Thursday, May 1, 2014

Children's book illustrations, for all ages

Using superlatives are a questionable tool, but it's unavoidable in the case of The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats, a new exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center. Based on the luminous and thoughtful work of children's book illustrator Ezra Jack Keats, The Snowy Day is one of the most beautiful, inventive exhibitions I've ever seen. You'll find it rouses your energy on a scale similar to that of their Noah's Ark exhibition. It will invigorate the scroogiest of scrooges.

The Snowy Day proves that book illustrations don't just belong in books. "Finally, he reached the King's high palace" has the glow of a Klimt and the sublimity of a Caspar David Friederich painting. It takes your breath away, in what can only remotely match the awe of a traveler who has reached his destination.

Ezra Jack Keats, “Finally, he reached the King’s high palace.” Final illustration for The King’s Fountain, by Lloyd Alexander, 1971. Paint on marbled paper, mounted on board.
Courtesy Skirball Cultural Center 

But of course, book illustrations are meant for books, and this show is a testament to the value of the hand-held page. One can imagine words scrawled into the space Keats left for them, be it a marbled sky or a mound of snow. But his illustrations, too, can easily stand alone.

Jack Ezra Keats gained notoriety after his publication of The Snowy Day in 1962. It was the first full-color, modern book to feature an African American protagonist-- an important addition to the conversation on civil rights. He went on to publish other books with African American protagonists, a choice that led many to think he was black. Keats, in fact, was the son of Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn.

Ezra Jack Keats, “After breakfast he put on his snowsuit and ran outside.” Final illustration for The Snowy Day, 1962. Collage and paint on board.
Courtesy Skirball Cultural Center
Ezra Jack Keats, “He said goodbye to his mother and father, and off he went.” Final illustration for John Henry: An American Legend, 1965. Collage, paint, and pencil on paper.
Courtesy Skirball Cultural Center
Ezra Jack Keats, “They added a picture of swans . . . leaves . . . and some paper flowers.” Final illustration forJennie’s Hat, 1966. Collage and paint on paper.
Courtesy Skirball Cultural Center
Installation view (replete with interactive bathtub), The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats.

The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats is on view at the Skirball Cultural Center (Los Angeles) through September 7, 2014.

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