A Curious Chiaroscuro: The Darkness and Delight of Fairy Tales

by Paul Ryan

I acquired a hunger for fairy tales in the dark days of blackout and blitz in the Second World War.
- A. S. Byatt, from the essay “Happy ever after” (The Guardian, January 3, 2004)

The specific context of acclaimed English actor A. S. Byatt’s statement is the bombing raids by the German Air Force of her hometown of Sheffield, England, between 1940 and 1942, when Byatt was between the ages of four and six. The most devastating of these raids, always carried out in the darkness of night, occurred in December of 1940. Known as the Sheffield Blitz, more than 660 people were killed, 1,500 injured, and more than 40,000 individuals were left homeless. It’s difficult for most to imagine the terror and viciousness of such an experience. Going through it, especially as a young child, would be harrowing and necessarily traumatic, probably for life.

The fact that Byatt “acquired a hunger for fairy tales” during that dark, unspeakable time signifies that therapeutic power of fairy tales - perhaps their ability to speak for us through the story and metaphor, even helping one to navigate emotional injury and perhaps helping to heal the trauma inflicted by such nightmarish experiences. The allure of their uncanny story-lines, the magical settings, and eccentric characters bring to the reader a playground for the imagination, a syncopated flow of high and low drama, escape, instruction - sometimes as subtext, sometimes overtly, and often ironically - and frequently pure pleasure. As Byatt goes on to say in “Happy ever after:” I read early and voraciously and indiscriminately - Andrew Lang’s colored fairy tale books, Hans Christian Andersen, King Arthur, Robin Hood and my very favorite book, Asgard and the Gods, a German scholarly text, with engravings, about Norse mythology, which my mother had used as a crib in her studies of ancient Norse. I never really liked stories about children doing what children do - quarreling and cooking and camping. I liked magic, the unreal, the more than real.

Artist Linda Vredeveld’s recent paintings and collages tap into some of the various tropes of fairy tales - the animation of inanimate objects, the twisting of beauty, dances and balls, vanity, innocence, the journey, transformation - revealing their poetic and emotional flexibility and timelessness by conflating them with everyday contemporary objects, gestures, and events. The rhythm of Vredeveld’s work, structurally set in abstract stews of fragments of everyday objects and painterly though stylized gestures, evokes 1950’s American action painting dexterously filtered through a feminist lens. Not unrelated to this aesthetic connection, A. S. Byatt, at one point in her essay, connects the spirit of fairy tales with the works of certain modernist painters: The fairy tale world is called up for me by the half-abstract patterning of Paul Klee, of the mosaic definition of Kandinsky’s early, “Russian” paintings of horses and forests. 

The often whimsical tone and qualities of Vredeveld’s work - airy , playful, even at times frivolous and tongue-in-cheek - dancing within the warping frames of the deep culture of fairy tales inevitably, sometimes liked the tale itself, imply a solemn underside or subtext. The forestlessness of her work suggests a forest.

Paul Ryan, Professor of Art and Chair, Department of Art + Art History, and co-Director, James K. Schmidt Gallery, Principia College