Where does art come from? I’m not an artist, but I suspect those who do create art get asked that question quite a lot, just as authors often get asked where their story ideas originate. Two new picture books on shelves—Mordicai Gerstein’s The Sleeping Gypsy and Klaas Verplancke’s Magritte’s Apple—not only take a look at this question but also very specifically look at iconic painters and the legendary images for which they are known. If I were an artist, or especially an art teacher who worked with children, I’d be happy to have these two books at my fingertips.
I always like to see what Mordicai Gerstein is up to, and The Sleeping Gypsy is a happy surprise. In this unusual book, he opens with a prologue, giving readers a glimpse at Henri Rousseau’s famous painting, The Sleeping Gypsy. Below that, Gerstein writes that the painting is an enigma for many people. They wonder who the sleeping girl is, why she’s in the desert, why there is a guitar there, and if the lion near her will consume her. “This book,” he adds, “suggests some answers to these questions.”
Thus begins his own narrative for the story, one he’s already made clear (by using the word “suggests”) is merely one interpretation of a painting that means a lot of different things to lots of different people. And how does he kick it all off? He writes that one night Rousseau “dreamed of a girl walking across a desert.” She stops to eat and drink, laying down a blanket in the sand. She plucks at her mandolin, singing and “[bringing] the stars closer, as if they were leaning down to hear.” After she falls asleep under the stars, the personified moon rises to watch her and animals gather round. Yes, eventually, there’s a lion, the one depicted in the iconic painting, but there is also a lizard, snake, etc. All the animals wonder where the girl comes from. “She is MINE!” the lion roars when he pounces into the picture.
But then a man appears: It’s Rousseau, who tells them they are all in a dream but that it is his dream. “The girl is here, as are all of you,” he says, “so that I may paint a picture.” None of the animals are content with how they are painted, so they bolt, leaving the lion, who watches over the girl.
This marks the end of Rousseau’s dream. He wakes to paint the girl. Art, Gerstein is telling child readers, springs from the mind of the creator, and the possibilities are endless. I imagine how easy it could be for children to argue, good-naturedly, with the text: But, no, the snake could be the one that stays. Or: Is it really okay for the lion to be so close to her? There may be a lot of questions without answers, but therein lies the joy of artistic interpretation. And diving into Gerstein’s singular, suggested interpretation is quite a ride.
In Magritte’s Apple, Belgian author and illustrator Klaas Verplancke introduces us to the sleepless René Magritte. He can’t sleep a wink, because he is unsure what to paint. His head is full of ideas, mind you, but he has no idea where to start. In frustration the next day and while staring at a green apple, he falls asleep at a blank canvas. He dreams about being a painter, and like Rousseau via Gerstein, he dreams his own work. And his dreams are as beautifully surreal as the Magritte paintings the world over knows, ones that challenge viewers’ perceptions of reality. “He was a painter of words and things,” Verplancke writes, “and sometimes his words described other things.” He made the impossible possible and the extraordinary ordinary, he adds.
What both Gerstein and Verplancke manage to do so well in both books, visually speaking, is honor the style of the artists who are the subjects of their books, while at the same time making each book his own – and finding a sense of adventure and merrymaking in each book that makes each one a joy to read. But beyond just visuals, they also manage to capture the essence of each man’s work – in the case of Rousseau, capture the delicious mystery of one legendary painting and, in the case of Magritte, capture what unique talents he brought to modern art. (Fittingly, Verplancke’s book comes to readers by way of the Museum of Modern Art’s children’s book imprint.)
Two delightful out-of-the-box books about two out-of-the-box artists.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
MAGRITTE'S APPLE. Text and illustrations © 2016 Klaas Verplancke. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Éditions du Centre Pompidou, Paris.