At first, nobody thought Eric Carle’s tissue-paper collage illustrations were worth keeping.
They were considered dummies, prepared for the printer’s camera. Afterward, who cared?
Of his earliest book, 1967’s “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?,” only two frames have survived.
Creations for subsequent books began quickly self-destructing, as the rubber cement dried and the commercially dyed tissue faded and fell off.
How odd, that the original work of the man who sold 30 million copies of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” could have disappeared into the dustbin of history.
The scarcity of early examples is one reason that no original work from the first “Brown Bear” edition will be part of the large exhibit on Carle’s work, “I See a Story: The Art of Eric Carle,” that opens at the High Museum of Art on Saturday, April 2. (Instead, the High will offer illustrations from a British edition of the book, published in 1984.)
If the early work slipped away, the images themselves have remained close to the hearts of millions of Americans. A survey of readers of School Library Journal named “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” the second favorite children’s book, behind “Where the Wild Things Are.”
The followers of Carle’s work are legion, and they will have more than 90 original works to examine at the High. The show was assembled by Ellen Keiter, chief curator at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass. Keiter also organized a show last year of the art of Mo Willems, which showed in Amherst, at the High and in New York City.
The Willems show, “Seriously Silly: The Art & Whimsy of Mo Willems,” which featured art from his storybooks about pigeons, bunnies, elephants and pigs, drew enthusiastic crowds, and Carle’s should do the same.
Is it high art, worthy of the High? It’s not only art, it’s critical, said Keiter.
“Picture books are very often a child’s first exposure to art,” she said. “Whether they know they’re having an art experience or not, those images are making an impression on their minds. It is something that sets them on that road to visual literacy. We think it’s very important.”
Her museum has three galleries, one of which has rotating exhibits of Carle’s art; the others feature traveling exhibits of such other illustrators as Robert McCloskey (“Blueberries for Sal”) and Hilary Knight (“Eloise”).
If Carle’s work didn’t get the care it deserved early on, it is handled with kid gloves these days. First of all, Carle switched to archival quality tissue in 1985, which he paints himself, and he began using a more durable adhesive.
Those exhibiting Carle’s works also take precautions to minimize light damage. After his creations go on display for nine months, they are shut away for several years, to rest in the dark.
The exhibit at the High will be accompanied by an original play with music called “Pancakes, Pancakes,” which will premiere at the Alliance Theatre on May 31 and run through July 10. It is based on Carle’s book of the same name.
Carle’s parents emigrated from Germany to Syracuse, N.Y., where he was born in 1929. But missing home and family, they made the fateful decision to return to Germany in 1936. His father was drafted, captured and spent eight years in a Russian prison.
Carle studied art in Germany, and at age 23, he returned to the U.S. After a tour with the U.S. Army (posted, ironically, in Germany), he secured a job in advertising illustration. A tissue-paper collage of a red lobster he created for a pharmaceutical ad caught the attention of children’s book author Bill Martin Jr., and Martin tapped Carle to illustrate his next book, “Brown Bear,” in 1967.
Carle didn’t go back to advertising.
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