A Visit to a Picturebook Museum

Das Bilderbücher Museum (Picture Book Museum) in Burg Wissem  in Troisdorf, 14 km NW of Bonn is a one of the loveliest museums I have visited.  Apart from regular exhibitions, there is a library of books for children there, as well as a little room at the top of the tower, full of books and rugs: the sort of room every reading child – and adult – dreams of.  This post refers to the work of several contemporary illustrators and, for copyright reasons, does not include their illustrations but has many links to their work.

Currently (until tomorrow, 10th June 2012) in Burg Wissem, there is an exhibition of the work of Axel Scheffler, a German artist from Hamburg, now living in London.  He is perhaps best known for his character, the Gruffalo. In addition to many original works, many of the books that he has illustrated for children were scattered through the exhibition.
An article from the Telegraph from 2007, provides some general background to Axel Scheffler’s work.  He is well-known for the Gruffalo; which he publishes with children’s author Julia Donaldson. A particular challenge for illustrators of children’s fiction is to pitch the level of excitement such that the children remain engaged but not fearful.  Obviously this will be different for different age groups, which emphasises the importance of illustration in supporting the imagination. Imagination must be allowed some rein but within safe boundaries that make it less likely that children will take themselves into difficult emotional situations before they are equipped to deal with these.  Characters, especially those aimed at young children, have to have a human aspect.  Animals are anthropomorphised such that children can engage with the human qualities of warmth, caring and humour even when a character is outwardly fearsome. The Gruffalo is a good example of a potentially frightening character with cuddly qualities.
The conception of the Gruffalo reminds me of “Where the Wild Things Are” by the late Maurice Sendak (1928-2012).  Sendak’s work, often controversially, addressed the emotional needs of children through stories that he both wrote and illustrated.  There is an assessment of his career at this link, and also an interview with his friend and Sendak scholar, John Cech, on the Australian ABC National programme, Books and Arts Daily.  John Cech is Professor of English and director of University of Florida’s Centre for the Study of Children’s Literature and Culture.
Other illustrators whose work caught my eye during the visit include those below.  This is not an exhaustive list: there are many, many more waiting to be discovered in later visits.
I looked at a copy of Aesop’s Fables illustrated by the English artist, Bernadette Watts (1942-) .  The openness of her drawings, which are full of light and space, is very appealing.  There is a sense of the scale of a child’s world in her work. In many of her drawings, she uses graphite as well as colour; monochrome, as well as the use of cooler colours in her drawings bring forth areas of illumination in her images.

The style of Hungarian illustrator, Gabriella Hajnal (1928-) is very different.  In “The Tree that Reached the Sky: Hungarian Folktales”, she illustrates the stories with a limited palette of vibrant colours that are instantly accessible.  She appears to use watercolour and the illustrations are frameless. I have found it difficult to track down information about this artist in English but here is a link to her book of Hungarian Folktales. Yet another link looks interesting also in the wider sense of the project of which it forms a part.

I bought a postcard of an illustration called “Return” by the Japanese illustrator, Osamu Komatsu.  The balance of colours and the overall warmth of a sea basking in the light of the setting sun.  The light in the window of one of the houses contrasts with the reflection of the last of the day’s light off the walls of the other. Doing some research later, I discovered that the man in a boat is a recurring theme in Komatsu’s work.  In “Departure from her Village” the theme is a sad one and the colour scheme correspondingly cooler… dark and misty.   The white house makes an appearance again but this time it is on top of a tower and somehow less accessible.  Perhaps “Return” was conceived to counterbalance the sadness of the image of departure. From the limited images that I have been able to track down in a Google search, I have noticed recurrent use of certain motifs: an unhappy or wistful man, white buildings, often tall, towers or lighthouses, and a misty half-light.  Together, these create atmospheric, appealing images but ones that conceal more than they reveal.  They work by suggesting a story which, like the best stories and images, is also open to the viewer’s interpretation.  I hope to hear more about this Japanese artist but have found no biographical information as yet.
Katharina Cranz is a German illustrator from Frankfurt, whose work appears on greetings cards. The image that caught my eye on the postcards in Burg Wissem can be seen here. I like the way in which she has used brighter blues, balanced with yellow detail to frame the pastel colours in the central image of a sleeping girl. The use of ink to create contours and a sense of volume in the bedclothes through hatching also serve to project the pillow and the girl forward towards the viewer.

Daniela Bunga is another contemporary German illustrator.  Some of her work (The Cherry Tree, The Scarves) have been translated into English. I like the simplicity of her illustrations, which incorporate sometimes accurate and sometimes intentionally distorted perspective, the interchange between which is common to childhood experience. Some of her work can be seen here.
Rudi Hurzlmeier. (1952-) is a self-trained artist and one of Germany’s most well known comic artists / caricaturists.  There is a biography here, in German.  Many examples of his work can be seen on Flickr.  The card that caught my eye in the museum can be found here.
I like the image of the serenading pig in “Rock you Baby” for the humorous way in which it ascribes very human behaviour to the animals.  It is a very contemporary image – the pig has an amplifier for his electric guitar and he is smoking – of a very ancient art!  The cigarette suggests that this is not an image intended for children!  I like the use of light – the dark foreground evoking nighttime and the lighter background reflecting the setting sun. The rosy tones of the distant walls and the deepening of the warm colours which spill into the middle ground, contrast with the darker foreground.  I also like that Hurzlmeier has situated the pigs according to the rule of thirds but maintained interest in the rest of the picture through the layers of buildings rising up a hill so that even a distant church is able to fill the sky.  The sky itself, which could be a large challenging negative space is filled with the interest of swirling clouds and carries the eye through the upper half of the picture. Some of his notecards in which he successfully conveys the personality of individual birds through caricature can be seen here.
Finally, here is the work of another illustrator, Mattias Adolfsson, from his blog.  His gentle humour makes me smile and is perhaps more for adults than children…

Other useful sources on the work of contemporary illustrators / illustration:
Here are some useful links for illustrating children’s books.
An agent for illustrators has pages of introduction to the work of many contemporary German illustrators.
And finally, finally….., I thoroughly recommend the Australian ABC National Books and Arts Daily programme, mentioned above, for their coverage of local and global arts.  I have been introduced to the work of many Australian artists (encompassing visual artists, composers, musicians, writers….) through subscribing to the podcast.


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