Much as I have loved Babar from childhood, I had forgotten about many of the stories’ details that make the character more than just your average elephant. Besides the suit, bowler, and crown, Drawing Babar: Early Drafts and Watercolors, the exhibition at the Morgan Library reminded me of the complexities and richness that have forged this character into a memorably poignant one. The character was created by Cécile de Brunhoff for her two sons. Her husband, Jean de Brunhoff, had been a painter but had never undertaken childrens’ books until Babar.
Many of the great children’s stories seem to involve some kind of traumatic event that can scar kids for life. Here, a major plot point is that baby Babar’s mother gets shot by a hunter while he’s riding on her back. Ulp. So after he cries over her dead body, he takes off for France, gets a tailored suit (green, of all colors), shacks up with a rich older woman, and learns how to drive a roadster. Natch.
Two of the series’ books comprise the heart of the Morgan exhibition. Jean de Brunhoff’s Histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant (The Story of Babar the Little Elephant) is included, the inaugural book from 1931. Preliminary drawings, final watercolors, and printer’s proofs are shown. It’s fascinating to see the early sketches, where some of the elephants resemble blob-like doodles. You can see the evolution from concept to final composition, and note how the essence of each character was there from the start.
Complementing the original artworks are copies of the final published book that viewers can sit down with, as well as digital versions of de Brunhoff’s maquette. All of the drawings in the maquette are on the website. The site includes the book’s text in French and English as well.
The other volume on view is by Laurent de Brunhoff, Jean’s son. Babar et ce coquin d’Arthur (Babar’s Cousin: That Rascal Arthur), from 1946. After completing seven Babar volumes, Jean passed away too soon at 37 years; thereafter, Laurent picked up the mantle and produced 36 more books. His style, which most of us are more familiar with, comes across as more contained and hard-edged and less dreamy and impressionistic.
The characters are adorable and charming of course, but then there are all the underlying sociopolitical/cultural implications of an elephant wearing clothes and hewing to human civilization’s rules. Also, concepts of colonialization – political conquest, forcing one’s culture on another, the hauteur of intellectualism. His story manifests what Europe, and America to an extent, has long idealized, but it definitely feels of a different era.
Also, there are many questions about the practical aspects of stories like Babar that don’t rely on magic or time travel to skip over logistical snafus. How does an elephant fit into a little car, even if it’s a small elephant? Or sit in a dining chair? Or even walk for extended periods on two legs? Never mind all that. The stories are a portrait of a certain time and political circumstance, and can still be appreciated on these terms, whether or not they’re still relevant.