Monday, June 18, 2012

The Babar Exhibition at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, and the Politics of Kingdoms for Children

The Babar exhibition at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs presents a charming set of images and a lot of material to think about, though ultimately failing to look at Babar as more than a child’s entertainment means that it doesn’t do justice to its fascinating subject. It is, however, an opportunity to look at the original drawings and to see glimpses of Babar from across decades, by both Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff, gathered side by side.

This is a relatively small and uncomplicated exhibition, but nonetheless quite a sweet one. The Musée des Arts Decoratifs have primarily pitched their Babar exhibition at children, even to the point of hanging drawings at very low heights, which is somewhat disappointing. Both Babar, and the drawings in this exhibition, are likely to give as much pleasure to adults as to children, if not more.


Babar


L’Histoire de Babar, le Petit Éléphant is an unusual book for children. Illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff in 1931, a young elephant named Babar witnesses a hunter killing his mother, runs from the forest and finds a city. Babar acquires clothes and goes to school and when he returns to the jungle becomes King, following the death of the previous King. He marries his cousin, Celeste, and founds the city of Celesteville; the other elephants begin to dress in the fashions of early twentieth century France.




After this beginning, Jean de Brunhoff wrote and illustrated seven more books about Babar before his death in 1937. His son, Laurent de Brunhoff, took up the practice in 1946.

The books are beautifully illustrated and quite poignant in their depiction of Babar’s response to his childhood trauma, seeking comfort in the entirely different lifestyle of western civilisation. Celesteville, in  Brunhoff’s books, is a sort of utopia; it has the houses and games of the city, but is never marred by any of humanity’s problems. Celesteville is an autocracy, governed by an elephant who wears a stylish green suit beneath his crown, but doesn’t have any problems with corruption or difficulties dealing with different interest groups. There don’t seem to be any republicans in Babar.


Babar


The first Babar books were made between 1931 and 1937, at a critical point of change in history (both in France and internationally) and a period in which escapism can be said to have been at a high point. Jean de Brunhoff’s books and the cult they sparked, the fond nostalgia with which they’re still enjoyed by adults (myself included) and children, are an interesting manifestation of western twentieth century desires. It’s a shame not to see this side of Babar touched on in this exhibition, particularly as it’s so much the illustrations of Babar to which this idea of utopia is attached. 

Some have suggested that the earlier Babar books have a problematic relationship to colonisation, presenting a world in which success stems from adopting the values of French urban society. I haven’t read enough of the books to have firm views on whether this is the case, but the premise of Babar and the depiction of Celesteville, seemingly modeled on a nostalgia for France as it was before World War I, raise issues that seem more appropriate for adults than for children.


Book of Colour

Nonetheless, the drawings on display at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs are charming and well-chosen, even if one does have to crouch to really examine them. The situations the elephants are placed in are delightful and there’s always enough going on to provide interest without overwhelming the space. Details, like sculpture depicting elephants raised up in front of Celesteville’s (very eighteenth century) palace, reward close examination of the images and really give a sense of depth to the elephants’ world.

Pink

Even stripped down to their formal elements, the compositions are appealing. The bright colours attract the eye and yet, even in scenes with multitudes of elephants dressed in different coloured clothes, are never disharmonious. In an illustration from Babar’s Book of Colour, diagonal lines of  grey elephants running across the page are balanced by a smaller elephant, standing on two legs, dressed in pink with a paintbrush in the lower right corner. Lines give different elephants distinct personalities, but are not excessive.

Notre Dame

It’s interesting to see Laurent de Brunhoff’s drawings for the more recent Babar books alongside Jean de Brunhoff’s sketches from the 1930s. There’s a definite difference between the two, with the father’s illustrations feeling often more wistful, more self-consciously nostalgic with their studied garments. The son’s books have seen Babar and his friends venture out from Celesteville; the subjects have changed, it seems, from the everyday tasks of living and managing one’s society to visiting Ta Prohm at Angkor and Notre Dame de Paris in Le Tour du Monde de Babar (2006) and introducing children to famous artworks in Le Musée de Babar (2003). Babar has become less about bringing civilisation to the elephants and more about bringing the elephants to civilisation.
Jean de Brunhoff’s drawings feel weightier, more significantly entangled with all the issues surrounding western civilisation and the way emotions drive actions. Babar is optimistic despite obstacles and seems to be an instrument for a philosophical search, much like Candide two hundred years before him. Laurent de Brunhoff’s images are less politically problematic and rarely less appealing, but also less significant simply by virtue of being further from the story’s premise.
Aside from beautiful evocations of elephants engaged in human activities, this exhibition offers insight into how children’s entertainment has changed since the 1930s. Alongside various editions of Babar books, the Musée des Arts Decoratifs display stuffed toy versions of Babar from across the decades, costumes and plastic toys. There are also projections of an animated version in 3D (though the television program -in English- that I remember from my childhood doesn’t appear), which seemed to be entertaining the children more than the drawings when I visited.
SS Normandie.


Those with particular interest in travel, art deco interiors or luxury culture in France in the 1930s outside the realm of illustration may find particular delight in a sketch from 1933 from Jean de Brunhoff’s dining room for children aboard the SS Normandie. This cruise liner is one of the most significant in travel history, due particularly to its sumptuous interiors. I had no idea that Jean de Brunhoff had designed the children’s dining room for this ship (and plan to research this further, as I’m very interested by it).

The drawing for the SS Normandie is quite different from those for the books, with the elephants’ figures adapted to be simpler, with looser, more fluid lines. The two elephants, shown fishing, don’t wear human clothing or stand in a setting that reads as ‘civilisation,’ though they do use a rod to catch their fish.

The Babar exhibition at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs presents a charming set of images and a lot of material to think about, though ultimately failing to look at Babar as more than a child’s entertainment means that it doesn’t do justice to its fascinating subject. It is, however, an opportunity to look at the original drawings and to see glimpses of Babar from across decades, by both Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff, gathered side by side.

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