The art of the classic Babar children's books on display at The Morgan Library's Drawing Babar: Early Drafts and Watercolors exhibit were begun by artist Jean De Brunhoff and carried on seamlessly after his death by his son Laurent. Viewing the process of their work is fascinating and a makes for a wonderful trip down memory lane. Don't be mislead by the online slide show that only features a book mock up, while it's very interesting to see the sketches, they're bolstered by the treasure of bright original watercolors on display.
The show, which is open until January 4th drew people of all ages; from old women in crafty knitted tops laughing with glee to curious toddlers, one of which kept asking her mom “Why do they all have long noses?”
I was impressed with the artists' paired back simplicity but great emotion conveyed with simple strokes. There is so much to delight to be taken the peripheral details: a frantic monkey looking for a lost friend, chatting birds that dot the landscapes, the squiggly lines that make up an elder elephant. Equally impressive for me, as an impatient person, was the effort, the many drafts, thought and care that went into each deceptively simple illustration. Many parts of the show are set up for you to see the process from sketches, some of which are no more than splashes of color to the final perfection.
It was delightful to become reintroduced to world of Babar and the beauty of vibrant watercolor against white paper. I had forgotten how whimsically goofy and straight forward they are. One of my favorite lines is “Here is the bridge of hippos. The crocodiles are furious.” Capucine would approve. In fact, the De Brunhoffs often went back into the story telling to simplify and make it more accessable to young kids, helping to make the series one of the most beloved?and enduring. Another favorite painting is from Babar Visits Another Planet, where large red balloons keep islands of elephant cities afloat, like something out of a child's dream.
The series was also quite fashionable when you think about it, which was not surprising as it turns out. The family had several members associated with the fashion world. Babar's suit, that “becoming shade of green” is iconic and I had nearly forgotten about the old lady who becomes Babar's very close friend in the city and always dresses as if in elegant, stylish mourning.
Books are on display for you to look at in the galleries to see the final product and appreciate all the care that went into this timeless series.