Magical alchemy

Storytelling and illustration combine to great effect in the fairy tale, giving the members of an east London printmaking collective the perfect opportunity to showcase their skills in a new exhibition. Anna Richardson uncovers the narrative in their work

Whether in the form of a cautionary yarn, a moral story or a saga of cruelty and revenge, the fairy tale has frightened, warned and charmed for time immemorial. Printmaking has been inherently linked to storytelling ever since woodblock, etching and engraving were used to illustrate the first mass-produced story books, and today it remains a medium perfectly suited to narrative.

The travelling exhibition Wonderland, which comes the V&A Museum of Childhood in London this month, explores the fairy tale through pieces of work by members of the East London Printmakers studio, which cover a range of processes and underline the resonance that fairy tales have in different cultures and countries.

Exhibitor Kitty Redford says that there has been a particular place in contemporary visual culture for the fairy tale as a theme and a viable form of serious work during the past decade. Fellow printmaker Emilia Ljungberg points out that, whereas many fairy tales focus on the happy ending, there is a revival of tales inspired by old-fashioned stories with cruelty, suffering and injustice, pointing to films such as Pan’s Labyrinth. ‘I believe this suits the world we live in today,’ adds Ljungberg.

Redford’s screen-printed work for the exhibition references Little Red Riding Hood and the changing form that stories take when they are retold. ‘The style of the work comes from my interest in “process” in printmaking,’ says Redford. Photographing people acting out loose approximations of scenes from the fairy tale, Redford put the images through a deliberately crude fourcolour separation process to try to reference a type of children’s story book from the late 1950s, and then digitally added the wolves. ‘I wanted my prints to be larger than life within their reference to the style of the books,’ she adds. ‘[They] make a very literal stylistic reference to a very particular kind of printed children’s book, so they are directly alluding to that connection and function of printmaking,’ she adds.

Wuon-Gean Ho’s work includes a screen-printed take on the old folklore notion of Mask Ka that suggests two lovers are connected by an invisible red thread. The print shows two lovers represented in the cheeks of a face, with one aware of the pull of the thread. ‘The print explores the notion that humans have more to their surface appearance than meets the eye,’ says Ho.

‘I wanted to express inner emotions, true histories – in effect, faces stripped of the mask of social pretences.’ Printmaking techniques such as woodcut render images in very graphic blacks and whites, which are well suited to depicting narratives, believes Ho. ‘Printmaking is often quite illustrative and moves you quite easily into the imaginary places of fairy tales, which are full of visual details,’ agrees Louiz Kirkebjerg Nielsen. ‘The markmaking techniques lend themselves to creating more simplified characters.’ Her Tommelise screen-print reimagines the story of Thumbelina, reflecting the idea of being a small human being in a very big world. The notion of being free and childlike, and treating the city as if it is an imaginary castle or climbing frame, is an ongoing theme in Nielsen’s work.

Storytelling and myth are also central to the work of Katherine Jones, who makes hybrid prints usually combining block-print, collagraph and etched plates. ‘Artists throughout the ages have connected their work to myth and fairy tale because of the allegorical nature of the stories,’ says Jones. ‘Whether it is tenuous or more straight-forward, there is usually a link somewhere along the line.’

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