The premise for Crisscross Stories, at London’s Hungarian Cultural Centre, is simple: eight Hungarian and eight Estonian authors were commissioned to write new fairy stories. Twenty-five artists from each country were then invited to illustrate their favourite stories, Hungarian artists illustrating Estonian tales, and vice versa. The result is a whirl of colour and imagination that speaks across borders.
There’s something universal about fairytales that needs no introduction. As you enter the exhibition space at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, you’re hit by all the usual suspects: princesses, dragons, frogs, kings, witches, knights in shining armour. With such international symbols, fairytales seem like a fitting subject for an exhibition that celebrates such cultural exchange. Crisscross Stories truly glories in the ability that art and literature both have to bring nations together. An unsuspecting viewer can walk into this space and instantly recognise what the exhibition is about. Perhaps it’s this ageless and borderless imagery that’s allowed the artists so successfully to work on fairytales from a country not their own.
The illustrators in Crisscross Stories manage seamlessly to mix the timeless traditions of fairytales with modernity too. The long-legged princess given to us by Tímea Kocz fights a dragon with basketball in hand. In Sarolta Szulyovszky’s ‘Mean Christmas Elf and the Christmas Angel’ the central figure is a total contemporary young elf with hip bag and wellington boots. It seems a paradox, but the images hark back at once to traditions of old and bring in symbols of the twenty-first century.
As befits children’s stories, the show is filled with loud, brash colours. Set against the exhibition room’s white and pastel green walls, these jump out. Neon pink, lime green, lemon yellow and royal blue scream at the viewer from all sides (with a few notable exceptions, like Maarja Vannas-Raid’s sensitive charcoal depiction of “The Blue Hummingbird.”)
This is an exhibition which celebrates diversity, in content as well as in colour. The varying interpretations of a single story are staggering. Anne Pikkov’s interpretation of Péter Doka’s “The Violet Princess” shows a cartoon-like, two-dimensional, knobbly-kneed princess sporting a beehive haircut and being whirled around on a motorbike. Her scenes are loud, fast, bold. Olivia Lipartia’s renditions of the same tale are calm and even stately. Set against a starry night sky, the princess and her knight quietly embrace. The colours are more sober, the scene less hectic.
There’s one thing, however, missing from Crisscross Stories: the stories themselves. This is an exhibition which celebrates imagination, yet the viewer’s deprived of the possibility of imagining their own scenes, taken from the authors’ words. For each illustration, the question inevitably arises “What does the text say?” The works, though impressive in their own right, lose something of their impact without any context to set them against: they are, after all, intended to accompany the story they depict.
The curators, however, promise that they will soon be made available. Until then, this exhibition is a joy at least to look at. It’s a rare pleasure to be able to step into the magical world of fairies and witches – especially on a grey evening in Central London.
Crisscross Stories: Estonian-Hungarian Fairytale Pictures can be seen at the Hungarian Cultural Institute, London, till 30th April.