Fairy Tales: Lost children


Not all those who find themselves deep in the woods have gone there willingly, with lost or abandoned children recurrent characters in fairy tales — at a time when women frequently died in childbirth, their remaining children often faced challenging domestic situations. In ‘Hansel and Gretel’, the siblings are abandoned in the woods by their father and stepmother due to a lack of food. This story, which plays on fears of abandonment, disorientation and helplessness, remains one of the best known of the Brothers Grimm’s tales.

Buy Tickets to ‘Fairy Tales’
Until 28 April 2024
Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane

In many narratives where home is not a nurturing space, children venture into the woods seeking sanctuary. While the woods are rarely entirely benevolent environments, the child protagonists demonstrate courage and resilience, often reaping the rewards of their trials. Historically, the bush and the outback are powerful settings for challenging the anxieties of the Australian national consciousness. Real and fictional stories of lost children are very much part of our country’s psyche, and they reveal pervasive feelings of vulnerability, distrust and fear.

Fairy Tales‘ unfolds across three themed chapters. ‘Into the Woods’ which explores the conventions and characters of traditional fairy tales alongside their contemporary retellings. ‘Through the Looking Glass’ presents newer tales of parallel worlds that are filled with unexpected ideas and paths. ‘Ever After’ brings together classic and current tales to celebrate aspirations, challenge convention and forge new directions.

Travel with us in our weekly series through each room and theme of the ‘Fairy Tales’ exhibition at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) as we feature some of the works on display.

DELVE DEEPER: Journey through the ‘Fairy Tales’ exhibition with our weekly series

EXHIBITION THEME: 5 Into the Woods

Tracey Moffatt 

Tracey Moffatt, Australia b.1960 / From ‘Invocations’ series 2000 Invocations 1 / Photo screenprint, printed in colour ultraviolet inks on textured Somerset satin paper / Gift of Patrick Corrigan 2001 / Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney / © Tracey Moffatt

In fairy tales, the line between make-believe and reality is often blurred. In Tracey Moffatt’s screenprints from her ‘Invocations’ series the artist explores the collective fear of abandonment and vulnerability at the heart of many ‘lost children’ fairy tales. Both eerie and inviting, watchful trees trace the movements of a young girl deep in a sentient European forest, recalling the aesthetics of twentieth-century fairy-tale cinema — from Walt Disney Studio animations to The Wizard of Oz (1939). Moffatt’s process, too, treads the line between fact and fiction, with photographs screen-printed, layer by layer, to resemble the texture of a painting. The uncanny imagery of these works prompts questions about race, colonialism and belonging in different landscapes.

Polixeni Papapetrou

Polixeni Papapetrou, Australia 1960–2018 / In the Keilor Plains 1895 #2 (from ‘Haunted Country’ series) 2006 / Pigment ink print / 105 x 105cm / Gift of Robert Nelson through the QAGOMA Foundation 2023 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Polixeni Papapetrou/Copyright Agency

Many fairy tale themes are universal and move across geographical borders, cultures and time. Lost children — in the forest, the wilderness or the desert — is a theme central to several stories and can be found throughout Australian art, literature and film.

In Polixeni Papapetrou’s ‘Haunted Country’ photographic series of 2006 the artist restages both historical and fictional stories of children lost in the Australian bush. Depicting her own children and their friends in vulnerable situations, Papapetrou touches on the concerns of early settlers, imagining the vastness of the Australian landscape heightening feelings of defencelessness against the unknown.

Polixeni Papapetrou, Australia 1960–2018 / Daylesford 1867 #2 (from ‘Haunted Country’ series) 2006 / Pigment ink print / 105 x 105cm / Gift of Robert Nelson through the QAGOMA Foundation 2023 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Polixeni Papapetrou/Copyright Agency


Installation view ‘Fairy Tales’, Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) Brisbane featuring the work of Polixeni Papapetrou and Tracey Moffatt / Photograph: N Umek © QAGOMA

TheFairy Talesexhibition is at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), Australia from 2 December 2023 until 28 April 2024.

Fairy Tales Cinema: Truth, Power and Enchantment‘ presented in conjunction with GOMA’s blockbuster summer exhibition screens at the Australian Cinémathèque, GOMA from 2 December 2023 until 28 April 2024.

The major publicationFairy Tales in Art and Film’ available at the QAGOMA Store and online explores how fairy tales have held our fascination for centuries through art and culture.

From gift ideas, treats just for you or the exhibition publication, visit the ‘Fairy Tales’ exhibition shop at GOMA or online.

‘Fairy Tales’ merchandise available at the GOMA exhibition shop or online.