Everyone knows that Disney Hollywooded fairy tales to paint a prettier picture of idealised family life, while the true folklore was much more gruesome. Snow White slept for years before waking up. The Little Mermaid killed herself rather than kill the man she loved. And Sleeping Beauty wasn’t really awoken by a kiss, but by her bastard children from the nobleman who raped her while she was sleeping. One of my favourite children’s books as a kid – other than Peter Pan – was a book called The Stinky Cheese Man, which tore apart the fables we are spoon fed as children. While some fairy tales can be grim and nasty, are they any further away from the realities of real life? Are we smothering or protecting children with romanticised tales of true love and knights in shining armour?
My good creative friend Hannah pointed me in the direction of this Guardian article ‘How the Chapman Brothers became the brothers grim’ a few weeks ago. I have been a big fan of the obsessively ghastly craft of the Chapman brothers for quite some time, but the news that they were going to be illustrating a children’s book left me a little confused. Sure, the Chapman brothers are great at awakening our eyes to the horrors of capitalism via nightmarish mannequin children, but can we trust the artists who were once assistants of Gilbert and George not to give our own children nightmares?
This weekend I finally got the chance to check out their work at the Whitechapel Gallery, previewing prints and prose from the forthcoming book Bedtime Tales for Sleepless Nights. They reminded me of what a children’s book should be; imaginative rhyming couplets that would be a soothing lullaby when read aloud by mother , while the beautifully crafted illustrations contained so much to gorge over and grapple with your eyes could devour the content for hours. The only problem was the subject matter – questioning if this these bogey-men would fester in a 7-year-old’s mind made you wonder if they would be just as inquisitive or equally as horrified by it.
Tame in comparison is My Giant Colouring Book. The large book features 21 etchings of mystical monsters and familiar characters in some of the more ghastly of fairy tales. The always fun dot-to-dot drawings allows children to create their own nasties, which are surely not as bad a colouring in someone else’s? And you wouldn’t get any dodgy looks if you got this out for your toddler on the train would you?
The real icing on the cake was a selection of prints from the 2000 series Gigantic Fun, a series of 83 prints. Again the brothers were re-interpreting and re-visiting their own work and the works of formal Art History masters. There would be thick and visible linear children’s illustration of a child in a bathtub. Or a rabbit putting clothes on a washing line. But what made these prints humorous is the faint scratchy print of Goya’s Disasters of War. Or a graphic illustration of the male reproductive system as a meth lab. I am mentioning the mild ones.
The Chapman brothers are constantly testing the boundaries of aesthetics. They use painstakingly timely fine art methods, to create beautifully crafted pieces of work, featuring stomach churning and eye offending subjects. The dialectic of high and low, wrong and right, tasteful and distasteful is ever more clear, regardless on if the work is intended for bad adults or innocent children. But wether or their imagery is appropriate for children is for the parents to decide. In the meantime, as always, their work is worth a voyeuristic peek.
The Children’s Art Commission open at the Whitechapel Gallery until 31st of October. Entry is free.