The Most Beautiful Illustrations from 200 Years of Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales
Maurice Sendak, Lisbeth Zwerger, Edward Gorey, David Hockney, Wanda Gág, Shaun Tan, and more.
By Maria Popova
In his timeless meditation on fantasy and the psychology of fairy tales, J.R.R. Tolkien asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children.” The sentiment has since been echoed by generations of beloved storytellers: “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time,” E.B. White told The Paris Review. “You have to write up, not down.” Neil Gaiman argued that protecting children from the dark does them a grave disservice. “I don’t write for children,” Maurice Sendak told Stephen Colbert in his final interview. “I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’”
Perhaps more than anything else, this respect for children’s inherent intelligence and their ability to sit with difficult emotions is what makes the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm so enduringly enchanting. In their original conception, they broke with convention in other ways as well — rather than moralistic or didactic, they were beautifully blunt and unaffected, celebratory of poetry’s ennobling effect on the spirit. The brothers wrote in the preface to the first edition in 1812 that the storytelling between the covers was intended “to give pleasure to anyone who could take pleasure in it.”
Their beloved stories have pleasured the popular imagination for two centuries and have inspired generations of artists to continually reinterpret and reimagine them. Gathered here — after similar collections of the world’s most beautiful illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit — are the finest and most culturally notable such Grimm reimaginings of which I’m aware.
EDWARD GOREY (1972–1973)
In the early 1970s, Edward Gorey — creator of grim alphabets, quirky children’s books, naughty treats for grown-ups, and little-known vintage covers for literary classics — brought his aesthetic of the irreverent fancy to Little Red Riding Hood and Rumpelstiltskin. The two beloved Grimm tales, along with the Cornish folk classic Jack the Giant-Killer, charmingly retold by James Donnelly and illustrated by Gorey, were eventually collected by Pomegranate in the 2010 gem Three Classic Children’s Stories (public library).
See more here.
MAURICE SENDAK (1973)
To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the tales in 1973, exactly a decade after Where the Wild Things Are transformed Maurice Sendak from an insecure young artist into a household name, FSG invited the 45-year-old artist to illustrate a translation of the Grimm classics by novelist Lore Segal. Sendak had first envisioned the project in 1962, just as he was completing Where the Wild Things Are, but it had taken him a decade to begin drawing. He collaborated with Segal on choosing 27 of the 210 tales for this special edition, which was originally released as a glorious two-volume boxed set and was reprinted thirty years later in the single volume The Juniper Tree: And Other Tales from Grimm (public library).
That Sendak should gravitate to such a project is rather unsurprising. His strong opinions on allowing children to experience the darker elements of life through storytelling were rooted in an early admiration for the Brothers Grimm, who remained an influence throughout his career. He was also not only a lifelong reader, writer, and dedicated lover of books, but also a public champion of literature through his magnificent series of posters celebrating libraries and reading.
To equip his imagination with maximally appropriate raw material, Sendak even sailed to Europe before commencing work on the project, hoping to drink in the native landscapes and architecture amid which the Brothers Grimm situated their stories. Aware of the artist’s chronic poor health, legendary children’s book patron saint Ursula Nordstrom — Sendak’s editor and his greatest champion — beseeched him in a lovingly scolding letter right before he departed: “For heaven’s sake take care of yourself on this trip.”
See more here.
LISBETH ZWERGER (2012)
Austrian artist Lisbeth Zwerger is among the most celebrated children’s book illustrators of our time. She has lent her immeasurable talent to such classics as Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant in 1984, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1996, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1999. Zwerger brings her singular vision to eleven of the Grimm stories in the absolutely gorgeous volume Tales from the Brothers Grimm: Selected and Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger (public library), published in 2012 and translated by Anthea Bell.
Zwerger’s distinctive pictorial language resonates deeply with the storytelling sensibility of the Brothers Grimm — there is a shared mastery of the interplay between darkness and light, subtlety and drama; a common quietude that bellows as the story breaches the surface of awareness and penetrates the psyche. There is something particularly wonderful about the juxtaposition of the tales’ unabashed strangeness, which lends itself more readily to stark black-and-white illustrations and literal visual narration, and Zwerger’s soft watercolors, full of delicate abstraction. What emerges is a dialogue — an embrace, even — between the sharp outer edges of the stories and their interior sensitivity, bespeaking their dimensional enchantment.
See more here.
WANDA GÁG (1936)
Although the 1936 illustrations for the Grimm tales by Wanda Gág are not necessarily the most visually captivating by contemporary standards, they are perhaps the most culturally significant for a number of reasons. Gág was a pioneering artist, author, printmaker, translator, and entrepreneur, who began her life in poverty as an incredibly precocious child. By the time she was eleven, she was running a successful business selling her art to feed her seven siblings after their father’s death. By her early twenties, she was one of only twelve young artists in the entire United States to receive a scholarship to New York’s legendary Art Students League, at the time the country’s most important art school. She was soon making a living as a successful commercial artist, supporting herself by illustrating fashion magazines and painting lampshades, and even became a partner in a toy company. She would go on to be a major influence for such storytelling legends as Maurice Sendak.
By the time she turned to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, a year after she created the world’s first feminist children’s book, Gág was already an icon in her own right. But if being a financially independent young woman and female entrepreneur in the early 20th century wasn’t already daring enough, in 1923 Gág — who had just been given a one-woman exhibition by the New York Public Library, more than twenty years before Georgia O’Keeffe’s MoMA retrospective prompted the press to hail her as “America’s first female artist” — decided to give up commercial illustration and try making a living solely by her art. She moved to an abandoned farm in Connecticut and began to paint for her own pleasure, eventually turning to children’s storytelling. Her 1928 book Millions of Cats, which predated the internet’s favorite meme by many decades and earned Gág the prestigious Newbery Honor and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, is the oldest American picture-book still in print and has been translated into multiple languages, including Braille.
But it was Gág’s retelling of that proto-feminist folktale, which she had learned from her Austro-Hungarian grandmother, that first sparked her interest in translating and reimagining folktales for children. The following year, she set out to translate and illustrate Tales from Grimm (public library) — a remarkable fusion of Gág’s own peasant heritage and her masterful skills as a fine artist.
In the introduction, Gág writes of her approach to these familiar stories, or Märchen, which she tells as her grandmother had told them to her over and over:
The magic of Märchen is among my earliest recollections. The dictionary definitions — tale, fable, legend — are all inadequate when I think of my little German Märchenbuch and what it held for me. Often, usually at twilight, some grown-up would say, “Sit down, Wanda-chen, and I’ll read you a Märchen.” Then, as I settled down in my rocker, ready to abandon myself with the utmost credulity to whatever I might hear, everything was changed, exalted. A tingling, anything-may-happen feeling flowed over me, and I had the sensation of being about to bite into a big juicy pear…
See more, including Gág’s remarkably dedicated process, here.
SHAUN TAN (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 Australian artist and author Shaun Tan — creator of such modern masterpieces as The Lost Thing and The Arrival — 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.
See more here.
DAVID HOCKNEY (1970)
In 1970, the British Royal Academy of Arts published Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm with Illustrations by David Hockney (public library). Tucked between the beautiful red fabric-bound covers are the celebrated contemporary artist and pop art icon’s weird and wonderful drawings for The Little Sea Hare, Fundevogel, Rapunzel, The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear, Old Rinkrank, and Rumpelstilzchen.
What makes Hockney’s visual interpretation especially enchanting is that while traditional fairy tale images tend to rely on beauty and color to create magic and contrast the beautiful and the ugly to distinguish between good and evil, even the princesses in his black-and-white illustrations are unassuming, ugly even; where ornate, detailed imagery would ordinarily fill the traditional visual vignette, Hockney’s ample use of negative space invites the imagination to roam freely. Perhaps above all, his haunting, scary, architectural illustrations serve as a testament to J.R.R. Tolkien’s assertion that, even if they might appeal to the young, fairy tales are not written “for children.”
See more here.
ANDREA DEZSÖ (2014)
What most of us know as the Grimm fairy tales today are actually the tales of the seventh and final edition the brothers published in 1857 — a version dramatically different from the one Jacob and Wilhelm first penned forty-six years earlier, when both were still in their twenties. The prominent Grimm scholar and translator Jack Zipes argues that the original 1812 edition is “just as important, if not more important than the final seventh edition of 1857, especially if one wants to grasp the original intentions of the Grimms and the overall significance of their accomplishments.”
Zippes brings that seminal first edition to life in The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition (public library), featuring breathtaking illustrations by Romanian-born artist Andrea Dezsö. Her delicate ink-drawing vignettes — intended to invoke the magical cut-paper sculptures for which Dezsö is known — illuminate scenes from the Grimms’ tales through an extraordinary interplay of darkness and light, both of color and of concept.
See more, including my interview with Dezsö, here.
SYBILLE SCHENKER (2014)
In her exquisite take on Little Red Riding Hood (public library), German illustrator and graphic designer Sybille Schenker blends the beauty of delicate papercraft with the Grimms’ original starkness of sensibility to produce something unusual and utterly beguiling — something partway between Kevin Stanton’s die-cut illustrations for Romeo and Juliet and the East-West masterpiece I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, yet something wholly original.
Ethereal layers of laser-cut and die-cut paper overlay Schenker’s graphic silhouette illustrations, making tangible the beloved story’s inherent duality of darkness and light from which its enduring enchantment springs.
See more here.
LORENZO MATTOTTI (2014)
Neil Gaiman thinks a great deal, and with great insight, about what makes stories last. It is hardly surprising, then, that the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm would bewitch his imagination both as a storyteller and as a philosopher of storytelling. More than a decade after the publication of his widely beloved book Coraline, Gaiman brings this spirit of dark delight to his magnificent adaptation of the Grimm classic Hansel & Gretel (public library).
Accompanying Gaiman’s beautiful words, which speak to the part of the soul that revels in darkness but is immutably drawn to the light, are befittingly beautiful illustrations by Italian graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti — the talent behind Lou Reed’s adaptation of The Raven.
See more, including Gaiman in conversation with Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly on what makes fairy tales endure, here.
Published July 20, 2015