Truly Grimm and grisly

11th June 2004 at 01:00
A small, deformed man tearing himself in two and a grisly collection of corpses blazing on a funeral pyre are a long way from the bronzed Californian bodies that were once famously painted by the Pop artist David Hockney in his Sixties swimming-pool canvases.

But such horror-laden images form the basis of his latest exhibition of etchings, based on Grimms' fairy tales.

The exhibition, which opens in July at the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, east London, includes 39 Hockney etchings drawn on copper plate in 1969, designed to accompany six of the tales made famous by the 19th-century German brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

The stories, many of them more familiar in their sanitised, child-friendly forms, include Rumplestiltskin, the tale of a sadistic dwarf who finally rips himself in two in a fit of frustration.

There are also designs for the lesser-known The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear, offering a tableau of burning corpses, while etchings for Old Rinkrank show a princess trapped for many years inside a glass mountain.

Stephen Nicholls, exhibitions manager at the museum, said: "David Hockney has gone back to the mood and character of the original stories. They are very dark stories, so this is a truer representation than the sugar-coated versions of other tellers."

But he is not concerned that the darkness of the images will leave his primary-age visitors trembling in their trainers.

"Children love the naughty side of stories," he said. "They like ghosts and monsters. I don't think nine-year-olds will run away screaming."

When the exhibition ends at the museum, the etchings will be taken on tour around the country. One venue will be Castle comprehensive school in Gloucestershire.

Paul Needles, director of arts at the school, said pupils might be surprised to see such grotesque fairy-tale imagery of death and mutilation among his collections of A-level artwork.

"This certainly isn't Disney," he said. "They aren't the fluffy illustrations you might expect. In the leafy suburbs where we work, we may be challenging people's perceptions.

"But good art is all about provoking a reaction, whether it is pleasure or disdain.

"Like anything else, fairy tales are open to personal interpretation, and we want to make people think."

'Grimms' Fairy Tales' will be at the Museum of Childhood from July 3 to October 10. For details see www.museumofchildhood.org.uk

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