The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 4, No 2 (2000)

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Art for Art's Sake

by Margot Beggs


Margo Beggs is a writer and researcher living in Toronto
with a special interest in children's book illustration.

Armed with a degree in English, I came to the field of children's literature more equipped to comment on text than illustration. Over the past few years, however, I have been studying art history at the University of Toronto. This experience has led me to believe that we need to examine the work of picture book illustrators as deeply as we do the work of the writers. The following is one of a series of articles I have written to help others better "read" picture book illustrations.

Last September, I had the pleasure of visiting Paris for nearly two weeks. Museum heaven! One of my favourite destinations was the Musée d'Orsay, where I could see first hand a number of works by Edouard Manet, an artist I greatly admire. I first saw his masterpiece Luncheon on the Grass (1863) nearly 20 years ago, and I've been fascinated by it ever since. It was wonderful to be able to renew my acquaintance with this ground-breaking work.

We capped off our Paris stay with a visit to the Picasso Museum. There, among the hundreds of works by this great artist, I was amused to discover his numerous variations on Manet's Luncheon on the Grass. Picasso frequently reworked themes by other artists, but his involvement with Luncheon on the Grass was rather extraordinary. According to Susan Grace Galassi in her book Picasso's Variations on the Masters, Picasso used the Manet work as the basis of 27 oil paintings, about 150 drawings, three linoleum cuts, 18 cardboard maquettes for sculpture, five concrete sculptures, and a numberof ceramic plaques.

Galassi points out that many artists have done variations of previous works, a process that occurs when "the artist takes the formal structure of one specific work as the point of departure for a creation of his own." She also discusses the process of making allusions, another popular method of borrowing from the past employed by artists. In this case artists make references to earlier works that "enhance or amplify the meaning of the work, but do not determine it." Manet's Luncheon on the Grass includes such an allusion - a famous one, in fact. Though it was not immediately recognized in his own day, Manet borrowed the composition for his figures from an etching by Marcantonio Raimondi (c. 1520), after a painting by Raphael, The Judgment of Paris.

I raise these examples from the world of art history because I believe they help us gain insight into the work of children's book illustrators. Too often, we take it for granted that the text is the main jumping off point for illustrators, and we leave it at that. We forget, or do not even recognize, that trained illustrators have a whole visual language to call upon as they sit down to work. By taking the time to discover variations or allusions in the work of picture book illustrators, we can better understand and appreciate their art form.

One delightful variation in the picture book world that immediatelycomes to mind is found on the cover of I Want a Dog by Dayal Kaur Khalsa. I'm not sure what led Khalsa to take Georges Seurat's famous painting Summer Sunday on the Island of the Grande Jatte (1884) as her model (although it does feature a couple of adorable dogs, not to mention a monkey). Perhaps Khalsa was a particular admirer of this painting, or perhaps she was just joking around with an image that has, alas, become something of a visual cliché.

One variation that I am certain is a tribute appears in A Child's Treasury of Nursery Rhymes by Kady MacDonald Denton. Denton collected the poems and did the illustrations for this award-winning book. She includes the verse "Lavender's Blue, Dilly, Dilly," which is lovely in its own right, but also gave its name to the classic collection of verse compiled by Kathleen Lines and first published in 1954. Denton takes the opportunity to acknowledge the influence of Lavender's Blue, the book, and its illustrator, Harold Jones, when she provides her own illustration for this same verse. Though she varies the composition somewhat, and uses a brighter palette, she populates her illustration with nearly identical subjects engaged in similar farming-related occupations and in various states of relaxation. Denton doesn't tell us what a debt of gratitude she feels she owes to Jones and Lines -- she shows us.

Lavender' s Blue variations are intriguing to identify, but perhaps even more of a challenge is trying to pick out an artist's allusions. Ian Wallace is an illustrator whose work I find to be particularly rich in this vein. For example, on the jacket cover of his book Mr. Kneebone's New Digs, Wallace portrays the two main characters, a homeless woman and her beloved dog. Wallace flattens the figures and overlaps them in a manner that is reminiscent of early Gothic paintings of the Madonna and Child, such as Cimabue's Madonna Enthroned (c.1280-85). By doing so, he reinforces the poignant relationship between the two figures.

For an illustration in his book A Winter's Tale, Wallace overlaps three figures -- a father, his son, and a trapped deer that they are trying to rescue -- in an unusual pyramidal composition. This illustration seems to have been derived from the Leonardo da Vinci painting The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (1510). The painting portrays the infant Christ on Mary's lap, and the pair of them are perched on the lap of Mary's mother, Saint Anne. Both works strike the viewer as odd at first, but each is remarkably successful in evoking the tenderness felt between the subjects. In another illustration from the same book, Wallace places three of his figures in stiff positions with their arms held aloft. Here he appears to be emulating the heroic poses of ancient Greek and Roman statues, in order to imbue his characters with nobility.

I've discussed my ideas with Wallace and he largely agrees with my "reading" of his illustrations. However, he pointed out that he is not necessarily making deliberate choices -- many of his ideas come bubbling up from his subconscious. To show how this can work, I can't think of a better example than the story Maurice Sendak has told about one of his illustrations in Where the Wild Things Are. Sendak was a boy when the movie King Kong was first released, and though he was a great fan, the illustrator was surprised to discover that his landmark book owed a debt to the classic film. After Where the Wild Things Are came out, a friend showed him a still photo from the film that bore a striking resemblance to one of Sendak's illustrations (in which the Wild Things watch Max sail away). Sendak has said that he was amazed by the similarity, adding, "Of course, I had no way of copying it; it must have simply imprinted itself on my brain some 30 years earlier."

In variations and allusions, we can recognize some sort of one-on-one correspondence between two works. What about more general influences? For example, in the case of Manet, it is well known that he was influenced by Spanish artists, especially Velázquez, more than by his artistic forebears in France. Some children's book illustrators' influences are quite easy to recognize. It probably wouldn't come as much of a surprise to discover that illustrator Luis Garay, who was born in Nicaragua, has looked to the Mexican mural artist Diego Rivera for inspiration. Garay has said, "I think that simplicity is one of the most difficult things to achieve in life. Because of this, I consider that everyday life is my most challenging and most wonderful topic to depict." A detail from Rivera's cycle Political Vision of the Mexican People (1928) shows how that artist simplified his figures to great effect. Garay uses similar clean lines and rounded shapes in solid colours when portraying his figures, as seen, for example, on the cover of his book The Long Road.

On the other hand, one might find it disconcerting at first to learn that the perennially cheerful characters portrayed by Barbara Reid, as seen, for example, in her award-winning book The Party, are indebted to the sometimes unsavoury inhabitants of works by Toulouse-Lautrec. Yet Reid has named the French artist as one of her influences, saying she admires artists whose characters show "mood and emotion." In the case of Toulouse-Lautrec, she might well have added the word "movement." Compare the cover of The Party to Toulouse-Lautrec's painting Training of the New Girls by Valentin at the Moulin Rouge (1889-90) and it becomes clear that Reid has spent a lot of time examining the work of this notorious yet supremely talented artist.

Children's book illustrators naturally take many cues from the texts they are enhancing with their work. To this they are able to add depth and scope by delving into the world of the visual arts for inspiration and ideas. I suspect that the finest children's book illustrators share an important characteristic with Picasso, of whom Galassi writes, "His truest theme was always art itself."

Bibliographic Information:

Beggs, Margo. "Exploring the Art of Ian Wallace." Children's Book News,
Spring 1998.

----------. "Illustrations and Inspiration: New Pitches for Old Favourites."
Canadian Bookseller, October 1997.

Brombert, Beth Archer. Edouard Manet: Rebel in a Frock Coat. New York:
Little Brown & Company, 1996. ISBN 0316109479.

Canadian Children's Book Centre. The Storymakers: Illustrating Children's
Books: 72 Artists and Illustrators Talk About Their Work.
Toronto: Pembroke
Publishers, 1999. ISBN 1551381079.

Galassi, Susan Grace. Picasso's Variations on the Masters: Confrontations
with the Past
. New York: Henry Abrams, 1996. ISBN 0810937417.

Garay, Luis. The Long Road. Toronto: Tundra Books, 1999. ISBN 0887764088.

Khalsa, Dayal Kaur. I Want a Dog. Montreal: Tundra Books, 1987. ISBN
0887761968.

Lines, Kathleen, ed. Lavender's Blue: A Book of Nursery Rhymes. London:
Oxford University Press, 1954. ISBN 0192795376.

Reid, Barbara. The Party. Toronto: Scholastic Books, 1997. ISBN 0590123858.

Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are. New York: Harper & Row,
1964. ISBN 006025520X.

Wallace, Ian. A Winter's Tale. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 1997. ISBN
0888992866.

-------------. Mr. Kneebone's New Digs. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 1991.
ISBN 0888991436.

 

Margo Beggs


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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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