January 29, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 38°F


Review: Art exhibit delves into dark themes in children’s literature

Erupting from the chest of the fallen wolf, Little Red Riding Hood holds her grandmother’s face. Blood clings to their pant legs, and the wolf’s tongue hangs from its mouth — he’s obviously done for. This is the first thing visitors will see as they walk into the new exhibit “Beauties and Beasties in Children’s Book Illustrations,” held in Bowers Gallery in Cornell University’s Johnson Museum of Art. The piece, “Born,” by Kiki Smith, is just one of many shown in this new exhibit, which had its opening reception Feb. 2.

Featuring an array of artists and sources that have been intimately involved in the creation of visuals for children’s books, the body of work is an accessible and perplexing look into an area of art that spans many generations. The exhibit features original pieces from classic children’s literature as well as more unorthodox interpretations of the tales.

Within most children’s tales, there is a degree of macabre. Be it the Big Bad Wolf or the Boogeyman, fear is intrinsic with the tales of youth. This concept is not ignored within “Beauties and Beasties.” Many of the pieces are both wondrous and downright eerie.

Barry Moser’s depiction of the timeless “Alice in Wonderland” character the Cheshire Cat, titled “Cheshire Cat Disappearing,” alters the large, toothy grin readers have come to know in an unsettling pencil rendering of the cat. The illustration is more akin to a hairless cat, smirking insidiously as it seemingly disappears into the paper.

George Bellows’ “The Jabberwock,” one of the exhibit’s larger pieces, also takes inspiration from the “Wonderland” mythos. Its palette is dark and nightmarish, displaying the reptilian “Jabberwocky” in all its ghastly proportions.

However, the exhibit isn’t only ghastly imagery. What makes “Beauties and Beasties” so well executed is that it displays all of the dimensions of children’s stories. The whimsy that the childhood classics are so well known for is captured with expertise.

One of the pieces that most embodies the childish spirit is a watercolor-on-transparent celluloid print titled “The Two Vultures,” depicting two of the vultures from Walt Disney Studio’s “The Jungle Book.” The prospect of seeing a piece of Disney magic is a powerful incentive for visitors to poke their heads into the exhibit.

At its core, what “Beauties and Beasties” will do is seize the imagination and evoke nostalgia. Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” sits open in a glass case, next to it Hugh Lofting’s “The Story of Doctor Dolittle.” Their covers and illustrations are vibrant yet obviously aged, making the exhibit feel similar to a museum more than just solely an art gallery.

Perhaps the only downfall of the exhibit is how rapidly a viewer can go through the body of works. The entire collection is small, but it’s intricately nuanced. Surely patrons could pass through and miss Garth Williams’ sketch of the joyous pig, Wilbur, from “Charlotte’s Web,” whose plump, smiling figure is tucked into the corner of the room.

A viewer could just as easily gloss over the sheer detail of Moser’s “Flying Monkey.” The curious wood engraving of the flying monkeys of Oz is small yet striking. It’s remarkably elegant, seemingly gaining more and more detail as a viewer examines every hair sprouting off the monkey’s solemn mug.

To truly enjoy “Beauties and Beasties in Children’s Literature,” visitors must make sure to give it the time it deserves. Its subject matter might be based in childhood, but the content is as mature as any other exhibit. What a viewer will find on the walls of this exhibit is a plethora of visions from a range of artists who seek not only to relive their childhood but also turn it on its head.

“Beauties and Beasties in Children’s Literature” is a gleeful, nostalgic and oftentimes bizarre venture into the realms crafted in the stories of youth and will surely serve as a worthwhile diversion for art enthusiasts and recreational viewers alike.

Steven Pirani can be reached at spirani1@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @stevenpirani