way to solutions.
I congratulate the Museum on the vision and skill demonstrated in bringing this exhibition into being. And I take great pleasure in inviting you to open your eyes and your hearts to the opportunities before you on the walls, beginning with the special wallpaper out at the entrance.
(This is the text of my launch speech for the exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum in November 2017)