Natalie Frank

The celebrated painter is the latest food fad taking taste buds by storm.

Artist Natalie Frank

Artist Natalie Frank at her Brooklyn studio.

While the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have been tackled by artists from David Hockney to Maurice Sendak, few, if any, artists tackle the entire collection. And it’s a series that New York-based artist Natalie Frank thought in particular could use a woman’s perspective.

Frank’s paintings and drawings boldly examine the human form, taking inspiration from literature and art history, from Italian renaissance painters to Edvard Munch. The Brothers Grimm was a somewhat ironic subject matter for her when one considers the familiar Disney versions of the classic stories about delicate princesses saved by charming princes. Frank’s work centers on the female figure as empowered and emboldened, rendered in striking color and sensual strokes that nod at Lucian Freud’s nudes. But in reality, the fabled stories were right up her alley: the tales, as originally written, are more nuanced and decidedly darker than the children’s versions, and exactly the kind of territory Frank commonly explores in her work.

“I was visiting with the artist Paula Rego in her studio in London and we were discussing what we were reading,” says Frank. “She’s worked so much with fairy tales and she suggested that I look at the Grimms. They hadn’t ever been illustrated as a group by a fine artist.” And Frank could find no example of a female perspective on the stories.

“[Rego] thought I might enjoy their subject matter, which runs along my interests in storytelling with an edge of violence, sexuality, and some unusual portrayals of women,” Frank recalls. “I went home to New York and ordered the highly recommended Grimms collection of tales from 1812-57 that are unsanitized, translated by Jack Zipes, off Amazon. I was awestruck by the stories! I didn’t remember their poetics, the haunting and often hilarious imagery. The unsanitized tales were very different from those that my father read to me as a child.”

Endpaper Heroines

Endpaper, Heroines (2011-14)

Frank ended up devoting years to the project, creating 75 drawings from 36 of the original stories and giving a more fantastic and yet realistic look at the touchstone tales. The drawings she made were rendered in gouache and chalk pastel—marking the first time that Frank made a project entirely with those materials. Her resulting book Natalie Frank: Tales of the Brothers Grimm, published by Damiani, features a Cinderella in rags surrounded by ghoulish, swirling abstractions and lush interiors. The Golden Goose II depicts entwined feathers, instruments, legs, and hands in a tangle of color. Or take her interpretation of Snow White, where the heroine is sleeping under the queen’s spell, her skin already blue, as a hand comes into the foreground wielding a giant apple. The drawings are not so much updates to classics as they are new claims on the material, and Frank draws on folkloric styles, patterns, and colors in her imagery. She also made sure to highlight lesser known material. While drawings of Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty round out the collection, so do depictions of stories such as “The Ungrateful Son” and “All Fur.” The book features essays by Linda Nochlin, the art historian, Julie Taymor, the theater director, and Claire Gilman, who curated the exhibition at the Drawing Center, in New York, where they were shown originally in spring 2015. The show then traveled to the Blanton Museum at the University of Texas at Austin and the Kentucky Museum of Art.

Endpaper, Villains

Endpaper, Villains (2011-14)

Making the viewpoint of female artists equal with male ones is a major theme in Frank’s work and life. “Originally the Grimm brothers fibbed about why they were doing this project and made it seem like it was a tool of nationalism—that the tales were collected from German peasants—but actually they were taken from the bourgeoisie,” Frank said in an interview with Artforum in 2015. “I learned that many of these were actually told and collected by women. Through the mutation of oral tales, women were creating these roles for themselves that were unprecedented in literature.” Her exhibition and book were a continuation of that idea.

Frank grew up in Austin and Dallas, Texas, in conservative communities where her interest in drawing the human body from life sometimes got her into trouble. She later attended Yale where she studied in the school’s prestigious studio art department, while also completing undergraduate work at the Florence Academy of Art and L’École Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts in Paris. After graduating, Frank spent a year in Norway on a Fulbright Scholarship at the National Academy of Fine Art, Oslo, investigating the work of Munch while honing her practice in painting. In 2006, she graduated with an MFA in visual arts from Columbia University in New York, and won early praise from magazines such as the New Yorker and Modern Painters. Frank revealed in an interview with Modern Painters that she did not begin seeing in three dimensions until 2011, a result of an eye condition she had as a child. However, the handicap only sparked her imagination more. To follow, she tends to paint from memory or photographs.

All Fur III

All Fur III (2011-14)

The Lettuce Donkey I

The Lettuce Donkey I (2011-14)

Frank’s work is held in the collections of the Yale University Art Museum, the Whitney Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum. She recently took part in The Artists Project at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a video series in which contemporary artists muse about their favorite works in the museum’s collection. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Frank chose the prints of the early 20th century German artist Kathe Kollwitz, “Kollwitz was the first artist I was introduced to. I read a lot as a child and all of the literature seemed to be from the vantage point of men. It was the first time I had seen the world through a grown woman’s eyes,” she explained.

Currently, she is working on a book of drawings of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, compiled and introduced by Jack Zipes, who introduced her to the Grimms book. The new book traces the different versions of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice fable, from Ovid to Grimm to Hermann Hesse. Published by Princeton University Press, the book will be the definitive collection of these tales.

The Juniper Tree

The Juniper Tree II (2011-14)

The Bremen Town Musicians

The Bremen Town Musicians I (2011-14)

“Jack is such a phenomenal historian, linguist, writer, and humanist,” Frank says. “I feel very fortunate to have been able to work with him again.”

Frank keeps a disciplined schedule in her studio, in Brooklyn’s trendy Bushwick neighborhood, where she works on a multitude of projects at once. “I’m in the studio ten to seven, every weekday,” she says. “Right now [I’m working on] some oil paintings of narrative scenes, drawings in gouache and chalk pastel, and a few other projects. There are usually a few bodies of work going at once.” What drives Frank is the inability to be pinned down as an artist or even by her own tastes. As she puts it, “I like the challenge and disruption of moving from medium to medium.”

[©All artwork courtesy of Natalie Frank, Image 1 courtesy of Phil Chang]

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