In 1993 the South Bank Centre in London mounted a touring exhibition of David Hockney's lithographs which he created in 1969 to illustrate six fairy tales by the Grimm brothers. The booklet which accompanied the exhibition is small, short (31 pages) and cleverly executed and includes just enough information and reproductions to pique the interest of those who favour new interpretations of old works.
The middle part of the booklet is especially good, consisting of notes made by Hockney to explain the rationale as well as the sources for the various lithographs.
It is clear from the start that he takes liberties with the narratives, adding psychological dimensions to some of the stories that would have seemed bizarre to the Grimm brothers and their audience but which ring true to us.
Hockney also tells us which artists or paintings served as models for some of the images, citing among others, Hieronymus Bosch, Leonardo da Vinci, Vittore Carpaccio and Rene Magritte. In the lithograph entitled "The Enchantress with the baby Rapunzel", for instance, the figures are positioned in the classical Renaissance manner of religious paintings. Hockney explains, "so the only way she (the ugly Enchantress) could get a child would be to get it from somebody else, so I thought she was probably a virgin, an old virgin. So this is based on a Virgin and Child motif, and it's done from a Hieronymus Bosch. But of course the face is altered and made deliberately ugly, and the trees are done from Leonardo da Vinci."
Revelations of inspirations abound. There's a lithograph from the tale "The Boy who Left Home to Learn Fear" showing a sexton disguised as a ghost trying to frighten a boy where the sheeted man was "drawn from simply sticking a handkerchief on top of a pencil and watching the folds, so I could draw the correct shadow on the folds". The proportions of the man are wrong — but knowing the source for the image changes the viewer's reaction to the composition. We go from confusion to amusement.
Hockney mines popular culture too — the front and back cover illustrations are taken from old horror movie stills and the inside back cover consists of a four-part panel series showing somewhat grotesque yet comical (and comic book style) images of Rumpelstilzchen tearing himself into pieces, ending with eyes, hair and nose flying around, above a dismembered belly and limbs.
This reimagining of fairy tales is complex and original and having the artist discuss process makes these decidedly odd lithographs memorable.