It’s still the same old stories at Brandywine River Museum of Art.
There’s the one about Goldilocks, little girl housebreaker, looking for a home in the comfortable abode of the bears. There’s the one about the three little pigs, learning that when the wolf is at the door, it helps to have a strong door and a strong house. And pre-eminently, there is Cinderella, abused and exploited by her stepmother and sausage-toed stepsisters, but transformed by magic and discovered by a prince.
“Cinderella & Co.: Three Fairy Tales Reimagined,” on view through Jan. 5 is a quintessentially family-friendly exhibition, one where grandparents, parents and children can claim common ground, but also offer each other their perspectives on these tales and their meanings.
And even if you do not have your extended family in tow, the exhibition has a story to tell about story-telling — especially the visual kind. For much of history, artists in every culture have depicted the same stories — myths, heroic feats, historic events — over and over again. Their work was meant to be scrutinized, to be the subject of both meditation and learning.
This kind of story-telling art is not much practiced nowadays, but children’s book illustrators are an exception. They make images that are meant to be seen repeatedly over time and examined in detail. Their pictures serve as gateways both to understanding narrative and enjoying visual art.
The show consists of about 100 original paintings and drawings by 35 artists, including a handful from a century or more ago, but mostly from the last three decades. It was curated by H. Nichols B. Clark, an expert in children’s book illustration, who also curated a superb show on contemporary illustrators at Brandywine in 2016.
That show was exciting largely because it gave a sense of some of the artistic visions that are shaping the aesthetics of our youngest generation. This show, which offers artists’ visions of the three familiar tales of Cinderella, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and the Three Little Pigs, is inevitably a bit more familiar to the grownups in the galleries, though many of the illustrators here have given distinctive twists to the old tales.
Cinderella gets first billing here, as is appropriate, because it is by far the most elaborate and ancient of the stories, whose roots, the exhibition’s text panel explains, can be traced more than 1,000 years to China. In that version, the neglected heroine’s benefactor is not a fairy godmother but a fish. In his 1982 illustrations for Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China (1982), each of Ed Young’s pencil and watercolor drawings are based on the shape of a fish.
In an Indonesian version, shown here in Ronald Ruffins’s illustrations for The Gift of the Crocodile (2000) by Judy Sierra, a crocodile is the benefactor. “It was wise of you to call me grandmother,” the crocodile is shown saying. In Steven Guarnaccia’s Cinderella: A Fashionable Tale (2013), the fairy godmother figure is a male dress designer who offers her an array of wild 1960s designer frocks. Poor Cinderella herself seems based on the famously thin fashion model, Twiggy.
Obviously, multiculturalism and international markets have spurred some of these reinterpretations. For Adelita, A Mexican Cinderella Story (2002), Tomie dePaola dramatizes the story within an environment of arches and tilework. Brian Pinkney’s oil paintings for Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella (1998) have a traditional princess vibe, though the colors are more vivid than usual and all the faces are black.
In the 1880s, the legendary Beatrix Potter once thought about doing a version of Cinderella in which most of the characters were rabbits. It was never published but a watercolor from the project is here. Mary Blair, a Disney artist, is not so well known, except to animation buffs. Yet as her two drawings here show, she played a key role in defining the look of Cinderella as most of us know it, in the 1950 Disney animated film and the picture books that accompanied it. Most of what is shown here is fighting Disney’s overwhelming influence.
I have never understood quite what Goldilocks thought she was doing, breaking into a house, disturbing the contents, eating the food, then complaining. The text panel explains that in earlier versions of the tale, she is a meddling, quarrelsome old woman. That was a clear enough warning to women not to stick their noses in places where they shouldn’t. That meaning was blurred when the intruder became an attractive young girl.
Still, there is much more sympathy for the bears and their lifestyle now than there once was. The Papa Bear in Gennady Spirin’s Goldilocks and the Three Bears (2009) cuts a mighty and luxurious figure, with a fur coat over his natural fur coat, a bejeweled tunic and tasseled hat. He looks like Henry VIII, complete with his own throne. Guarnaccia’s bears are hipsters; Papa has a goatee. And they have a collection of classic modernist chairs, one of which Goldilocks breaks.
Mo Willems in Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs (2012) threatens to give Goldilocks what she deserves. He shows the dinosaurs preparing chocolate pudding for her to eat. They love chocolate-filled bon bons. They hope she will become one.
The Three Little Pigs story has even shallower roots, mostly in the 1933 animated Disney short. It was understood in its time as a parable of the Great Depression. The moral was that each individual needed to fortify himself against the wolf at the door. The practical pig even looked a bit the recently departed President Herbert Hoover.
But whither the Three Pigs today? One version has them inheriting their mother’s waffle house, and eventually trapping the wolf inside a waffle. Another has many different animals helping the pigs construct houses sound enough to repel the wolf. And yet another has the wolf and pigs making peace and sleeping peacefully together. David Wiesner’s 2001 version seems to involve a dragon — why not —and an imaginatively deconstructed environment.
But Guarnaccia, the only artist shown illustrating all three stories, gives the story a twist I had never imagined. The first pig, who has a resemblance to Frank Gehry, builds his house out of scraps. The second, a Philip Johnson lookalike, builds his house out of glass. The triumphant pig, who foils the wolf, builds Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic western Pennsylvania house, Fallingwater. Who knew the pigs were architects?
I have been to all three of these houses, and each has its beauties. Still, if the wolf is at the door, I think I’ll opt for a little brick box.
Cinderella & Co.: Fairy Tales Reimagined
Through Jan. 5 at Brandywine River Museum of Art, 1 Hoffmans Mill Road, Chadds Ford
Hours: Open daily, except Christmas Day, 9:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.
Admission: Adults, $18; seniors, $15; students and children 6 to 18, $6.
Information: 610-388-2700, brandywine.org/museum.