The light and airy gallery space at Woodend in Scarborough makes a good home for a small selling exhibition of some of David Hockney’s cool and precise etchings from the 1960’s based on six fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. I am always reluctant to call these tales fairy tales as they are dark and disturbing and not meant for children. They explore the cruelty and strangeness of life unflinchingly. Fairies were not thought of as cute little beings with pretty wings at the time that they were written. They are strong stuff. Hockney has responded to them with great skill and draughtsmanship. He has chosen some of the bizarre elements in the tales and visualised them with a mixture of stillness and tension which gives the work an otherworldly quality that is perfectly in keeping with the character of the original tales. The etchings are witty and surreal and have great presence. Looking at them takes you back to the original tales and reminds you all over again just how eerie and dangerous they are. A long strand of hair dangles down from a tower, a princess sits calmly in her rooftop captivity, corpses burn, one with eyes closed and the other staring impassively out and looking strangely like Adolf Hitler and a sexton hides, perfectly still, in disguise as a rock. Boys hide away inside fish or eggs, curled up calmly to avoid danger. There is violence too. A stabbing is frozen in time by a single gesture and we are shown the instant before a mauling as a huge black cat leaps on its human prey, but there is no emotion here. The etchings simply record the facts, however unlikely, and they are all the stranger for it. The original tales are fables from which we can learn lessons about courage and endurance, a safe space where we can examine the horrors of everyday life which may threaten to destroy us and overcome them, so emotion would be misplaced. There is real mystery here too. Seeing single moments from a story, like the roomful of straw in Rumplestiltskin, allows you to tell your own tale as you look at them- especially if the original tale is a more uncommon one which you have forgotten like The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear. What a terrific title that is! This is something that we all have to do in life and the tale can help guide us on the way and give us strength.
I would have liked to own one of these etchings very much and I would probably have chosen the boy hiding inside the fish if I had £950 to spare. Like Hockney himself I am very fond of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and he has captured their essence perfectly.