Once Upon a Time… Artists & Storytelling has been curated by students on The Courtauld Institute of Art’s MA Curating the Art Museum course. It brings together works from The Courtauld Gallery and Arts Council Collection to explore the diverse ways that artists have engaged with traditions of storytelling. The works on display range from nineteenth-century illustrations to contemporary video art, demonstrating how our enduring need to tell stories has been an ongoing source of fascination for artists. The juxtaposition of historical and contemporary material is essential to this exhibition. It brings together work by artists such as Walter Crane, Oskar Kokoschka, Paul Gauguin, Paula Rego, Gillian Wearing and Tracey Emin, to address issues such as truth, memory, loss of innocence and sexual awakening.
Once Upon a Time…brings together an unusual range of work, from nineteenth-century illustrations to contemporary video art, to explore artists’ enduring need to tell stories.
The first section, Childhood Stories, explores the complex relationship between illustration and text. Some of the works on display illustrate existing stories, while others present new ones. In both cases, these images can transform our understanding of children’s stories, such as fairy tales and nursery rhymes, by either masking or accentuating their darker features.
The second section, Personal Mythologies, considers artists who manipulate personal stories, blurring the line between autobiography, confession and fantasy. Even when interpreting other people’s words, the artists can reveal much about themselves. The stories in this section push accepted boundaries of what can be shared openly.
In contrast, the audio work Trance by Fiona Banner, playing in this room, exposes the limitations of storytelling. Its fast pace and monotonous tone prevent the listener from grasping the meaning of the story or empathising with its characters.
This exhibition invites you to reconsider storytelling as a means of communication. Is telling a story always a form of fabrication?
This section brings together illustrations, or visual stories, which are rarely as straightforward as they seem.
Renowned nineteenth-century illustrators Walter Crane, George Roland Halkett and George Cruikshank create visual translations of well-known fairy tales. They use easily identifiable characters that reappear in multiple frames forming a sequential narrative. Such picture books were intended not only to entertain, but also to teach Victorian children morals and values. The violence and sexuality common in earlier versions of these fairy tales has been softened to suit the tastes of the Victorian public.
Arthur Boyd Houghton and Paula Rego’s unsettling images, though separated by over a century, move beyond illustrating existing children’s stories. Houghton depicts childhood scenes, while contemporary artist Rego provides a subversive reinterpretation of popular English nursery rhymes. Neither derives their images directly from texts. Rather, they take inspiration from personal experiences and memories, openly embracing the haunting and disconcerting aspects of childhood. Both abandon sequential narrative, condensing meaning into a single frame.
Selected works from this section
George Cruikshank was the first major English artist to make a living by illustrating stories. A renowned caricaturist and reformed alcoholic, he wove a temperance message into a series of illustrated fairy tales entitled George Cruikshank’s Fairy Library (1853-4). In the illustration shown here, the drunken Ogre from Hop-o’my-Thumb has fallen asleep while pursuing the tiny protagonist Hop. In the earliest written version of this tale, Hop escapes the Ogre’s hut by tricking the Ogre into accidentally slitting the throats of his own children. In Cruikshank’s sanitized version, Hop merely steals a key. Further still, Cruikshank’s happy ending involves the King of Hop’s kingdom establishing gambling taxes, prohibition, and universal education. Cruikshank has incorporated his political views into the story and removed its most violent elements to suit Victorian tastes. Curiously, his illustrations are considerably less moralizing than his text, suggesting two different audiences: the text for adults, the pictures for children.
Illustration from the Frog Prince
Walter Crane was one of the most popular Victorian illustrators of children’s books. Between 1864 and 1876 he published colour-illustrations of many fairy tales as a collection of Toy Books; these were made up of six pages of text and six pages of illustration. Priced cheaply with huge print runs, the books were immensely successful and were still being issued 25 years after their first appearance. The image to the left, from The Frog Prince, depicts the moment when the handsome Prince is released from his bewitchment. Although the six illustrations that make up the series follow a sequential narrative, in this image multiple scenes are also condensed into one frame, showing the Princess throwing the frog against her bedroom wall and the different stages of his transformation. Crane illustrates the theme of the enchanted bridegroom again in the other Toy Book on display in this exhibition – The Beauty and the Beast.
Nursery Rhyme Series – Three Blind Mice 1989
Three Blind Mice is part of the Nursery Rhyme Series by Paula Rego – a set of 30 prints depicting scenes from 30 English nursery rhymes. Initially conceived as a gift for her granddaughter, the series evolved from ink drawings into sinister etchings, five of which are on show in this exhibition. In Three Blind Mice (to the left), Rego has not set out to illustrate a narrative in a conventional sense, but has used our shared familiarity with this popular nursery rhyme to explore themes of childhood and memory. The story of the Three Blind Mice is not told here through sequential images, as we might expect, but is contained within a single moment of heightened drama – the farmer’s wife has just cut off the first mouse’s tail and is poised ready to strike again. With the Nursery Rhyme Series, Rego forces us to reconsider these supposedly childish tales by drawing out their darker undertones and allowing the ending of the story to unfold in the viewer’s imagination.
The works in this section, rather than illustrating existing or familiar texts, have new tales to tell. Contemporary video-works and drawings are juxtaposed with early twentieth-century prints to explore personal storytelling as the source of artists’ inspiration. The audience has no way of knowing whether any of the personal narratives are real or artifice or set out simply to mythologise the storyteller.
In their striking print series, Oskar Kokoschka and Paul Gauguin both mythologise episodes from their personal lives. Kokoschka was commissioned to illustrate a children’s picture book, but instead produced an autobiographical ‘picture-poem’ recording his adolescent fantasies. Gauguin embellished his experiences of Tahiti by inserting himself into the mythology he developed for the French colony.
This compulsion of artists to share their own stories or the confessions of others is echoed in the contemporary work on display. Olivia Plender satirises artists’ obsessions with personal mythologies in her complex comic-book fiction. Through first-person spoken narrative, the videos of Tracey Emin and Gillian Wearing conform to the traditions of oral storytelling. Using explicit language and candid themes, they address the complexities of contemporary life through storytelling.
Selected works from this section
Noa Noa Series – Te Po 1893-94
Disillusioned with the West, Paul Gauguin left Paris for Tahiti in 1891. The colony was not the unspoiled native society he had imagined, so he quickly set about reinventing its mythology. Upon returning to France, Gauguin found that the Parisian public did not grasp the personal symbolism and fantasy of his Tahitian paintings. To explain, he co-wrote a romanticised account of his journey, Noa Noa, for which he also created ten coloured illustrations. The text and images were never published together. In 1921, his son printed eight of the illustrations as black-and-white engravings. In the first print, Te Po (to the left), Gauguin actually inserts himself into his Tahitian mythology: he is in the background at the left, presiding over a covered figure terrorized by the Spirit of the Dead or tupapau. The tupapau appears in many of Gauguin’s works and symbolises the Tahitian terror of the night.
The Dreaming Youths – Sleeping Girl 1907
The Dreaming Youths began as a commission to illustrate a children’s picture book, but Kokoschka abandoned his brief after the first page (to the left) to evolve a new form of visual storytelling. The resulting series of eight colour lithographs form a complex ‘picture-poem’, combining striking imagery with fragmented verse written by the artist. Kokoschka referred to this work as a love letter, dedicated to a girl called Lilith Lang, who also attended The School of Applied Arts in Vienna and who appears in the story as Li. The Dreaming Youths was considered highly controversial when it was published in 1908 by the Vienna Workshop, not only because of its radical design and innovative typography, but because it explored themes of adolescent sexuality.
Confess all on video. Don’t worry you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian… 1994
Contemporary artist Gillian Wearing works primarily with photography and video to explore the fears, anxieties, hopes and moral viewpoints of her subjects and in turn, those of the spectator. She often adopts methods similar to television documentary for her ‘fly-on-the-wall’ view of people’s lives. The artist placed an advertisement in Time Out magazine, which read Confess all on video. Don’t worry you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian… The resulting video documents strangers’ confessions. Disguised in grotesque masks, her participants are free to tell the truth about things they would never admit in daily life. At the same time, they can invent flamboyant lies without being caught. By bringing together these confessions, Wearing becomes a kind of storyteller, but by constructing the piece as a whole, she inevitably adds her own bias and becomes part of it.
Why I Never Became a Dancer 1995
Tracey Emin achieves notoriety in the art world and the popular press for her starkly confessional work, based on an unorthodox upbringing and turbulent private life. In this moving video, Why I Never Became a Dancer, Emin documents her vivid adolescent memories of growing up in Margate. She asks the viewer to look beyond the superficial and peripheral into what can be deeply felt, even if we find it painful. Whilst explicitly addressing the intimacies and complexities of contemporary life, the work is delivered in a traditional oral first-person narrative. This is a story about humiliation, abuse, hope, and ultimately survival and triumph – a modern fairy tale perhaps?
This exhibition has been jointly curated by students on the MA Curating the Art Museum course at The Courtauld Institute of Art. The programme, now in its second year, is led by Martin Caiger-Smith and is aimed at art curators of the future. The exhibition project is the culmination of the practical side of this twelve-month course. The eleven students, from the UK, Europe and the United States, were asked to mount a public exhibition in the Embankment Galleries at Somerset House, taking responsibility for everything from the initial selection of works to designing, lighting and managing the gallery space. After exploring the collections of The Courtauld Gallery and Arts Council Collection, the students arrived at the idea of an exhibition on the theme of storytelling, which is realised here as Once Upon a Time… Artists & Storytelling.
Once Upon a Time… Artists & Storytelling has been curated by:
Monserrat Pis Marcos
Installing the exhibition
Below are selected images of the students from the MA Curating the Art Museum course installing their exhibition Once Upon a Time… Artists & Storytelling in the Embankment Galleries at Somerset House.
Hanging the Exhibition
The curating students and their course tutor, Martin Caiger-Smith, discuss the optimum height at which to hang the series of prints by Paula Rego.
Two curating students paint the mirror plates on the frames to match the vivid blue of the walls.
The Wall Panels Arrive
First glimpse of one of the wall panels as they arrive back from the printers.
Surveying the Exhibition
Seen from above, the curating students, along with Courtauld Gallery curator Dr Barnaby Wright, survey the series of lithographs by Oskar Kokoschka.
The Exhibition Poster
Publicity material produced for Once Upon a Time… Artists & Storytelling is displayed near The Courtauld Gallery.
The Entrance to the Exhibition
The reception desk and entrance to the exhibition.
View of Section One – Childhood Stories
Close up of Arthur Boyd Houghton’s Home Thoughts and Home Scenes, displayed in the centre of Section 1 – Childhood Stories.