Art / by Jack Ruttan

Babar Breaks Out

The Art of Babar, at The Montreal Museum of Decorative Arts until March 8, 1991

It's likely that only grown-up fans of Babar the elephant and lovers of children's book illustration will enjoy this particular exhibition. Most children are going to look at one or two of the pictures and end up being bored. They'd probably prefer an interactive Babar videogame, tables full of Babar merchandise, or animated Babar robots. All there is to be found here are watercolour paintings, used to illustrate the story books which have been appearing now for some sixty years. These are the work of Jean de Brunhoff, who began the series in the 1930's based on stories told by his wife, and are continued to the present time by his son Laurent.

Though recently made more popular by movies and T.V. Babar is not a character suited to everyone's taste. Aside from being a king, he has always been sort of a snob, an upper class type who looks good in a suit. He's a bit of a colonial, having gone to the city to learn to wear clothes and walk upright. Then he comes home to rule over his four-footed peers. Even in later books when Babar travels to America, one of the first things he does is visit the Harvard-Yale football game.

Babar and his friends all look like they've taken Valium. Part of the reason is the fact he has no real expression. That elephant face with the two widely-spaced ink dots for eyes rarely changes. When he's excited he shows it by opening his mouth, or by waving his arms around. Babar is drawn in the European style of graphic art, with simple outlines filled with uniform colours. British and North American books usually have much more "work' put into the illustrations.

Everything in Babar is fat and round, even the palm trees. Unusual also to North American eyes is the loopy handwritten text accompanying some of the pictures. According to my guide Sylvia Deschênes, European children found this easier to read because they had learned to write in script, unlike children on this continent who began with block letters.

Children coming to the gallery, even if they like Babar, probably won't appreciate the significance of looking at "original artwork." The yellowed, fragile earlier work has to be exhibited under subdued lighting so it won't deteriorate further. The grey used for the elephants' faces sometimes seems to be reacting to the paper and turning black. Pretty soon it might not be visible at all.

Maybe that's not so important. Kids have much more durable versions of the same images in their picture books at home. It could be argued that the books are the most authentic places to view the pictures, not a gallery, since the pictures were made to go into books rather than on walls. One thing the exhibition could have done was give a better idea of the stories the drawings were illustrating. It would make us more aware of what we were looking at.

But that's not to say there isn't a lot of charm to be found in these drawings by themselves. Pictures printed in a book are always smooth and perfect. It's pleasant to see the evidence of an artist's hand, brush strokes and textures, especially in an image remembered from childhood. Looking at these drawings in a gallery proves that they didn't just float onto the pages. Somebody in fact had to create them.

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