WASHINGTON — Rapunzel is a story that can usually be summed up in a single image--a captive girl lowering her blond tresses down a tower for her beau to climb up on.
That's what artist Catherine Satterlee remembered about the fairy tale until the day she had a strange revelation in her therapist's office. She was exactly like the 17th-century damsel in distress, she said out loud, then went home to reread her daughter's copy of the story.
"For me, it has to do with desire," Satterlee said of the tale. "Rapunzel completely neglects her desires. She's just sort of hanging around this tower and throws her hair out the window in response to somebody else's desire."
"I hung out in my studio for 20 years and that was very similar to the story of Rapunzel. I sort of waited for things to happen rather than acting," Satterlee said.
Three years later, Satterlee's own modern and dark Rapunzel paintings--images strikingly different than the feel-good bedtime-story treatments the story usually gets--are the springboard for an exhibition that runs until January at the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington.
Krystyna Wasserman, curator of "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair," literally searched the globe for Rapunzel images.
She collected books, illustrations and puppets that conveyed as many interpretations of the story as she could find-from the feminist to the funny, the classic to the contemporary. The collection of 41 texts written in English, French, German and Dutch and the artwork gathered from international artists are displayed so their many variations can be seen side-by-side.
The fairy tale begins when a pregnant mother has cravings for rampion (which translates to "rapunzel" in German). When her husband steals the greens for her to eat, he's caught by the garden's owner, a witch, who tells him he can take as much rampion as he wants-in exchange for their unborn child.
The daughter is born, the witch takes her away, and when she is 12, she places the girl, Rapunzel, at the top of a tower to live shielded from the outside world. The witch visits the girl by shouting "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair," and then shimmying up the tower, grasping onto Rapunzel's tresses.
A prince, after surreptitiously observing the witch's routine, also begins climbing up Rapunzel's hair for visits and falls in love with her. When the witch finds out, she cuts off Rapunzel's hair and casts her off into the forest alone.
Of course, the prince and Rapunzel reunite in the end, and they live happily ever after.
Satterlee's work psychoanalyzes Rapunzel, with pieces like the one depicting Rapunzel's scary time in the forest, which resembles Edvard Munch's "The Scream."
Other artists also delve heavily into the story's symbolism. In many works, Rapunzel's relationship to her hair represents her adulthood and femininity. Some artists take on a more feminist view of the story, while others, like Maja Dusikova with her cozy storybook watercolors, convey a much more traditional reading.
Comparisons can be made between the Brothers Grimm version of the story, written in 19th-century Germany, and the tale it was based upon, Petrosinella, written in 17th-century Italy.
The witch is portrayed sometimes as wicked and sometimes as motherly, and Rapunzel is portrayed both as a passive character and as an active one.
The 1998 version, "Rapunzel: A Happenin' Rap," written by David Vozar and illustrated by Betsy Lewin, portrays a spunkier kind of heroine for modern times.
"You're hurting my hair. When it twists and bends / Your heavy weight will give me split ends," she tells the prince as he's climbing up her hair.
In this version, Rapunzel's "happily ever after" is a job in a hair salon.
Donald Haase, a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and the editor of "Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies," said that an exhibition celebrating fairy tales couldn't come at a better time.
Haase has studied fairy tales and their role in traumatic situations throughout history, tracking down stories of people who would tell fairy tales to each other during bombings and of children in concentration camps who would share fairy tales to deal with the trauma of the Holocaust.
"Fairy tales don't ensure physical survival-not everyone was turning to fairy tales-but there are these extremely interesting examples of fairy tales being used as a coping strategy, an emotional survival strategy," he said. In fact, immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Haase said that a fairy tale rendition of the tragedy emerged on a fairy tale Internet bulletin board.
The basic cultural themes in the stories--the happy endings, the conflicts between good and evil, the struggles to return to home, the romances--are almost integral to the way we interpret life, he said, so the posting was a natural reaction.
Even the American Dream, as others have pointed out, have elements of fairy tale embedded in it, Haase said.
"The story of America is the story of Cinderella--our national myth is very much rags-to-riches, oppression to power. It's the archetypal fairy tale," he said.
Wasserman is hoping that the critical look at Rapunzel will draw the adults to her exhibition, but that the mythical tale will entertain children as well.
The last sentence in the exhibition's accompanying program seems to crystallize her point: "On one level, Rapunzel is a simple love story, on another, it is a complex coming-of-age story; but it is now, and forever will be, the story of a little girl with long, golden hair," Wasserman wrote.
The Women's Museum "Rapunzel" exhibition is on display until Jan. 27, and plans are underway to take it to other cities.