The structure of fairy tales and traditional folklore rests on the use of repetition to pattern the images into metaphors providing an emotional experience of transformation for the audience in the oral traditions, and for the reader following them in print. Story tellers use repetition to shape the story and for emphasis on important details in each section of the tale. It begins with an interdiction at the home of birth, a repeated request to do or not to do something which usually by the third time is ignored. The middle section is a stripping away of identity and connection to the human world, the protagonist becoming lost in the woods, the veld, the sky, the sea. Swallowed up and sometimes ingested by the elements of nature and the fantastic.
Repetition helps to parallel the experience of the two separate moments: the repeated interdiction of "don't " becomes a new list in the middle of what must be done to survive. Feed the cat, oil the gate, clean the eyes of an old woman. But a price is paid, sometimes even a temporary death, as the old identity is stripped, and a new one is reformed in the fantastic world. And the last section, becomes the return home, often perilous, success dependent on how well nature has communicated the rules of survival and how well they are followed. If in accordance with nature, the protagonist returns, restored to a new identity, a new status, and new purpose.
Each section of the narrative -- separation, initiation, return-- is patterned in a parallel fashion to the other. As in metaphor, there is a delightful tension between where it begins, where it meets with the impossible, and where it sublates the changes to become something new and unique. The dialectical journey in rites of passage, the death of the old identity, the reforming and re-emergence of a new identity, are combined into a single metaphor of transformation, revealed through images from the human world, the fantastic world, and the cache of inherited cultural archetypes in the narrative performance.
All this is to explain, why I am so taken by the fairy tale art of Katherine Ace, who expresses her work with fairy tales in a very similar fashion -- painting the narrative with a series of visual metaphors folding in on themselves to express the unstable identities of the tales. She says this in her artist's statement:
"The intersection of contraries fascinates me: ecstasy and agony; humor and tragedy; natural and constructed realities; experience and news. I find that I'm curious about the struggles of diversity vs. unity in human, animal and plant societies. I am captivated by complex issues that we all face, and yet experience personally, intimately. I am interested in the role of dark feelings, thoughts and states of mind in the process of transformation, l am drawn to fire beneath reserve."
And again here when she considers the evocative imagery in fairy tales that fuels her ideas as an artist:
"I am interested in complex story telling using cultural myths and histories that reach back into our collective and personal pasts. Figures and still life figures evolve as open ended metaphors for concepts and environments that are themselves also metaphors, and therefore fold - like fabric, time, or paint - back in on themselves. Like a poem, a painting is a surface. The depth is in the surface (oddly). It sort of dawns on you - like the way one remembers a dream sometimes, in fragments that float up all through the day, assembling themselves oddly, disturbingly..."
I find this description compelling -- for it is in the story tellers performance, or the writer of fairy tales to create the same tension between the surface of the tale, and the dream-like, metaphorical journeys as real and fantastic collide in the stories, and that it is the experience itself -- dreamlike and disturbing that holds our fascination with the tales.
The paintings from top to bottom: "The Juniper Tree," "The Frog King," "The Handless Maiden," "Six Swans," and "Many Furs." (All my favorite tales!) For more information on Katherine Ace please visit her website.