Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘illustration’

04 JUNE, 2015

The Big Green Book: Robert Graves and Maurice Sendak’s Little-Known and Lovely Vintage Children’s Book About the Magic of Reading

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A subversive celebration of how books transform us.

In 1962, the revered British poet and novelist Robert Graves was sixty-seven, with his greatest works long behind him; Maurice Sendak was an insecure young artist of thirty-four, with Where the Wild Things Are — his greatest work, which would turn him into a household name for generations to come — still a year ahead.

Mere months earlier, Sendak had illustrated Tolstoy, and now he was about to join forces with one of the greatest living authors of his own era: He was tasked with illustrating The Big Green Book (public library), Graves only children’s book — a wondrous and subversive story about the magic of reading.

That the protagonist is named Jack, like Sendak’s beloved brother, would have only added to the felicitous allure of the collaboration.

Little Jack is an orphan living with his aunt and uncle, who are “not very nice to him” because they take him on long walks when he wants to be left alone to play, and with their big old dog — a rather familiar dog — who likes chasing rabbits so much that the family frequently has rabbit pie for dinner.

One day, Jack climbs into the attic to play and discovers a big green book, which turns out to be full of magic spells.

As his eyes grow “bigger and bigger” with wonder, his magical find makes literal Rebecca Solnit’s memorable metaphor for the book as “a heart that only beats in the chest of another.” Jack’s heart magically migrates from his little-boy chest into a little-old-man chest as he transmogrifies into a miniature Merlin-like personage, with a big beard and a tattered robe.

The story is delightfully nonsensical, but in a Lewis Carroll kind of way — nonsense undergirded by existential insight and deep human truth. It’s hard, for instance, not to feel Graves’s wistfulness at the incomprehensibly swift passage of life when he, in his late sixties, writes of little Jack’s magical transmutation:

Soon he found he was not a little boy any more — he was an old man with a long beard.

And when the aunt and uncle, now fretting over Jack’s disappearance, decide that they must ask “that ragged old man” whether he has seen the little boy anywhere, it’s hard not to feel thrust into the middle of the immutable mystery of personal identity — how is it, really, that you and your childhood self are the same person despite a lifetime of staggering physical and psychological changes? The ragged old man, Graves writes, “was really Jack all the time” — miraculously, so are we. And when the old man answers the uncle’s question, it’s impossible for the heart not to swell with Graves’s wistfulness once more:

A little boy was here only a minute ago… Now he’s disappeared.

The little old man convinces the aunt and uncle to stick around for a game of cards. With the help of his newfound magic, he proceeds to beat them over and over again. They start out playing for just a couple of dollars, but double the stakes each new game, hoping to recover their losses, only to lose again — until they owe the little sorcerer their house, their garden, and even their rabbit-chasing dog. (Three decades later, Sendak would dust off the symbolism of playing cards as a manipulation tool in his darkest children’s book, also starring a protagonist named Jack.)

Just as they’re about to take the little old man to the house, for him to claim his winnings, he performs one last spell — the rabbit being chased by the dog suddenly turns around, punches the dog in the nose, and reverses the chase.

At the house, under the pretext that he is taking a look at his new property, the little old man goes back to the attic and transmogrifies into Jack.

When the little boy joins his aunt and uncle outside, they begin telling him about the mysterious little man who now owned their lives, but Jack points out that there is no such person in sight, convincing them — in one final mind-muddling prank — that they had dreamt it all, making them feel “very silly” for it.

Life returns to normal, except for the dog, whose fresh fear of rabbits endures and ensures that the family is never to have rabbit pie again — a sweet, subtle reminder that although we inevitably return to the real world when the reading experience ends, books always transform us and leave traces of themselves in our real selves, to be carried forward beyond the last page.

Complement the wholly magical The Big Green Book with Sendak’s illustrations for The Nutcracker, the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, Melville’s Pierre, and William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, then revisit his little-known and lovely vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading.

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01 JUNE, 2015

The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales, Reimagined in Uncommonly Soulful Illustrations by Austrian Artist Lisbeth Zwerger

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“Once upon a time, when wishes could still come true…”

Few feats of storytelling have possessed the popular imagination more powerfully or enduringly than the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. In the two centuries since the publication of the little-known original edition, penned by Jacob and Wilhelm when they were in their twenties, some of humanity’s most celebrated artists and writers have retold and reimagined these bewitching tales, producing masterpieces like Maurice Sendak’s illustrations a decade in the making, David Hockney’s wonderfully weird vintage visual vignettes, Neil Gaiman’s mesmeric retelling of Hansel and Gretel, and Shaun Tan’s uncommonly haunting sculptural interpretation.

Among the most enrapturing visual reimaginings is one by the celebrated Austrian artist Lisbeth Zwerger. Having previously illustrated such beloved classics as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and The Selfish Giant, she brings her singular vision to eleven of the Grimm stories in the absolutely gorgeous volume Tales from the Brothers Grimm: Selected and Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger (public library), translated by Anthea Bell.

The Frog King or Iron Henry

The Brave Little Taylor

The Children of Hamelin

Zwerger’s distinctive pictorial language resonates deeply with the storytelling sensibility of the Brothers Grimm — there is a shared mastery of the interplay between darkness and light, subtlety and drama; a common quietude that bellows as the story breaches the surface of awareness and penetrates the psyche.

Hans My Hedgehog

The Children of Hamelin

The Children of Hamelin

The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids

The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids

The Brave Little Taylor

Hans My Hedgehog

Hans My Hedgehog

There is something particularly wonderful about the juxtaposition of the tales’ unabashed strangeness, which lends itself more readily to stark black-and-white illustrations and literal visual narration, and Zwerger’s soft watercolors, full of delicate abstraction. What emerges is a dialogue — an embrace, even — between the sharp outer edges of the stories and their interior sensitivity, bespeaking their dimensional enchantment.

The Bremen Town Musicians

The Bremen Town Musicians

The Bremen Town Musicians

The Bremen Town Musicians

Briar Rose

Briar Rose

The Poor Miller's Boy and the Little Cat

The Poor Miller's Boy and the Little Cat

Complement Zwerger’s impossibly beautiful Tales from the Brothers Grimm with trailblazing female children’s book artist Wanda Gág’s early-twentieth-century illustrations, then revisit Zwerger’s interpretations of Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, and Oscar Wilde.

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29 MAY, 2015

Gorgeous 19th-Century Illustrations of Owls and Ospreys

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The science of the familiar “owl-face” and the art of its varied permutations.

In his glorious meditation on science and spirituality, Alan Lightman writes beautifully of finding transcendent experiences in our quotidian existence — experiences like his life-altering half-second encounter with two baby ospreys. Indeed, birds of prey like ospreys, owls, hawks, eagles, and falcons have long possessed the human imagination. A fixture of fables and fairy tales — in other words, a symbolic centerpiece of our civilizational proclivity for thinking with animals — they have continued to enchant storytellers and scientists alike.

Nowhere does the transcendent magnificence of this avian family come more fully alive than in the fourth volume the the six-volume masterwork The Royal Natural History (public library | public domain) by English naturalist, geologist, and writer Richard Lydekker, originally published in 1893.

The fifth chapter of the volume explores owls and ospreys, with engravings at once scientifically scrupulous and wonderfully expressive, emanating a warm celebration of the splendid biodiversity of our world.

Barn-owls

Snowy owl and Lapp owl

Ural owl

The beautiful art, of course, is but a complement to the scintillating science:

[The] characteristic “owl-face” is due, firstly, to the forward direction of the eyes; and, secondly, to a circular disc of radiating feathers, more or less distinctly developed round each eye, and which may be bounded by a ruff of closely-set feathers. In common with many diurnal birds of prey, the owls have a short, stout beak, of which the upper ridge is strongly curved, and the tip deflected in a perpendicular direction ; at its base is a cere, usually covered with stiff bristles concealing the nostrils. The feet are furnished with strong, curved, and sharp claws, and have the fourth toe reversible.

Short-eared owl

Scops owl and long-eared owl

Little owl

Hawk-owl

Tengmalm's owl and pigmy owl

Tawny owl

Eagle-owl

Indian fish-owl

Burrowing owl

Osprey and young

Complement Lydekker’s The Royal Natural History with this showcase of some of the rarest and most beautiful natural history illustrations of the past 500 years.

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25 MAY, 2015

The Brothers Grimm in Three Transcendent Dimensions: Shaun Tan’s Breathtaking Sculptural Illustrations for the Beloved Tales

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Hauntingly beautiful visual vignettes in paper and clay.

In his magnificent meditation on fairy tales and the psychology of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien famously asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” — something that has since been echoed by C.S. Lewis, who admonished against considering children a special species, E.B. White, who insisted that one should write up to children rather than down, and Neil Gaiman, who believes that we do a disservice to children by shielding them from darker elements. Hardly any other form of storytelling honors children’s inherent intelligence more than the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, which have been extending a luminous invitation into the dark for more than two centuries.

Perhaps because they bewitch the ageless dimension of the human imagination, a range of celebrated artists have reimagined these beloved tales over the years: Maurice Sendak for a spectacular 150th-anniversary edition, David Hockney for an unusual vintage volume, Andrea Dezsö for the little-known original tales, Edward Gorey for three of the best-known ones, and Lorenzo Mattotti for a retelling by Neil Gaiman. But one of the most uncommon and imaginative comes from Australian artist and author Shaun Tan, creator of such modern masterpieces as The Lost Thing and The Arrival.

In 2012, shortly after the release of Philip Pullman’s retelling of the Grimm classics, which was published unillustrated in the UK and the US, a publisher approached Tan about creating a cover and possibly some internal artwork for a German edition of Pullman’s fifty tales.

Tan was at first reluctant — he had toyed with the idea of illustrating fairy tales over the years and had invariably ended up convinced that these highly abstract masterworks of storytelling, abloom at the intersection of the weird and the whimsical, didn’t lend themselves to representational imagery. In fact, Pullman himself notes this in the introduction, remarking on the flatness of the Grimms’ characters and the two-dimensional, cardboard-cutout-like illustrations of the early editions, which served as mere decoration and did little to enhance the storytelling experience.

But the challenge is precisely what captivated Tan. He found himself suddenly transported to his own childhood — a time when he was obsessed not with painting and drawing but with the imaginative materiality of sculpture. His long-lost love for clay, papier mache, and soapstone was reawakened and magically fused with his longtime interest in Inuit and Aztec folk art.

The result of this testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity is Grimms Märchen (public library) — a glorious German edition of Pullman’s retelling, illustrated in Tan’s breathtaking visual vignettes. Sometimes haunting, sometimes whimsical, always deeply dreamlike, these miniature handcrafted sculptures made of paper, clay, sand, and wax give the Grimm classics a new dimension of transcendent mesmerism.

Rapunzel

The Fisherman's Wife

The Golden Bird

Hansel and Gretel

Godfather Death

Faithful John

The Story of One Who Set Out to Study Fear

Cat and Mouse in a House

The Frog King

Complement Tan’s beguiling Grimms Märchen with the decidedly different but no less important early-twentieth-century illustrations by artist and diarist Wanda Gág, who influenced creative legends like Maurice Sendak, then revisit Sendak’s own remarkable vintage Grimm illustrations.

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