The Visual Language of Fairy-tales

by Inga Yandell

Kate Forsyth explores the visual language of fairy-tales from art to architecture—storytelling is a medium for innovation and imagination.

Fairy-tales are as old as language itself.

Indeed, many linguistic scholars believe that language was invented simply so that humans could tell each other stories. Non-verbal communication is surprisingly effective, as anyone who has observed chimpanzees at the zoo can confirm. However, for humans to express more sophisticated ideas they needed a more subtle and complex form of communication. And so, about sixty thousand years ago, humans began telling each other stories.

‘‘With the invention of narrative, planning, storytelling … and the cultural transmission of knowledge all became possible,’ Professor Arnold Lewis Glass writes in Cognition: A Neuroscience Approach. 

The purpose of these stories was manifold. On the one hand, they amused and entertained and brought comfort and consolation. On the other, they warned and enlightened and taught what was needed to be known.

In the beginning, the tales were told by a storyteller to an audience of listeners crouched around a campfire in the dark of the night. Then our ancestors began to document the stories by drawing on the walls of their caves, or by carving their images in stone. Later, they scratched shapes on to the skin of animals with styluses, or drew on paper made from leaves with ink made from oak galls.

So the visual language of fairy-tales is as deeply embedded into our collective unconscious as the tales themselves. Often we do not need to know the tale to recognise the trope. Some recent examples include an advertisement for Chanel No 5 that shows a young woman heading out into Paris at night in a red hood, while her dog howls for her to come home safe.¹

A political cartoon that features the President of the United States standing naked before a crowd that loudly admires his new clothes.²

And a famous shoe designer who creates a high-heeled slipper embedded with sparkling crystals.³

Each of the creators of these artefacts expected its audience to recognise the fairy-tale it references. Yet the ways that a fairy-tale can be used in a visual medium can be astonishingly different.

For example, the French-British artist Alice Anderson draws upon the ‘Rapunzel’ tale with her strange, unsettling work with masses of red dolls’ hair. Her installations choke whole buildings with waterfalls of hair cascading down walls and out windows, or vast shrouds of hair that threaten to choke the delicate human spun within.⁴

GHD, the popular hair-straightening brand, ran a very successful advertising campaign a few years ago in which they subverted the expected outcome of the ‘Rapunzel’ fairy-tale – at the end of the clip, Rapunzel shears off her hair and escapes on the prince’s motorbike.⁵

Annie Liebovitz took a more conventional approach with her portrait of Taylor Swift as Rapunzel (thought as she was commissioned to do the shoot by Disney Studios that is not, perhaps, surprising).⁶

While the London-based photographer Sarah Ann Wright looks at the darker aspects of the fairy-tale for inspiration.⁷

Fairy-tales do not just inspire artists, photographers and advertising companies. The New-York-based architects Guy Nordenson & Associates were more interested in the challenge of building a tower without any doors or stairs.

Invited to submit a design for “Fairy Tale Architecture”, a series in Places Journal which celebrates the intersection between design and imagination, the architects chose ‘Rapunzel’ as their inspiration, writing, ‘We were able to meet the Grimms’ strict design requirements by employing a slender tower design of vertical cylindrical stems that are joined by intermittent outrigger beams with a reinforced space at the very top for Rapunzel’s long captivity.’⁸

This design was meant to be whimsical and humourous, yet the work of some architects directly engages with fairy-tale motifs in a far more serious manner.

At nearly 180 meters tall, the Tour Triangle – designed by Herzog & De Meuron—will be the third tallest building in Paris. To me, it has echoes of the famous fairy tale ‘The Glass Mountain’. It is meant to have that fairy-tale feel of wonder and peril, what Tolkien called a quality of ‘arresting strangeness’.⁹

Many of the gravity-defying skyscrapers being built all over the world share this wondrous sense of magical beauty.

The Mode-Gakuen Spiral Towers in Nagoya, Japan, were designed by architectural group Nikken Sekkei and seem to contain numerous fairy-tale motifs—the use of the number three, for example, and the sense of spiral staircases leading upwards into impossibly high towers.¹⁰

It is not just buildings that can draw upon the visual tropes of fairy-tales. Gardens have long been filled with magical and whimsical designs that create an otherworldly place for dreaming and imagining, such as these massive plant sculpture at the Montréal Botanic Gardens.

Finally, fashion has long drawn its inspiration from fairy-tales, which are filled with descriptions of glass slippers, dresses that burn as bright as the sun, and magical cloaks that conceal.

Most of us have grown up with these stories ‘as old as time’, and their strong, dramatic motifs and metaphors feed our dreams and our imaginations. Sigmund Freud called such images the ‘archaic remnants’ of primordial experience. Heavily freighted with symbolic meaning, they help us grapple with, and express, some of our most universal fears and desires.

About the Author: Kate Forsyth has been called ‘one of the finest writers of this generation’. She has a BA in literature, a MA in creative writing and a doctorate in fairy tale studies, and is also an accredited master storyteller with the Australian Guild of Storytellers. Read more about her at www.kateforsyth.com.au

On 3rd of July, Penguin Random House will release Kate’s latest book Beauty in Thorns, a spellbinding reimagining of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ set amongst the passions and tragedies of the Pre-Raphaelite circle of artists and poets. RRP: $32.99 AU

References
¹ CHANEL N°5 advertising film from 1998 
”Le loup,” by Luc Besson, with Estella Warren
² Cartoon by Steven Sack in The Star Tribune, May 17, 2016
³ Jimmy Choo’s ‘Cinderella’ show – http://row.jimmychoo.com/en/choo-world-news/cinderella.html
http://www.riflemaker.org/s-alice-anderson
⁵ The Print Ad titled RAPUNZEL was done by Y&R London advertising agency for product: GHD HAIR STRAIGHTENERS (brand: Ghd) in United Kingdom. It was released in Oct 2009.
http://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-news/news/taylor-swift-poses-as-rapunzel-in-new-disney-ad-by-annie-leibovitz-picture-2013231
⁷ ‘Rapunzel Forgotten’, Sarah Ann Wright https://www.flickr.com/photos/schloo/3430177470
⁸ Kate and Andrew Bernheimer, “Fairy Tale Architecture: Rapunzel,” Places Journal, December 2011. Accessed 07 Jun 2017. https://doi.org/10.22269/111222
http://weburbanist.com/2015/07/02/tour-triangle-first-new-paris-skyscraper-approved-in-42-years/ 
¹⁰ http://inhabitat.com/mode-gakuen-spiral-towers-by-nikken-sekkei/

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Inga Yandell
Explorer and photo-journalist, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide educational resources and a platform for science exploration.
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