Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Art: Drawing Babar at the Morgan Library

Because my parents initially met, and then later partially raised me, in San Francisco's now-defunct Cafe Babar, where the back room's store-front window was painted with a giant elephant in a green suit escorted by an elegant gray-haired woman in a black floor-length gown, I was always meant to like the Babar books. But I never did. I didn't like elephants, I didn't like old ladies, and I didn't like France.

But the show at the Morgan Library, which displays the original drawings and mock-ups for each page of Jean de Brunhoff's Histoire de Babar, all done on creamy paper in muted pencil colors and fat, fanciful French script, with pieces cut and pasted atop each other as the story evolved in the creator's mind, presents something very different than the garishly-colored, inelegant books presented to me as a child. Perhaps American booksellers don't think that children's eyes can distinguish between non-primary reds and greens. Or perhaps I was indeed too young to appreciate the jaunty curve of Babar's ears and trunk, or the sad single tear he cries when he loses his mother, or the exuberant absurdity of an elephant riding the elevators up and down at Galleries Lafayette.

Of course, all the new-found delight is sucked right out when the adult mind realizes that Babar is a thinly-veiled piece of colonialist propaganda (the orphaned African elephant comes to Paris, where he feels lost and awkward, until a kind old lady (France, of course) helps him, first by bathing him (oh, the insulting assumption that natives are dirty), then by clothing him in a suit (Babar wants to terribly to look like everyone else around him), then by letting him drive a car (it's not just the American Dream, but the dream of the civilized world—you have, perhaps, noticed that everyone in China and India now wants one), and finally, by going back home to bring more of his friends and family to France, where he gets married (in a government- and church-sanctioned ceremony complete with white gown and veil) and can therefore become a productive French citizen. I've heard told that Winnie the Pooh is England's own colonialist children's story; what a disappointment.

But still, the original drawings are gorgeous, and French is always better in storybooks than academic post-structuralist tomes. If we can forget about what it means for Babar to have his portrait taken in his new clothes, if we can stop ourselves from uttering the word "bourgeoisie," we can still enjoy a beautifully-drawn story about an elephant in Paris.

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