Who better to take on the Whitechapel Children’s Commission than the “brothers Grimm” of contemporary art Jake and Dinos Chapman? As every young child knows, there is nothing better than a truly grim and gory tale, and nothing more delightful than the macabre. Thankfully for them there is little more disturbing in the art world than the visions conjured up by these former YBAs.
Drawing on their forthcoming book Bedtime Tales for Sleepless Nights the commission includes original etchings of modern-day fairy tales told though poetry and illustrated drawings alongside prints from their new series Gigantic Fun.
The etchings riff off the type of drawings we are familiar with from children’s’ colouring books, the sort of badly printed disposable pictures of bears with paint brushes and idyllic country scenes which we all enjoyed as children. These are worked over meticulously with etched scenes of disturbance or terror redolent of a Durer or Goya etching. In one etching a deformed child emerges from behind a cuddly bear clutching a paintbrush. In another image one of the Chapman Brothers trademark children with interchanged orifices occupies part of a join-the-dots drawing. Simultaneously amusing and worrying, these images are also beautiful technically executed.
Accompanying a portion of the etchings are corruptions of well-known nursery rhymes, rewritten with diabolical consequences:
“Sticks and stones
Shall break thy bones
And words will
Surely hurt you
Eyeballs and teeth
Shall be wrenched by grief
As nightfall comes
To shroud you”
But there is a serious intellectual point, which Jake in particular, has been attempting to get across for some time now. It is about the relationship between the dreadful and the desirable. This seems, in a sentence to rest on a tenant concerning the history of morals that: “All good things were once bad things; every original sin becomes an original virtue”. Behind each innocent image is the history of how it was once not so innocent. Children seem to intuitively grasp this history and understand that there is a fragile hairline that separates the creatures of comfort and the creatures of terror – the puppet that amuses one child, terrifies another. The rendering of potential threats as naïve and innocent characters is an important device in allowing us to grow up without fear but it is also a device which can at times be exposed as paper thin.
Critics have often overlooked the intellectual gravity of their work, passing it off as wilfully shocking, childish or scatological. Jake and Dinos appear to confront this head on – yes the work can be shocking, it is definitely childish, but that is precisely why it is important.
If you feel your children’s nerves can take it the artists will run drawing and poetry workshops later in the month.
-- Mike Tuck
All images courtesy the artists and The Whitechapel Gallery
Images: Jake & Dinos Chapman, My Giant Colouring Book 5, 2004, © Jake and Dinos Chapman and The Paragon Press, London, 2007, Courtesy White Cube; Jake and Dinos Chapman, Etchasketchathon I (No.4), 2005, Etching with watercolour, 26 7/8 x 23 1/8 in. (68.3 x 58.7 cm) (incl. frame), © the artist, Photo: Gareth Winters, Courtesy White Cube; Jake & Dinos Chapman, My Giant Colouring Book 5, 2004, © Jake and Dinos Chapman and The Paragon Press, London, 2007, Courtesy White Cube.