February 5, 2013

Beautiful Beasts

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In most children’s stories, morally upright characters triumph over evil. Yet, the most arresting illustrations in Beauties and Beasties in Children’s Book Illustrations, running at the Johnson Museum from Feb. 2 to May 5, are captivating for their more complex and transgressive themes. The exhibition, curated by Nancy Green, curator of European and American Art, Prints & Drawings, presents children’s book illustrations, paintings and woodblock prints from the 19th century, and is is held in conjunction with Wardrobes and Rabbit Holes: A Dark History of Children’s Literature at the Kroch Library and Birds, Beasts, and Books — Animal Illustrations in Literature at the Tompkins County Public Library.

Compact and intelligent, Beauties and Beasties showcases the creative ways in which artists and illustrators have interpreted children’s stories through images. The selection of works, which varies widely in both style and materials, simultaneously disturb and comfort. The often extreme color and style of these images recall surrealism, abstractionism and realism. Particularly fascinating works at the show include Maurice Sendak’s illustrations for Where the Wild Things Are; Garth Williams’ drawings from Charlotte’s Web that almost resemble 3-D computer graphics; and illustrations by Arthur Rackham from his prominent 1920 version of Sleeping Beauty.

The emergence of Disney as a potent force in animation and illustration is represented by a Walt Disney Studios film still from The Jungle Book, as well as images of Snow White and Winnie the Pooh. The Disney illustrations also marks the time when these graphic languages no longer belong to individual illustrators and artists but became corporate. The power and hubris of this corporate vision was such that the Disney Corporation wanted no less than the Beatles to do the voiceovers. Sadly, this did not come to pass.

A good place to start is the corner of the gallery devoted to Alice in Wonderland, the famous and (in hindsight) trippy tale of a girl who falls into a rabbit hole. While the original illustrations were created by John Tenniel under the tutelage of Lewis Carroll in the 19th century, the contemporary American illustrator and printmaker Barry Moser’s oversize edition contains beautifully executed and darkly disturbing woodcut illustrations. Moser created 75 drawings in a frenzy of inspiration over only two days. These sketches would form the basis for the woodcuts, which took six months to craft and perfect. Unfortunately, the magnificent book is open under a vitrine, so visitors are not able to flip through it to savor the other illustrations. A few others are framed on the wall. Created in the 1980s, Moser’s terrifying but compelling illustrations have strong political overtones. Moser used President Reagan’s administration, corporate figureheads and leaders of the Moral Majority as inspiration for his characters’ faces — Nancy Reagan is depicted as the Wicked Witch of the West.

Looming larger than this woodcut behemoth are color prints by the American contemporary artist Kiki Smith. As Smith wanted her figures to be as close to life-sized as possible, she used the largest copper plates she could find to create her incredible illustrations. Though precisely rendered, the lines bleed slightly and are awash in color, resulting in vaguely mystical but dazzling images.

One of Smith’s more affecting works reinterprets the most fundamental of children’s stories, Little Red Riding Hood. In Smith’s visual re-examination of the classic tale, the wolf is lying on its back, and the figures of Red Riding Hood and her grandma emerge from its open belly after being eaten, as if they are born of the wolf itself.  Smith’s piece seems to recall an earlier time through its rough and childlike depiction of the story’s characters, but it also delves into mature themes rarely attached to the fairy tale, particularly the common primordial and biological urges that humans share with wild animals and the possibility of rebirth and salvation.

Yet, despite the prevalence of (very) adult themes in this fairy-tale world, the ultimate takeaway of this exhibit is one of awe, of both the incredible artists who created these works of art and of the stories that have preserved their salience even after hundreds of years.

Original Author: Rehan Dadi