Grimm portrayals Illustrations: Murder, mutilation, incest -- all are evident in the grisly works of Robert Wang, perhaps the first to depict all 242 of the fairy tales.

June 09, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Robert Wang stayed home for eight years painting portraits of people who had plucked out their eyes, children with spikes through their heads, a bearded, naked woman nailed to a cross and (his personal favorite) a father chopping off his daughter's hands while a goblin offers her a rosary.

Wang is not an illustrator for some sick heavy metal band.

From 1988 until this year, he obsessively brushed oil on canvas to depict all 242 fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm.

The feat took seven hours a day, five days a week for eight years and is believed to be an accomplishment without precedent. All the paintings have been hand framed by Wang, and the biggest measures 3 feet by 4 feet. Most are about the size of a small television. Others, based on the shortest of the tales, are the size of a snapshot.

"I grew up listening to the stories, and I had these images in my mind, visions of magical creatures under stairs. In my mind, I was hearing them from a 14th-century grandmother," says Wang, surrounded by scores of Grimm images crowding the walls of his Columbia townhouse. "My visions weren't always what other people think of."

Indeed, these are far from Disney's sanitized versions of Snow White and her darling dwarfs.

Except for a few of his own ideas painted into the margins -- like the goblin with the rosary -- Wang's intense pictures are faithful to the dark side of the original stories first brought together in the 19th century by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm of Germany. The tales go back more than five centuries and are rife with murder, cannibalism, mutilation, incest and baby killing.

In Germany, to this day, the Grimms sell second only to the Bible.

"I didn't make any of this up. The medieval people thought this stuff was hilarious," says Wang, a 58-year-old doctor of art

history. "I'm the first person willing to take the words of the Grimms and really show it instead of painting around it. Only a few are really cruel, but when the Grimms are cruel, they're cruel."

Among the cruelest is "The Maiden Without Hands," in which the devil bullies an impoverished miller into severing his pious daughter's wrists. Wang, who has no children, jokingly calls the painting "You're Grounded."

Although there's a happy ending when God rewards the maiden's faith by allowing her hands to grow back, this is not what Wang has chosen to paint. He ignored most of the happy endings.

"I would think that kids today, who are so much into brutality and violence and everything they see on MTV, would be able to understand the Grimms," he says. "But I've had young people come in to see these who didn't know who they were."

To Wang, ignorance of the pioneering German lexicographers is more disturbing than a portrait of a man eating his son's head from a bowl of blood, as occurs in the tale of the juniper tree. He wants the paintings to be exhibited by a major museum to reward his years of work and generate new American interest in the subject.

"I didn't do this as a crusader, I did it because I love the stories," he says. "If I could possibly bring a new generation to Grimm's fairy tales, that would be very nice."

Wang used "The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm" by Jack D. Zipes as his text for the paintings. The 1987 edition includes many stories omitted in earlier versions. The author was amazed to learn what Wang had done so quietly.

"Oh my God, this is an astounding feat," said Zipes, a professor of German at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. "If he painted every one in the book, he's the first to do it -- a great accomplishment."

When Zipes goes into elementary schools to recite some of the tales he loves so much, he first asks the children if they know any of the stories.

"What they know is a hodgepodge of ideas, and, if they know anything at all, it's through Disney," says Zipes. "I retell them because it's important to go back to the source. The tales are still popular, even on the Internet, but most people don't pay attention to the historical tradition."

Bob Wang -- whose passions range from the cabala of Jewish mystics and tarot to power tools, bookbinding, French cuisine and antique furniture -- pays close attention to tradition.

The books he's written, including a 1988 handbook for tarot based on the psychology of Carl Jung, are meticulously researched. Royalties for "Tarot Psychology," published in more than a dozen languages, helped sustain him in the eight years he labored over the Grimm project.

His next ambition?

"I want to paint all 68 short stories of Edgar Allan Poe," he says. "I feel strongly about people who love things and stick with them. How can you know anything without knowing all of it? I like to see things complete."

Pub Date: 6/09/96

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