Saturday, November 13, 2010

CJM: Curious Georges Saves the Day

The Contemporary Jewish Museum presents Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H. A. Rey, an exhibition of nearly 80 original drawings that reveal a dramatic story of escape and survival. Curious George, the impish monkey protagonist of many adventures (who will make a special, costumed appearance on November 14th at the exhibition opening), may never have seen the light of day were it not for the determination and courage of his creators: illustrator H. A. Rey (1898-1977) and his wife, author and artist, Margret Rey (1906-1996).

 Final Illustration for "This is George; he lived in Africa"

Both were born in Hamburg, Germany, to Jewish families and lived together in Paris from 1936 to 1940.  H. A. Rey (né Hans Augusto Reyersbach) had no formal art training, but in the early 1920s designed and lithographed circus posters in Hamburg.  Margret Rey (née Margarete Waldstein) studied art and photography at the Bauhaus School and then worked in advertising firms and photographic studios in Germany and England in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The two first met in Hamburg before Hans departed for Rio de Janeiro in 1925, to work for a relative.  They were married in 1935, after Margret joined him there, following Hitler’s ascent to power in Germany. 

Despite the difficulties, the Reys were prolific in France, publishing seven books from 1937 through 1939 (three in both French and English) and completing the manuscripts and drawings for at least four others later published in America.

Final illustration for “George climbed up until he was in the sunshine again, high above the rain cloud” Raffy and the 9 Monkeys (1939)

Hours before the Nazis marched into the city in June 1940, the Reys fled on bicycles carrying drawings for their children’s stories including one about a mischievous monkey, then named Fifi.  Not only did the Reys save their animal characters, but they were saved by their illustrations when authorities found them in their belongings.  This may explain why saving the day after a narrow escape became the premise of most of their Curious George stories.

After their  escape from Paris, it took the couple four months to reach Lisbon. They traveled across France, Spain and Portugal, often by bike! After reaching Lisbon, the couple was able to catch a boat to South American and finally reached  New York in the fall of 1940.

In all, the Reys authored and illustrated over 30 books, most of them for children, with seven of them starring Curious George.  Whether falsely alarming the fire department while experimenting with a telephone, going up in the air with a bunch of balloons or a kite, or falling in the water after a failed attempt to fish with a mop, the little monkey known as Curious George is always in trouble, both propelled and undone by his insatiable curiosity and appetite for adventure.

While the idea of the monkey’s narrow escape from danger was introduced in the first Curious George story created by the Reys in France, the concept of “saving the day” is only used in their later books written while in the safety of the United States.  By the time the man with the yellow hat comes to his rescue, George’s capers have already been mitigated with some poetic justice, which may be understood as emblematic of the important role the character had played both in saving the Reys’ lives when fleeing Nazi Europe and later helping them rebuild their careers in the United States.  In turn, the little monkey born in France acts out the fantasies of many immigrants: he lands an acting job in Hollywood soon upon arrival, advances research by traveling in a spaceship, and makes it to the front page of newspapers, all the while becoming thoroughly Americanized.

The exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum offers visitors a rare opportunity to view nearly 80 original drawings and vibrant watercolors of Curious George and other characters. Many of these works have never been displayed before.  Preparatory dummy books, vintage photographs, and documentation related to the Reys’ escape from Nazi Europe, such as H. A. Rey’s journals (the tiniest notebooks with the most minuscule handwriting) detailing the couple’s perilous journey to freedom, are also included.  Internet reproductions don't do justice to the exquisite detailing of the images and the sophisticated mastery of watercolor and gouache.

In addition, the exhibition features an interactive timeline, accessed via a touch-screen computer, about the Reys’ life in France from the late 1930s through their fateful escape in the summer of 1940.  Visitors will be able to view additional pages of H. A. Rey’s journal detailing the couple’s journey to safety, images of illustrations by H. A. Rey, photographs taken by Margret Rey in France, documentary photography related to early World War II in France, historic video, and listen to an interview with the couple.

"This wonderful exhibition has something for all ages," says Connie Wolf, Director and CEO of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. "Children will love seeing and learning about their favorite storybook monkey, and adults will be fascinated by the Reys’ personal story of escape and survival.  Art was what saved them and allowed them to rebuild their lives. There's quite a powerful narrative behind one little inquisitive monkey."


A Cuban In London said...

This is one of the reasons why I visit your blog regularly. The research, the information, the writing. Many thanks for such a brilliant post. I was acquainted with Curious George before (there's even a movie, I think, I'm pretty sure I've seen it with my children), but this back story was unknown to me.

Great post.

Greetings from London.

namastenancy said...

Thank you for the compliment (blush!). I have a degree in history and when I started formally studying Art History, I was annoyed by the lack of "history" in the story of the "art." So, I try to put the history back into the narrative which I think is more important that the myriad of artistic theories that float around in the art world. I'm also greatly in debt to the behind the scenes people at the museums who put together these informational packets which hardly ever get published.
Nancy, the one-woman art historian and historical information publishing bloggger!
C'est moi!
and gracias tambien!