Move Over, Mondrian: It's Miffy's Turn
By KATHRYN SHATTUCK
To thousands of preschool-age viewers in the United States each morning, Miffy is the resolute television bunny seen tootling around the Noggin channel on her red scooter. But to millions of European children from an era when pablum wasn't served up with the remote, Miffy sprang not from a rabbit hutch in Cableland but from a book. In fact, since her birth in 1955, Miffy has become so popular in her home country, the Netherlands, that Dick Bruna, her creator, is popularly known as "Miffy's father."
It makes sense, then, that Mr. Bruna's illustrated characters, who decorate signposts along the beaches of the Dutch North Sea and adorn posters for the Red Cross and Amnesty International, should greet visitors to "Dutch Treats: Contemporary Illustration From the Netherlands," an exhibition of about 80 works by 14 children's book illustrators whose forays into whimsy have beguiled readers of all ages for half a century.
There is the old guard and the new - from the ubiquitous images by Mr. Bruna and Max Velthuijs, best known for the moral tales played out by his alter ego, Frog, to the inventive creations of relative newcomers, like Jan Jutte, illustrator of "Get Up!" (1998), and Annemarie van Haeringen, who has won three Golden Brush awards, the top prize in the Netherlands for children's book, for works like "The Princess With the Long Hair" (1999) and "Bear Fancies Butterfly" (2004). The exhibition, presented by the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass., will remain at the UBS Art Gallery, 1285 Avenue of the Americas, through Feb. 24, before moving to the Carle, where it will be on view from March 28 through July 9.
"We wanted to show very interesting children's books illustrators that are seen as normal artists in the Netherlands," Truusje Vrooland-Lb, an expert on Dutch children's literature and the show's curator, said in a telephone interview from Amsterdam last week. "Their work can hang on the wall as well as any other artwork."
Indeed, to view the illustrations in their original larger formats, with pencil marks, brush strokes and layered paper in high relief, is akin to watching a book's characters come to life and walk off the pages. Colors pop, details lost in pint-size renderings re-emerge and flat images suddenly gain dimension.
Stare at Miffy head on, and Mr. Bruna's sculptural training becomes evident as the figure's straightforward unshaded body, outlined in firm ink strokes, assumes rounded proportions, colored in the primary hues favored by Mondrian and Matisse, two of his inspirations.
"I hope that the child's imagination is stimulated to see things in their simplest form," Mr. Bruna says in the tiny booklet that accompanies the exhibition, "so that life, with all its complications, becomes a little clearer."
Jip and Janneke, the terrible twosome who run through Fiep Westendorp's illustrations for books like "The Wave" (1978), inevitably appear in silhouette, a pair of pointy-nosed, pitch-black cutouts with holes for eyes, superimposed on frothy color washes.
"These characters are so well known they're really part of the pictorial culture of the Netherlands," Ms. Vrooland-Lb said.
Yvonne Jagtenberg's "Lady of Stavoren" (2000), starring a wimpled woman and a toothsome wolf, reveals the tattered edges of hand-torn paper layered in a collage. Its medieval setting and dour, muddy colors la Edward Hopper - she's a fan - evoke a sophistication seldom seen in juvenile literature. But her latest works, centered on a redheaded mop-top named Balotje, or Kate in English, has all the innocence of a coloring book.
"Every story had its own atmosphere, and I want to evoke it," Ms. Jagtenberg said by telephone. She has illustrated about 100 books and, at 38, is the youngest artist in the exhibition. "Balotje is very young, and so she is done in crayon. The first thing children work with is their crayon, and you see it in their artworks, too. It's so direct that you see the soul of the children."
In Th Tjong-Khing's pen-and-ink drawings for books like "Little Sophie and Lanky Flop" (1985), minuscule crosshatches cause his feathery characters, produced by a few swift strokes and a lot of white space, to jump to the fore. Seen up close, you would swear there are at least a million of the tiny marks.
Somewhat surprisingly, Mr. Tjong-Khing, 72, whom Ms. Vrooland-Lb called "one of the grand old men in Dutch illustrators," had a career in erotically charged comic strips before abandoning that work for his first love, children's books.
So, too, Philip Hopman dumped dreams of becoming a fashion designer because "it was soon clear that I didn't have the talent," he said in a telephone interview. "I could draw, though. I was very influenced by Th Tjong-Khing. His way of looking at things is remarkable, and he has a good eye for detail. He taught me to focus on what you want to say, and then tell a different story behind things."
Mr. Hopman's images, too, are chockablock with activity and hidden meanings. Consider a scene from "Tamer Tom" (1994), in which a menagerie runs amok: a hippopotamus hoists a tiger into a tree; another hippo is ridden by a white-collared rabbit straight out of "Alice in Wonderland"; a harnessed ferret is lassoed by a friend; and hedgehogs jump through hoops.
"I usually draw people, more or less," Mr. Hopman said. "I recently drew a very big rhino on a Harley-Davidson, a mid-life-crisis type of man with a cowboy hat on. Everyone knows that person."
Mr. Hopman, 44, recently abandoned the hurly-burly of Amsterdam for his childhood home a few miles away. "I changed my father's tulip barn into a studio with light coming through the roof," he said. "It's right by the dunes and the sea, and very peaceful. It gives me a sort of rest, a focus on work."
"It takes me a long time to think out the characters," he continued, "to start scribbling, to start figuring out the direction I'm going to go."
Wouldn't a computer speed up the process?
"Oh no, never!," he said. "I'm really old-fashioned. I just don't speak the language of the computer. I don't like the medium. I like paper and feeling the scratch of ink. It really works in my hand. It's much easier than writing."
Unlike Mr. Bruna and Ms. Jagtenberg, who often write the texts that accompany their drawings, Mr. Hopman only recently found comfort in words. "Every Time I Think of You," the first of his books to contain both his text and his illustrations, will be published next month. "It's about love," Mr. Hopman said.
He has no children of his own, but he does have godchildren who routinely show up in his books in one guise or another.
"I think I stopped my development at 8, and so we get along like a house on fire," he added.
And though the art of these illustrators has made them famous in a very adult way - substantial royalty checks, works in major museums - for them success is apparently sweeter when viewed through small eyes.
"What's so nice when you make picture books is that nobody knows who you are," Ms. Jagtenberg said. "I'm not an actress; I'm not a famous person. But for children, you are famous. They want to touch you. And that's nice, too."