Page 45 Review by Stephen
Truly this is a work of wonders, with an eloquent introduction by Neil Gaiman and historical context provided by Jack Zipes,
An exquisite and exceedingly lush hardcover from the creator of THE ARRIVAL etc featuring 75 tales from the Brothers Grimm, I strongly suspect that this a gift which you will keep on giving for years.
For each of these dark, fantastical, folklore fables Shaun Tan has created sculptural stories: miniature tableaux distilling them to their core characteristics. For make no mistake, although Shaun is a prodigious artist in multiple media he is, like many others also at heart, a storyteller and this is no mere art book.
Fashioned from clay - and often adorned with string or surrounded by sand, sugar and salt, and whatever else is deemed appropriate (upended carpet tacks!) - these compositions of animals, faces and figures are painted in contrasting colours then lowly lit, as you might find them in a museum, to create harmonious wholes. And that's exactly what they are like: finds! Inspired by Inuit art, these are mysteries for you to discover like any ancient artefact and unravel for yourselves.
They are moments of theatre.
They're also ever so tactile: the sort of thing you want to hold in your hand, cupping each orange-sized object or objects in your palm and perhaps stroking them in the hope that they'll sing.
Plate 2 depicts 'The Companionship Of The Cat And The Mouse'. In the story itself a cat and a mouse decide to hunker down together for the winter, buying a pot of fat which they would share through sparse season and so get them through it. Let's just say that the terms of their agreement aren't adhered to by the cat who covets the fat and, when the mouse discovers this betrayal of their friendship and protests at its greed, the cat gobbles the mouse up too. And so it goes.
What Shaun has sculpted is a tiny white mouse sitting "comfortably" inside the yawning maw of a thoroughly contented, well fed, fat, black cat. It's ever so satisfying (for the cat, at least) but relatively simple.
However, Plate 7 is a deliciously complex interpretation of 'The Twelve Brothers'.
It is spot-lit from the front against a shadowy background receding in focus. The twelve brothers are represented as the coffins they were intended to be confined to by the king, standing like the gravestones which would have been erected in their memory. This reflects their actual transmutation in the tale into ravens. At the forefront cowers their sister, the princess, inadvertently responsible for their current condition - and future fate should she utter a word - her face a mask of silent guilt, hands over her mouth both in horror and lest she speak, so damning her brothers eternally.
That is one complex narrative in a single composition.
Each visual tale in turn is accompanied by an artfully edited extract to form a specific, evocative vignette like the artworks themselves, while concise and elegant synopses of the stories as a whole are also provided in the back.
This is pretty handy, because if each of these sculptures doesn't immediately intrigue you into wanting to learn more, then I would be extremely surprised.
In addition, further recommended reading is suggested so that you can track down the stories in full, in various iterations / states of sanitisation.
On the subject of which, I highly recommend Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti's HANSEL & GRETEL which could not be less sanitised. Gaiman disinters its original, bleak, morally bankrupt bad parenting, while Mattotti goes to hunger town on its illustrations:
"They are eerie, awful things, crawling with shadows, swirling in darkness, with the thickest of tree-trunks blotting out the sky.
"Stark, dark and black with just a glimpse of white light, they are cold and claustrophobic, evoking all the bleakness of a land ravaged by soldiers to the point of being all but barren, bringing those few inhabitants left to the brink of starvation."
And while we're talking fairy tales, try Neil Gaiman & Chris Riddell's THE SLEEPER AND THE SPINDLE and THE GRAPHIC CANON OF CHILDREN'S LITERATURE.
Then pop 'Shaun Tan' into our search engine, for we have a wealth of storytelling excellence for you there!