- Long Live Babar!
The Centre Culturel du Marais exhibit has allowed us to discover the work of the illustrators Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff which—more particularly in the case of Laurent—has been rather ill-treated in the published versions by changes in format, disregard for the original colors, and lack of care in the printing.
The exhibition (which is due to tour internationally)1 set out to restore with care the graphic richness of the original drawings. The intention of those who mounted the exhibition was clear: to transport visitors back to their childhood by ushering them forcibly into a softly lit "memory box" to provide them with a fresh view, and perhaps to stir a certain feeling before the pencil scribblings on torn-out notebook pages (which still show their ragged edges, but where we recognize from the very first sketch the famous silhouette created by Jean de Brunhoff). The sketch is a watercolor of tender pale gray and washed emerald green, the famous costume "of a becoming shade of green." Babar has no eyes yet. They appear on the first dummy of the cover, but it isn't yet him: the eyes are too far apart, the left eye is too high. On the second dummy, he is there. There had been—measuring tape in hand—3 millimeters too many between the eyes on the earlier dummy.
It is striking to see that the text appears very early, that no distinction is made between writing and drawing. The line becomes writing or drawing according to the artist's will. Babar's roundness rejoins that of the letters. The writing is an element of the setting and recalls its use by Cocteau in several decorative works: a hand, the modern character and elegance of which are fashioned out of an advertised, somewhat isolent simplicity. Here is no laborious work of assembling text and drawings: the lay-out of the page is conceived in terms of the relation of volumes, of empty and filled spaces. The details are still all fuzzy; Babar's feet scarcely rest on the ground. But the positioning, as in a mock-up for a stage set, has been established. A character is born, a creation has taken place before our very eyes.
In a picture book it is always interesting to linger over the representation of the animal or human character's gaze. Babar has only two dots for [End Page 70] eyes. That is to say, Jean de Brunhoff does not give his character a critical way of looking at the world—a way that he would thereby impose on the reader. In contrast, the glance of the animals drawn by the turn-of-the-century French artist Benjamin Rabier consists of a wink, a foxy look, an adult expression which passes judgment and says to the reader: so this is what we've come to. Rabier works in the realm of caricature. Babar's elephants are situated elsewhere. The "innocence" of their gaze, which protects them from all vulgarity, the round suppleness of their shapes, locate them with certainty in the realm of childhood. Babar is no more an elephant than Sendak's Little Bear is a bear; they are both figures of childhood.
Not many illustrators of children's books have succeeded in representing a child (a real child or a child-animal). Many drawings in fact show miniature adults, dwarfs, or fashion sketch silhouettes, all very cold, lifeless. The children's pictures that are alive borrow traits from animals: Max of Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are has a human face, but the body of an animal thanks to the clever device of his wolf costume. These characters, which children identify with so well, are man and animal, their traits confused through a certain deliberate lack of precision about shapes as if to allow the reader to slip in and out of the character more easily; the costume (body) of Max has nothing of the wolf about it. It is an animal costume (only in the text is it actually specified as wolf). The human babies drawn by Sendak (as...