Saturday, 7 January 2017

The Singing Bones Shaun Tan

The Singing Bones
Inspired by Grimms' Fairy Tales
Shaun Tan
Allen & Unwin (2015)
ISBN 978 1 76011103 8

This book contains handsome colour photographs of 75 sculptures by Shaun Tan. That would be reason enough to enjoy it.  Even better, however, is that each sculpture illustrates a story from the folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. Each colour plate is accompanied by the appropriate  brief extract from the original tale (Jack Zipes’ translation). At the end of the book, there is a brief summary of each of the 75 stories. This means that people who are not familiar with the Grimm stories will find themselves intrigued and drawn to seek them out.

These are tiny sculptures – 6cm to 40cm – done in papier-mâché and clay. They may be small but their impact is huge. As Philip Pullman points out in his Foreword, they capture the “strangeness” of the fairy story world where animals talk and behave like humans. There is a marvellous other-worldly feeling to each of the sculptures. My favourite is the one used to illustrate Jack Zipes’ Introduction, where two seated figures – obviously Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm – are hunched over, writing furiously, to the dictation of a fox.  The fox is a masterpiece of sculpted simplicity, a sleek abstraction with sharp ears and broad tail. The sculpture is as Shaun Tan notes, “only...a few red triangles.” Yet it is unmistakably a fox, speaking confidently while the men listen intently.

The pictures that follow are all different but they share the same intensity and simplicity – a perfect match for the stories they illustrate.

Trevor Agnew
(8 Jan 2017)

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