Katherine Tulloh · Felicitas Aga
This is an exhibition taking place in a virtual space. The room appears to have solidity, the paintings are hanging on actual walls, there are tables, a floor, light coming from an outside source; and yet if we went looking for this place, we could never find it — it is real and yet not real. It seems right then that these paintings by Felicitas Aga and Katherine Tulloh are inspired by tall tales full of magic, stories in which the presence of enchantment is everywhere. When we enter this world we are in faeire — the place J.R.R. Tolkien called “the Perilous Realm”, a land where anything can happen.
“Because our work is very different”, says Felicitas, “we had to find a connecting factor. The stories in the book were a jumping-off point. As a child I was steeped in fairy tales so when Katherine gave me this book I felt a real sense of recognition. When you are young the things you read become part of your soul. They shape you, then later you return to these images that scared you.”
“It was really good to have a shared source but to come at it from different positions”, says Katherine. “The landscape of these tales is very familiar to Felicitas but not to me. I got a lot of from talking to her. She encouraged me to think of these stories as tales told at the fireside.”
The book in question is Franz Xaver von Schönwerth’s The Turnip Princess, a collection of 500 fairy tales that were rediscovered in 2009 after languishing for almost 100 years in thirty dusty boxes in a municipal archive. Schönwerth (1810–1886) was a government official whose passion was the folklore and fairy tales of his beloved Bavaria. As a part-time folklorist and collector of tales he recognised that the oral tradition was dying out and. inspired by the Brothers Grimm. set out to preserve the stories of his local area. Schönwerth sought out ordinary men and women and, speaking to them in their own dialect, took down the stories as they were told to him, resulting in briskly related tales with an earthy and unvarnished quality.
“What is interesting is not the plot but often the succession of really startling images,” says Katherine. “I found if I tried to stick specifically to one story it became too illustrative and didn’t work. But sometimes I liked to live in the idea of one particular story — for instance the mermaid picture. There are several mermaid stories, in which the mermaids are dangerous beings of great strength and beauty — they will eat their own children to get an extra 300 years life; they are an unstoppable force.”
Felicitas is familiar with this part of Germany and in the summer was able to walk in the same woods and fields that Schönwerth did. “The stories were collected from Upper Palatinate, an Eastern part of Bavaria. It is near the place my mother lives,” says Felicitas. “The landscapes I have used in my paintings are taken from there. It is heavily forested and full of castles, a real fairytale landscape.”
“Not only did I inhabit the world of the stories,” says Katherine, “but I also liked to imagine the landscape that surrounded the people who would have been listening to these stories.”
For both artists animals have provided subject matter. “I like to think of animals in the way the stories present them — as equals, useful, helpful and often magical creatures. I also like to consider how the people telling those stories would have had a very different relationship to nature and the forest around them”, says Katherine. “Perhaps to them the woods would have seemed endless or a large house might have seemed like a castle.,”
In the paintings the real and the unreal go hand in hand; the fantastical mushroom is in fact drawn from life — “The mushroom is real”, says Felicitas. “It is bizarre, but it really looks like that.”
Both artists draw on the air of malice and trickery present in these tales of magical double-dealing. “There is menace in these stories”, says Felicitas. “They remind me of a story of a certain herb that would make you disappear if you put it in your pocket, but the fairy tricked you and you were gone forever.”
Just as everyday objects become supernatural, so these paintings now exist in a newly conjured realm. Both artists have welcomed the development of this project from an exhibition that would have been shown in a physical space to one in a less tangible form but far greater in scope and longevity.
“We were going to show our work in a small basement gallery space”, says Felicitas, “but this is better — the exhibition has evolved and become something new and far more interesting.”
Because of lockdown I had to speak to Felicitas on the telephone, while Katherine came and sat on my front steps in the dark and talked about magical animals. In doing so we commanded the attention of a large fox; he appeared on the pavement opposite, sat still and watched us impassively for several long minutes. As we continued to speak, he sidled behind some parked cars then crept even closer. Finally he was just a few paces away, staring at us with lustrous eyes. We had called forward an inhabitant of the land of faerie.
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Soundtrack: “Three Flowers”, in Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth,The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales
Penguin Classics, 2015
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Exhibition design by chicken