In the bleak midwinter it is popular to pass the time by watching a fairytale come to life in a pantomime or ballet and escape from reality. Many of our best-loved fairytales are known due to the efforts of the Brothers Grimm, who in the early 1800s collected the stories to protect them from being lost through war and emerging industrialisation. In times of change there is a desire to cling to the past and tradition. An aspect of the exhibition A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance presents an early story of performance art, where artists reacted to the horror and destruction of the Second World War by challenging traditional forms of representation through abstraction and using the body as a material. Despite all of these developments, there was still an interest in figurative art and some returned to historical and folk tales for source material, such as David Hockney who reinterpreted the Grimm fairytales in 1969. All of these experiments helped to keep the act of painting alive.

A Bigger Splash presents one approach to painting and performance in Joan Jonas’ reinterpretation of The Juniper Tree, which featured in the first volume of the Grimm Brothers fairytales. The story begins with a woman wishing for a child ‘as red as blood and as white as snow’, while standing by the juniper tree where she will eventually be buried. After giving birth to a boy she dies and her husband re-marries and has a daughter. His new wife is jealous of her step-son and kills him, serving his remains in a stew to her husband. However, the little boy is reincarnated as a bird who wreaks his revenge on his step-mother by crushing her with a millstone. Upon her death, he is reborn and reunited with his father and half-sister.

Installation shot at Tate Modern. Joan Jonas, The Juniper Tree 1976/1994
Joan Jonas, The Juniper Tree 1976/1994 installed at Tate Modern
24 works on silk, acrylic paint, wooden structure, string of 29 wooden balls, ladder, kimono, mirror, glass jars, 78 slides, box and other materials

The Juniper Tree (1976/1994) was the first time that Jonas had used a fairytale as source material for a performance, and it became an important transitional work in her use of paint, narrative and text to symbolise motifs within the story. In the process of performing the piece, Jonas painted a vast number of totem-like images of the boy and girl in a process that reflected the repetitive nature of storytelling and the ritualistic and transformative possibilities of painting. Jonas was interested in how fairytales were traditionally passed down from one generation to the next by women, and how in these tales women were depicted as either completely good or bad. The installation presented in the exhibition brings together the stage-set and paintings, with archival images, props and music from the various performances, to create a record of the act of performing and re-performing a narrative rich in imagery and symbolism.

A very popular fairytale is the ballet Swan Lake (composed 1876, performed 1877), which tells the story of a princess called Odette who has been turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer. She falls in love with Prince Siegfried, only to have their love threatened when the sorcerer’s daughter Odile, dresses up to look like Odette and seduces him. As you may have seen in Darren Aronofsky’s melodramatic film Black Swan (2011), the ballet provides ample material for examining how women and sexuality are characterised in binary terms, something that is exacerbated by one ballerina playing both the ‘good’ Odette and ‘bad’ Odile parts in the production.

Installation view Karen Kilimnik Swan Lake 1992
Karen Kilimnik Swan Lake 1992 (installation view)

Femininity and the ballet world are explored in the installation Swan Lake (1992) made by self-professed ballet lover Karen Kilimnik, which you can see in A Bigger Splash. The work takes the form of a stage set, yet one too small for Natalie Portman or Rudolf Nureyev to inhabit, complete with a landscape painted in an impressionistic style, black theatre curtains, a swan sled, picture frames with foil mirror, confetti, artificial snow and flakes, two tutus, three ballet shoes, feathers, glass stones, lace, moss, theatre lights, smoke and a recording of Tchaikovsky’s famous score. In Swan Lake and Kilimnik’s later celebrity portraits, painting appears as something that one performs. She rejects modernist notions of painting as an autonomous, masculine practice to create an atmospheric, dream-like experience of painting that bravely embraces stereotypes of femininity and the romantic.

The nostalgic love that is felt for fairytales can also apply to painting, which seems to have taken on the character of ‘tradition’; something that is taught, repeated and adapted across generations. A selection of ‘tales’ about the various metamorphoses of painting are told in the second half of the exhibition, through a series of artist positions on the subject. This ritualistic aspect of painting, the passage from one to another, is exemplified in Ei Arakawa’s performance SINGLE’S NIGHT (2011-2), which was performed in the Tanks at Tate Modern and involved single men and women dancing with Jutta Koether’s Mad Garland paintings. In doing so painting became a conversation, memory and a means for the viewer and participant to be transported to another realm.