Thursday, June 19, 2014

Aussies 'n' Fairy Tales Week: Shaun Tan, Artist and Alchemist

From the foreword - it's the Brothers Grimm themselves, being told stories by a fox
Shaun Tan, author and illustrator extraordinaire and winner of many, many awards, including:

  • Three time winner of Best Artist for the World Fantasy Award
  • Best Professional Artist Hugo Award (2011) and multiple award nominee

  • Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award or ALMA (2010)
  • Academy Award (aka Oscar Award Winner) for The Lost Thing, Best Short Film (animated)

It's very likely you know of him or know his work, especially if you follow children's literature, fantasy or animation (he also worked as a concept artist for Pixar's "WALL-E").

While Mr. Tan's illustrations have always had that uniquely Australian slightly off-kilter sense of fantasy underlying the mundane, and has always seemed to seamlessly weave the fantastic or 'other' into his largely suburban illustrations, it's only fairly recently that he created works specifically based on fairy tales. It turned out that he found this more challenging than he initially believed but, boy did it pay off!

Note: His Thousandfurs sculpture (shown above) was also a Spectrum 21, Dimensional Art Nominee/Finalist for 2014, which were held in May (they are 'the' coveted International Award for Contemporary Fantastic Art).
The Three Little Men in the Wood (Die drei Männlein im Walde)

As I've seen this quoted elsewhere in entirety, I'm including the whole of Mr. Tan's statement about the project here, as it will be of special interest to fairy tale folk, and those artists working to "illustrate" fairy tales (in whatever manner and media):
In 2012 I was approached by my German editor Klaus Humann of Aladin Verlag in Hamburg to consider a cover illustration, as well as perhaps some some internal drawings for a new edition of the Grimm Brothers collected folk tales written by Philip Pullman (the well known author of the His Dark Materials trilogy). I thought about this for some time, as I've always wanted to do something Grimm related but didn't have an ideal approach (or much time for commissions). Philip had chosen a selection of 50 favourite fairy tales, and written them with a thoughtful clarity that will appeal to modern readers yet keeping true to their original spirit. I was particularly interested in the scholarly notes at the end of each tale, offering background, critique and even a few suggested improvements from a writer's point of view; I was also interested in Philip's introduction which praises the concise, 'cardboard character' narrative of Grimm's fairy tales and points out they do not necessarily benefit much from illustration. A good problem for a visual artist! And one I'm inclined to agree with: I'd long ago researched fairy tales as a possible illustration project, but soon gave it up as the tales had such an abstracted quality about them, I couldn't think of a suitable 'way in' as an artist who favours representational imagery. While I love such illustrations as those byArthur Rackham, I've always felt they conflict with my own less literal experience a reader. And in many cases, the tales are just too strange or irrational for conventional 'scenes'. 
The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich
(Der Froschkönig oder
der eiserne Heinrich
So I was a little reluctant at first, but soon began to think of ways I could avoid painting or drawing altogether. As a child, I was actually more obsessed with sculpture than painting and drawing, working with clay, papier mache and soapstone, and was reminded of this when browsing through my collection of books on folk art and particularly Inuit scultpure and Pre-Columbian figurines from Mexico. Many of these small, hand-sized sculptures are strongly narrative and dreamlike, and offered a 'way in' to thinking about Grimm's stories as part of an old creative tradition. The works I ended up creating hopefully convey the spirit of each tale without actually illustrating them, like anonymous artifacts in a museum open to all kinds of interpretation.
Though Philip Pullman's Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm was published in the UK and US, each with a nice cover, it's the German edition that is the most wonderful, thanks to the inclusion of illustrations by the, incredibly adaptable, Shaun Tan.  Mr. Tan created some fifty sculptures representing Pullma's chosen fifty tales, which are photographed beautifully and are displayed in the edition throughout. While there are no plans at present, to translate it into English, (I don't understand why myself, as the edition with Shaun Tan's sculptures would be my first choice), one of the wonderful things is that Mr. Tan hasn't stopped there. He continues to be inspired by the tales and is in the process of enlarging the collection of fifty sculptures to at least 60.

Here is a very recent one, from Shaun Tan's blog, with his note:
"One of several new sculptures inspired by Grimm's Fairy Tales, this one for a the story 'The Blue Light' (Das blaue Licht), about a solider taking revenge against those who have wronged him (including the witch above). I began this series as a set of illustrations for the German edition of Philip Pullman's Grimm Tales published last year, and have since continued to create additional works for other stories that I found particularly intriguing outside of that collection. By 1850, the Grimm Brothers included over 200 tales in Children's and Household Tales, so there's certainly no shortage of inspiration; as Margaret Atwood notes, 'no emotion is unrepresented'." (Shaun Tan)
Little Red Cap (Rotkäppchen)
Godfather Death (Der Gevatter Tod)

I find it interesting that, in a discussion with Neil Gaiman, Shaun Tan says the way he uses words is, he believes, not just his style but also a cultural thing:
Gaiman: Your stuff is always laconic. One of the things I love about it is that a picture is worth a thousand words and you make your pictures work very hard. 
Tan: Part of it is that I don't trust myself as a writer. I still lack confidence, probably because the first 20 or so stories I wrote were roundly rejected. I actually started out as a writer and then converted to illustration because I realised that there was a dearth of good illustrators in genre fiction, at least in Australia at that time. I diverted all of my resources to visual imagery, and as a result I noticed that my writing did become more and more pared down, until it started to approximate my normal speaking patterns. When I write a story I imagine I'm telling it to someone like my brother. And we don't talk that much [laughs] – it condenses everything down and that's a very Australian thing, too.
And that trait might just explain why Australians on the whole seem to be so drawn to fairy and folktales and enjoy working with them.
The Nixie of the Mill-Pond (Die Nixe im Teich)

There is a wealth of information on Shaun Tan's work all over the internet, from his website to interviews to articles and awards, so I won't repeat much more here. I will only say that I am so glad Mr. Tan found illustrating fairy tales to be such "trouble" and found his own way around it. The sculptures are unique and beautiful and, now that they exist, it seems odd they didn't before.
The Stolen Farthings (Der gestohlene Heller)
A Riddling Tale (Rätselmärchen)

The Twelve Brothers (Die zwölf Brüder)
I can't wait to see what tales he tackles next in his Grimm sculptures and hope to see the collection together on day as well.
Iron John (Eisenhans) - (Not to be confused with The Frog King or Iron Henry)
(You can see many more of the sculptures from the German edition HERE in a previous post of mine and from a related one over the the SurLaLune blog HERE with an additional write about the book.)

Rumpelstiltskin (Rumpelstilzchen)
In the meantime, he is back to being very busy as author and illustrator and already gathering awards for his latest offering, Rules of Summer, about two brothers, living in a world of fantastic creatures and crazy gizmos, in which one breaks all the rules and the other does his best to stop him doing so... or save him. At home in Australia, this last month, Shaun Tan won both the Ditmar and the Chronos National Awards for Best Artwork for Rules of Summer, and just this past week he also won the 2014 Illustration Prize for Children's and Youth books from the German Gemeinschaftswerk der Evangelischen Publizistik (GEP)another prestigious illustrators award, also for Rules of Summer.

These 3 sculptures were sold at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2013 (sob!)
Here is a brief list of popular works as author and illustrator (or illustrator only, where indicated):
Shaun Tan's website can be found HERE.
He blogs HERE, usually with works-in-progress or pieces that likely won't be published elsewhere, as well as occasional news.


  1. Jennifer D. BushroeJune 20, 2014 at 11:48 PM

    The Arrival is GORGEOUS. So much depth and texture and story in each illustration, and I loved how he made the reader connect to the main character by making us, too, feel like outsiders with all the strange symbols, foods, animals, etc. Rules of Summer is sitting on my to-read pile right now; hopefully I can get to it soon!

  2. These are so cool! I especially love Thousandfurs, and only partly because that's one of my favorite fairy tales:)

  3. Is it just me or is his focus mostly on creatures? I love the emotion behind each of his creations though.