The classic story of The Red Shoes is dark and disturbing. As told by 19th-century Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson, it is about a spoiled, vain and disobedient child who is brutally punished. Clarissa Pinkola Estés tells an Eastern European variation in her book Women Who Run with the Wolves. Being a Jungian therapist, Pinkola Estés sees it as a cautionary tale about craving and obsession and living an unauthentic life. Those women pay dearly who would exchange a difficult but authentic life for an unauthentic life of comfort and material wealth.
For those of you who have forgotten the story, here's a very brief synopsis. A poor orphan named Karen cobbles together from rags a pair of red cloth shoes. Made with her own hands, the shoes give her great pleasure. One day she is adopted by a wealthy old woman who dresses Karen in pretty new clothes after she burns Karen's tattered red shoes. Karen becomes obsessed with getting and wearing a new pair of fancy red shoes. She wears the shoes to church, scandalizes the other church-goers and shames the old woman. One day, ignoring the warnings of an Angel, she abandons her sick adoptive mother to go to a dance wearing the red shoes. The shoes keep her dancing all night, then day after day, driving Karen to exhaustion and near death. She tries to remove the shoes but they won't come off. Her only salvation is to have the executioner amputate her feet, which themselves dance on and on in the red shoes. Karen spends the rest of her days as a pious cripple.
What is it about red shoes and the color red itself that brings such condemnation? And who is doing the condemning? Red is the color of passion, love, vitality, blood, and sexuality. Red spells Life but also Danger. A red convertible sports cars is a symbol of virility, and a red suit or dress empowers the woman who wears it. Flamenco dancers (at least in today's Google Images collection) wear primarily red dresses. Under King Louis XIV, only the nobility were allowed to wear red heels on their shoes. My point is that red is a wonderful color and I wanted to redeem it with my Red Shoes paintings. In the painting above, Karen is a strong woman whose red shoes are sturdy, good for working AND dancing. She is fleeing the world of the punitive nay-sayers who sit old and drab in front of dying trees, pointing their disapproving fingers. Karen is following the wild swans—powerful birds, symbols of freedom and strength—into the verdant woods where the playful red fox and her future await her.
For a literary treat about a young woman, a red fox fur coat, and freedom, read Teolinda Gerão's The Red Fox Fur Coat.
The Red Shoes Part 2 is coming soon.