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Illustration in the Digital Age: The 50th Anniversary of L’ecole des Loisirs

By Gnaomi Siemens

Before the proliferation of digital images began to pixelate our lives, filmmaker Wim Wenders voiced mistrust in the explosion of the electronic image at the beginning of his 1989 Notebook on Cities and Clothes. Speaking in his soft German accent over the layered video footage of a busy Tokyo highway, he wonders if a generation will transfer the trust they had placed in the photographic image to the electronic, and even the digital, further down the road. He muses over the idea of how these new types of images are copies, even more removed from the idea of an original image, which photography—with its initial negative—still retained a sense of despite the absence of the hand of the artist that was essential to the painted image. By now, even the meticulous hand of fashion designer Yojhi Yamamoto, the subject of Wenders's (now almost vintage-seeming) video footage, has taken prêt-à-porter into the digital age. We believe in the digital with abandon. So when something of artisanal quality is placed in our hands or we see something hanging on a wall drawn by an actual hand, we feel a little shock. We remember how to feel something. Maybe not quite an emotion, but the touch of paper does something to us. We use our senses again.

My first visit to Albertine, a fairly new bookstore housed in the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York City, took my senses by surprise. Not only was the shop more quietly impressive than the photos I had seen, it was also much smaller than I thought it would be. A good thing, as it has an intimacy and care about it, which is unexpected in a building serving such an official role. In a round room above the bookstore hung original illustrations by artists and authors of the beloved French publishing house L’école des Loisirs. Founded in 1965 by Jean Fabre, Jean Delas, and Arthur Hubschmid, the house, which is still run by a family group and continues to pay attention to the exceptional quality of its ever-expanding catalog, is celebrating its fiftieth year. Its influence in the creative lives of children stretches far beyond just the borders of France with many international titles. The generation now buying children’s books for their own children may remember the elephant Babar, or Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are.

Browsing the L’école des Loisirs titles in Albertine, I bumped into the lovely Marine Baudoin, who is a part of the book department at the embassy and whose job it is to promote French literature—specifically fiction and children’s books—in the States. Baudoin was busy working behind the scenes to organize the many fantastic events celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of L’école des Loisirs, including the exhibition of original drawings curated by Maria Popova, founder of the creativity-centric website Brainpickings. At one such event at the rustic Brooklyn artist space Invisible Dog Art Center, there was a “Battle of Drawings,” where I was impressed that children are still fascinated to watch people create drawings for them. The kids were cross-legged on the wood floor, their faces tilted up at identical angles toward easels that held large white drawing pads where artists Matthieu Maudet, Julia Rothman, and others were creating fantastic animals in fantastic situations with Sharpies. The scattered parents’ faces, if they weren’t chatting to their neighbors, were tilted downward at identical angles, toward the small screens of their iPhones. That evening at Community Bookstore in Park Slope, Popova moderated a discussion with Magali Bonniol (Cornebidouille) and Marianne Dubuc (The Lion and The Bird, The Bus Ride), who spoke about what inspires them, the creative process, and how important both original images and irreverent and quirky stories are to the creative development of children.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my son and I had a couple of houseguests, a dear friend I hadn’t seen in over five years and her now six-year-old daughter. Before they arrived we dug through our closets, looking for toys and books left over from my teenage son’s grade-school days. We uncovered some much loved (read: falling apart) titles from my own childhood that I had forgotten about and a box of Legos. Rereading them, I was struck with how familiar the images were, like dear old friends not seen in years, and how those images had shaped my aesthetic as an artist and a writer. Charles Dickens’s The Night Before Christmas and a crumbling copy of Aesop’s Fables, both illustrated by the magical Arthur Rackham. Volumes of the Grimm brothers’ tales with drawings by Maurice Sendak, and my very first books from the beginning of my memory, English hedgehogs and kittens and rabbits drinking tea, dressed in pinafores and poke bonnets, by Beatrix Potter. The terrifying, the curious, the funny, and the strange. My friend’s daughter said she was a wolf and made me draw for her. Weeks later, watching the kids’ fascination at the funny line drawings turned out by the crew of illustrators gathered in Brooklyn, I was glad to know that there are still people making original drawings to print in beautiful books for children and that children still can be captivated by an original image despite the digital deluge.

Published Jan 5, 2016   Copyright 2016 Gnaomi Siemens

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