For a bear of very little brain, Winnie-the-Pooh has done well.
He has inspired television shows, a half-dozen movies, theme park rides, and stuffed toys, and he earns $5.5 billion for the Walt Disney Co. every year.
But Pooh had humble beginnings in a children’s book by A.A. Milne, with somewhat scruffy pen-and-ink drawings by E.H. Shepard.
The story of the birth and miraculous rise of the bear’s empire is part of a new exhibit at the High Museum of Art, “Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic,” which will be on display June 3-Sept. 2.
The exhibit of more than 200 objects will include:
• More than 80 of Shepard’s original pencil and pen-and-ink drawings for the four Pooh books.
• Replicas of Christopher Robin Milne’s stuffed animals, which inspired characters in the stories.
• A handwritten 1926 letter from Milne to Shepard and photographs of the Milne family.
• A replica of the Pooh Bridge, with a digital river flowing underneath.
• A musical version of A.A. Milne’s stories, “Winnie-the-Pooh,” created by the Alliance Theatre. The theater company will perform the show June 7-July 15 in the Rich Auditorium.
The High focuses on pre-Disney Pooh, and those accustomed to Disney’s pastel version of the silly old bear will see a different world in Shepard’s spare black-and-white drawings. They will also learn how closely Milne and Shepard worked to create the books, integrating text and images in a way that was almost concrete poetry.
“Shepard and Milne were great collaborators,” said Ginia Sweeney, co-presenting curator for the exhibition. “You see the illustrations placed in interesting spaces on the page. Sometimes there is text in the middle of a drawing. In the 1920s, that was new.”
Visitors may also be surprised at how quickly Christopher Robin and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood started making money. In 1930, Milne entered a licensing agreement with Stephen Slesinger, and by 1931, Winnie was a $50 million business, generating toys, puzzles, games and radio broadcasts.
Disney bought the rights from Slesinger in the 1960s, adding even more color, and marketing power.
When Shepard was in his 90s, his publisher suggested that he might want to dress up his characters. “The publisher encouraged Shepard to take some prints of his original drawings and to add color,” said Sweeney. The show includes four of those colorized Shepards.
The exhibit was organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and is drawn from its archives, as well as from the Walt Disney Co., Egmont Publishing, the Shepard Trust and the University of Surrey.
Our fascination with Milne’s world doesn’t seem to be diminishing. This summer’s “Christopher Robin,” a live-action film starring Ewan McGregor, will tell the story of the grown-up boy who has lost his imagination, and the characters from the Hundred Acre Wood who (with the magic of CGI) help him get it back.
The books, now almost 100 years old, still appeal. “Yesterday I was rereading the end of ‘House at Pooh Corner,’ and in the last chapter, all the animals realize that Christopher Robin is going away,” said Sweeney. “He’s leaving childhood behind. It’s really melancholy, that sense of nostalgia. It’s Milne and Shepard who are nostalgic for their own childhood, for that fleeting moment we all experience at the beginning of our lives.
“It pervades the books,” she added. “That’s one of the reasons they’ve persisted so long. We can all identify.”
“Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic”
June 3-Sept. 2. $14.50, ages 6 and older; free for children 5 and younger and members. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-733-4400, high.org.
RELATED: Alliance Theatre show information
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