Thursday, 4 September 2008

Little Red Riding Hood

Gustave DoréLittle Red Riding Hood c.1862Oil on canvas, 65.3 x 81.7cm

The painting of "Little Red Riding Hood" is a rendition in oils of one of the illustrations for Perrault's book of fairy tales, and was a gift to the NGV by Mrs S. Horne in 1962.

Paul Gustave Doré saw his first illustrations in print in 1847, when he was 15 years old. He was also a painter and sculptor: the famous statue of Alexandre Dumas in Paris is his work. However, his first love was wood and steel engraving.

He started out by illustrating Rabelais, Balzac, and Dante for Parisian publishers, but his international career took off in 1853 when he was commissioned to illustrate the works of Lord Byron. He was overwhelmed with commissions from British publishers, the most important of which was a new English Bible in 1866. This was a huge success and in 1867 there was a major exhibition of his work in London. He became the most famous and highly-paid illustrator in Europe, despite never having had an art lesson in his life.
Doré really had no peer as an illustrator – he illustrated editions of all the classics: Poe, Milton, Tennyson, Dante … the list goes on. His depiction of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza has become entrenched in the zeitgeist and has influenced subsequent artists, stage and film directors' ideas of how the two characters should look. Even in the eponymous ballet, the Don and Sancho have the Doré "look".

Charles Perrault was a French author who "invented" the fairy tale as a new literary genre, with his somewhat bowdlerised versions of traditional folk and fairy tales. Doré's illustrations of the 1862 de luxe edition of Perrault's fairy tales contributed in large measure to its success. Having just completed the rather harrowing task of illustrating Dante's "Inferno", Doré enjoyed creating the required forty plates for the fairy tales.
Our heroine, Red, has come a long way since her story was an oral folk tale, probably first told in the days when we lived in caves and still dragged our knuckles a lot of the time.
The earliest known version was a cautionary French folk tale known as ''The Story of Grandmother"; no mention of a red hood or cloak. It is meant as a warning to young girls of the perils of succumbing to male advances.

This original story is full of bawdy allusions, and blatantly sexual and violent: the wolf gives Red some of her grandmother's flesh to eat before seducing her. It was first published in Paris in 1697, (nearly a century before Perrault) and the accompanying engraving shows a nude girl, lying in bed beneath a wolf. The tale ends with her death in the beast’s jaws - her just desserts for her immoral behaviour. In the French slang of the day, when a girl lost her virginity it was said that elle avoit vû le loup – "she’d seen the wolf".

Perrault's version was intended for aristocrats at the court of Versailles and is considerably less crude: the original elements of the story that would have shocked Society are left out. As "Little Red Riding Hood", it appeared in his 1697 collection of fairy tales.

He still presents the tale as a moral warning against wanton behaviour: he was the first to cloak the heroine in red, suggesting the girl’s sin and foreshadowing her bloody fate. In Perrault's version, there is no woodsman who comes to the rescue: Little Red Riding Hood still dies at the end of the story, emphasising his point about the dangers of encouraging male advances. ("Men only want One Thing!", my Auntie Beatrice used to say darkly when I was a teenager. She never said what the One Thing was, but I somehow didn't think it was a kind word and a cup of tea.)

Anyhow, Perrault ends his story with this verse:

"Little girls, this seems to say
Never stop upon your way,
Never trust a stranger-friend;
No one knows how it will end.
As you're pretty, so be wise;
Wolves may lurk in every guise.
Handsome they may be and kind,
Gay or charming -- never mind!
Now, as then, 'tis simple truth --
Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth!"

In the 19th century Red Riding Hood, as befits a Victorian maiden, grew more discreet and also acquired a man to look after her. A woodsman rescues Red from the beast and gives her a second chance to get back on the straight and narrow in “Little Red Cap,” published in 1812 by the German brothers Grimm. This is the version most people know today.

The Grimms, in a story acceptable in the social landscape of Victorian Europe, suggested spiritual rather than sexual danger, even though she still got into bed with the wolf. They eliminated all sexual suggestion and changed the ending of the story to teach a moral about learning from one's mistakes. They invented the fatherly woodsman, who represents patriarchal protection of submissive womenfolk.

Amusingly, in 1990 a particular edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales was banned in two California school districts because of an illustration showing Red’s basket with a bottle of wine as well as fresh bread and butter. No complaints about Red disrobing and climbing in bed with the wolf, but the wine, they said, might be seen as condoning the use of alcohol.

In the 20th century, Red was emancipated at last: no longer did she have to be the poster girl for symbolic warnings against the female libido: in 1953 Max Factor promised, in a full-page Vogue ad, that their “Riding Hood Red” lipstick would “bring the wolves out.” Stories and movies alike reinvented her as the aggressor: in The Company of Wolves by Angela Carter, Red turns the tables on her lascivious stalker and becomes a wolf herself; in the 1996 movie Freeway, Reese Witherspoon plays a tough lady in a red leather jacket who is more than a match for the serial killer she meets while hitch-hiking to grandma’s trailer park.

Roald Dahl, in his "Revolting Rhymes", sees to it that the wolf doesn't get to first base with his intended victim. When he tries to sleaze on to Red, he gets his comeuppance quick smart:

" …The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature's head
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.
A few weeks later, in the wood,
I came across Miss Riding Hood.
But what a change! No cloak of red,
No silly hood upon her head.
She said, "Hello, and do please note
My lovely furry wolfskin coat.''

The poor old wolf has mislaid his machismo: I love the Gary Larson "Far Side" cartoon that shows the beast on a psychiatrist’s couch, in a floral granny nightgown. “It was supposed to be just a story about a little kid and a wolf,” he says, “but off and on I’ve been dressing up as a grandmother ever since.”

I'll let James Thurber have the last word: the moral of his story has summed the modern Red up perfectly …

The Little Girl and the Wolf
by James Thurber

One afternoon a big wolf waited in a dark forest for a little girl to come along carrying a basket of food to her grandmother. Finally a little girl did come along and she was carrying a basket of food. "Are you carrying that basket to your grandmother?" asked the wolf. The little girl said yes, she was. So the wolf asked her where her grandmother lived and the little girl told him and he disappeared into the wood.

When the little girl opened the door of her grandmother's house she saw that there was somebody in bed with a nightcap and nightgown on. She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.

(Moral: It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.)

Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl
"My, What Big Morals Our Fairy Tales Weave" NYTimes, December 4, 1996
"19th Century Paintings and Sculpture", NGV Publication

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