Over at my Facebook page I decided to put up a lot of Hansel & Gretel images and links. It was a bit of fun to research and post in the evenings after long days working hard on the images for my Hansel & Gretel picture-book. In fact the exercise turned out to be a bit of a revelation, and I now have a much clearer idea of how deeply the iconography of the fairy-tale is embedded in our collective psyche.
Hansel and Gretel, the witch and her gingerbread house are everywhere. There are illustrations, good and bad, and all shades in-between. Most of the imagery is cloyingly awful, though there have been some lovely discoveries among the dross, particularly among the vintage images. I love this one.
And I am adding a recommendation from the always erudite and knowledgeable John Coulthart, who has pointed me toward Albert Weisgerber’s atmospheric 1900 edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
To my knowledge Maurice Sendak left only one Hansel & Gretel image, made for his ravishingly beautiful The Juniper Tree. I can tell you, 20th century illustrations for fairy tales don’t come better than this.
I’ve found two versions of the tale illustrated by Arthur Rackham, and there may be more.
Much attention focusses on the picturesqueness of the gingerbread house, while as might be expected the more unsavoury aspects of cooking and eating small children, and the witch’s death at Gretel’s hands, are sidestepped.
It strikes me that where the iconography becomes an end in itself – and particularly when it’s divorced from its narrative context or used to sell products – the underlying darkness is extinguished, and we’re left with a gazillion images of candy-embellished cottages, lived in by a diversity of old ladies who welcome untold numbers of generic moppets, every one of them plump and rosy-cheeked.
Very few represent the witch’s home for what it is in the fairy tale – a sugar-encrusted charnel-house. We’ve taken what is truly scary, de-fanged it and rendered it harmless and jaunty.
I’ve discovered images of considerable artistry…
… some that are frankly bizarre…
… and a few that have made me want to poke out my own eyes!
Every now and again an artist, illustrator, photographer or film-maker picks up the tale and deconstructs/reinvents it, which is what Susanne Jannsen has done so imaginatively
My own version is pretty dark, and contains a few surprises! I’m making it for myself, not worrying about the age of those who look at it. Some friends who’ve had a preview have said their children will love the picture-book, while others have blanched at the very idea of exposing their offspring to it. That combination of responses sounds about right to me.