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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

'The Singing Bones: Inspired by Grimms' Fairy Tales' by Shaun Tan

 Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

A unique and alluring art book showcasing Shaun Tan's extraordinary sculptures based on the timeless and compelling fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm.

In this beautifully presented volume, the essence of seventy-five fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm is wonderfully evoked by Shaun Tan's extraordinary sculptures.

Nameless princes, wicked stepsisters, greedy kings, honourable peasants and ruthless witches, tales of love, betrayal, adventure and magical transformation: all inspiration for this stunning gallery of sculptural works. Introduced by Grimm Tales author Philip Pullman and leading fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes, The Singing Bones breathes new life into some of the world's most beloved fairy tales.

‘The Singing Bones’ is the new Shaun Tan book, inspired by Grimms' Fairy Tales.

Author Philip Pullman (‘The Golden Compass’) provides the foreword and reflections on Tan’s work; essentially summarising the paradox that his three-dimensional creations are “superb at representing two-dimensional characters.” And he’s absolutely right. Fairy tales are in many ways all about didactics – intended for instruction. The Three Little Pigs is, arguably, about how half-arsing a job may provide short-term enjoyment but choosing the hard slog will have longer-lasting not-being-eaten-by-a-wolf rewards. Pullman explains that, ‘Fairy tale characters have very little character, only characteristics.’ But Tan’s sculptures somehow breathe life into the moralising tales; he conjures mystery and imagination from a single image.

‘The Singing Bones’ actually reminds me somewhat of Chris Van Allsburg’s classic ‘The Mysteries of Harris Burdick’ – the 1984 picture book of seemingly random, unrelated illustrations accompanied by a title and a single line of text (which compels readers to create their own stories). In much the same way that Allsburg took a snapshot of an unknown, mysterious tale and encouraged readers to fill in the blanks – Tan’s work is going in the opposite (but still fascinating) direction, by providing a snapshot from a well-known fairy tale and encouraging readers to remember the stories for themselves, or to go forth and investigate the lesser known fairytales … and I do believe that ‘The Singing Bones’ will go down as a classic in much the same way as ‘The Mysteries of Harris Burdick’ has.

Some of Tan’s chosen fairytales are fantastically creepy and delicious, like ‘The Boy Who Left Home To Find Out About Fear,’ which begins; “The boy went to the gallows, sat down beneath it, and waited until evening came.” The accompanying sculpture is equally, eerily unsettling – as beautiful and beastly as the words themselves. A particular favourite of mine was ‘The Maiden Without Hands’; for its disturbing title but surprisingly beautiful accompanying story and sculpture – it was one of the many examples of a narrative surprise, and a lesson in not presuming to know the tale before it’s told.

Jack Zipes (a retired American professor whose career was based around studying the evolution, social and political role of fairy tales) provides an introduction to the Brothers Grimm, and how they ‘made their way into the world.’ Having read Kate Forsyth’s marvellous novel ‘The Wild Girl’ a couple years ago, which is a fictional account (based on true history) of how the Brothers Grimm collected their tales during the Napoleonic Wars (and emphasises women’s contributions to their tales), I found Zipes’s history equally fascinating. Particularly when he gets into the 1970s feminist movement impacting the illustration and adaptation of the fairytales. And like Pullman, I really appreciated his unique incite into Tan’s interpretation of The Brothers Grimm: ‘All Tan’s sculptures estrange us and beckon us to gaze and think about moving them, to discover how they have been made, and why they have been drawn from the Grimm’s tales. They have been taken out of one world and installed in another setting.’

Tan’s author’s note tells us that all of the sculptures photographed within are between 6cm and 40cm tall, and primarily made from papier mâché (though other materials used include: wood, bronze patina, wax, fabric, pepper, nails, blossoms … you get the idea. The man looks at the natural world and sees potential for art in everything.) 

‘The Singing Bones’ is destined to be another Shaun Tan classic. It’s a gift of storytelling narration, setting new precedent for illustration and interpretation of the fairytales you only think you know so well …


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