All About Mr. Elephant, in His Becoming Green Suit
Source:The New York Times Author:EDWARD ROTHSTEIN Date: 2008-09-23 Size:
Since Jean de Brunhoff expanded and refined the bedtime stories told by his wife, Cécile, in 1931, and published them in French, Babar has been a constant companion.


"Babar and Arthur Reunite," a watercolor by Laurent de Brunhoff, is part of a new exhibit called "Drawing Babar: Early Drafts and Watercolors," on exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum through Jan. 4, 2009.

What does the “very rich Old Lady” see in Babar the elephant? What, for that matter, do we see in him? Something appealing surely, even if we would not follow her example and give him a full purse to go shopping for a suit of a “becoming shade of green,” or do calisthenics with him or buy him a red roadster.

But if most of us don’t actually keep elephants in the strange way the Old Lady did, we have consistently invited Babar into our homes, along with his still thriving, ageless family. Since Jean de Brunhoff expanded and refined the bedtime stories told by his wife, Cécile, in 1931, and published them in French, Babar has been a constant companion. After that first book (translated as “The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant”), de Brunhoff published six more Babar tales before dying of tuberculosis in 1937 at 37.

After World War II his son Laurent, who first heard the stories as a child, took over the franchise. He has illustrated 37 books about this elephant orphan turned king. More than eight million Babar books have been sold.

In the compact, elegant exhibition “Drawing Babar: Early Drafts and Watercolors” at the Morgan Library & Museum, we don’t learn too much more about the reasons for Babar’s appeal. We simply feel it, and then have to make sense of it. Speculation is restrained and simple demonstration preferred, an approach in keeping with Jean’s spare, precise narrative and laconic illustration, in which diverging lines of dots become tears, angled eyebrows signal anger and the varied curves of an elephant’s trunk evoke an inner life.

The show, organized by Christine Nelson, draws on the collection of Babar material the Morgan acquired in 2004 as a partial gift from Laurent and his two brothers. It includes more than 170 drafts and sketches for the first Babar books by both father and son. A complete sketchbook, a maquette, of the first Babar can be viewed, page by page, on two touch screens; custom-made carpets, based on rugs in the illustrations, mark out areas where books are available for reading.

Jean de Brunhoff’s illustration style (later emulated by Laurent) is charmingly and deliberately naïve. Multiple images of Babar running or riding an elevator suggest movement, comic strip balloons emerge from animals’ mouths as they call out, perspective is skewed or suggested simply by an object’s size. But an affectionate sophistication lies behind the innocence.

The elder de Brunhoff’s pencil sketches are quick and exuberant, experimenting with gestures and attitude. A display of Babar first editions show de Brunhoff’s self-consciously playful covers, the first depicting this king of the elephants marching with a placard like those once used to announce a spectacular new show (here, “Histoire de Babar”), tickets available within.

In the show’s two main galleries — one devoted to Jean de Brunhoff’s first classic book, the other to Laurent’s first, “Babar’s Cousin: That Rascal Arthur” (1946) — we see how the stories developed over time. Jean learned, for example, that when Babar’s mother is killed by a wicked hunter, he didn’t have to say that Babar was sad as he ran away; he could show it.

At first Babar’s suit was not a becoming shade of green at all, but a more mundane gray. Even the existence of the female cousin, Celeste, whom Babar eventually marries, was a later innovation. We see too that Laurent has a completely different method of preparation, his sketches are less experimental, his characters less weird.

The weirdness, though, is what makes the first Babar book — and sections of Jean de Brunhoff’s other books — so powerful. Think of the Old Lady “who has always been fond of little elephants” and gives Babar “whatever he wants.” Without any hint of animal passion, there is something discomfiting about this animal-human partnership.

And what attitudes are we supposed to have toward Babar himself? Escaping the countryside he arrives in a great town — like many another picaresque hero — and what is his first real desire? Fine clothes. And clothes are the first things he buys for his young cousins when they come to town.



Jean may have shared Babar’s preoccupation: his brother Michel was the editor of Paris Vogue, and his brother-in-law, Lucien Vogel, director of another fashion magazine. But there is something else going on here, surely, particularly when Babar later dresses all the elephants in his kingdom in outfits — some with the most ornate ornaments — that he bought for them.

The great temptation in reading children’s books is to see them as allegories, subliminally serving up lessons the way strange beings do in the dark woods of fairy tales. And allegories are latent in these books. Babar comes to town, is taught the ways of humanity and then returns home where he is crowned king. He does not brood. He is patient and industrious, and near the close of “Babar the King,” he even dreams of elephant-angels — Intelligence, Learning, Courage and Work — driving off comically demented figures called Despair, Misfortune, Stupidity and Laziness. Surely there are more than enough lessons in virtue here.

The taste for allegory has led to attacks on the Babar books accusing them of celebrating colonialism. (Illustrations of cannibals in the second Babar book don’t encourage complete skepticism on this point.) The playwright and critic Ariel Dorfman, for example, argued that Babar’s history “is none other than the fulfillment of the dominant countries’ colonial dream.”

The uncivilized, unclothed native is taught the ways of civilization and returns home enlightened, unquestionably embracing the world that will ultimately bring him grief. In “Should We Burn Babar?” the author and educator Herbert Kohl argued that the books are sinister in their celebration of the Old Lady’s idle wealth and corrupt in their admiration of Babar, who allies with the very society that produced the colonial hunter who killed his mother.

But as the critic Adam Gopnik points out in a rich, suggestive essay in the show’s catalog, these arguments miss the point. The saga is not an “unconscious instance of the French colonial imagination,” Mr. Gopnik writes, “it is a self-conscious comedy about the French colonial imagination.” Jean de Brunhoff knew precisely what he was doing. Invoking the colonial world of the 1930s and France’s mission of civilizing subjugated peoples, he was also satirizing that world, celebrating some things while being wary of others, knowing the need for civilization while also knowing the costs and inevitable failures that accompany it.

Finding straightforward allegory — or an unambiguous political message — simply does not work. Admiration and satire are intertwined. Cornelius, the elephants’ elder, is meant to seem extremely savvy when he proposes making Babar king because Babar “has learned so much living among men.” But I can easily imagine Jean de Brunhoff laughing when, in response, he has King Babar turn to Cornelius and say, “You have good ideas.” Babar makes him a general and gives him his hat.

The child reader will not necessarily sense Babar’s pomposity here, but over time such ambiguities will affect perceptions, as they do throughout childhood’s perpetual trials. Yes, there is an allegorical element in Babar, which is why clothes are so important. Clothes represent culture or rather cultivation. They present the wearer in a particular social role. (In one book pictures appear of the workers of Babar’s town, Celesteville, dressed according to their occupations.) Clothes are the counterparts of social manners, the accouterments of civilization. Babar begins as a child in the human city, naked, riding up and down in a department store elevator just for the fun of it and being told, “This is not a toy, Mr. Elephant.” Once he is clothed in his green suit, he leaves childish things behind.

But clothes alone don’t make the elephant, and we feel some pangs watching the unclothed mothers of Babar’s cousins relegated to running in the dust, while their well-dressed children get to ride in a car. There are other pains as well. One of the most upsetting images in Jean de Brunhoff’s books may be of Babar and Celeste, captured and costumed, made to perform in a circus. The indignity is palpable.

There is something melancholy in Babar’s world. It is not really the world of 1930s Paris. Babar’s utopian Celesteville combines ’30s technology with the cultural life of the Belle Époque.

Did de Brunhoff know that these Halls of Amusement or Industry could no longer stand as firmly as they once did? Does that account for the nostalgia they seem to reflect? What world did he imagine was taking shape for his sons? As the ’30s progressed, it had to have been less clear what the divisions were between the animal and the human, or what civilization itself could hope for.

One of the exhibition’s labels points out that there was another beloved childhood character who came out of the same Parisian milieu: Curious George. Margret and H. A. Rey carried the manuscript for that book with them as they bicycled out of Paris in 1940, fleeing the Nazis. They might have been influenced by Babar, but their colonial hunter, the man in the yellow hat, didn’t murder his prey. He took the monkey away. And he brought him to the New World, where George’s anarchic, unclothed spirit roamed so freely it might have tried even Babar’s patience.

[Editor] Mark Lee