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Field Trip Part 1: William Steig & Lisbeth Zwerger

JULY 29, 2010
I took a few days off recently and visited western Massachusetts where, there are a few really good art museums. In this post, I’ll review two exhibits I really wanted to see: the William Steig (NY Times obit) show at the Norman Rockwell Museum and a retrospective of Lisbeth Zwergers children’s book illustrations at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.
In Part 2, I’ll talk about the "Picasso looks at Degas" show at The Clark Art Institute, some reflections on The Williams College Art Museum and The Petah Coyne exhibit at Mass MoCA.
© estate of William Steig
I drove to Stockbridge and the Norman Rockwell Museum on Saturday morning. It was a rainy, summer weekend so the place was filled with busloads of tourists there to gawk at Norman Rockwell's Americana. But the show I came to see was an exhibit of William Steig's cartoons, New Yorker covers and children's book illustrations. The exhibit included sculptures by Jeanne Steig, William Steig's widow and coauthor of several of his books. The cartoons covered a number of themes: Clowns, Angels & Demons, Artists at Work, People in Love and others. According to the exhibit copy, Steig created 1676 cartoons and 123 cover illustrations for the New Yorker from 1930-2003! I lingered and roamed the exhibit, criss-crossing the three rooms, dodging parents with cranky children, marooned husbands and a group of Young Republican types on a field trip from some nearby academic camp.
There was nowhere to sit down and cogitate so I ate my lunch in the car and finally headed off back East in the drizzle for Amherst where the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is located.
A reception for and talk by the great Austrian children's book illustrator Lisbeth Zwerger was the nucleus for my trip out west. The exhibit is a retrospective that clarifies the two major phases in her career. Lisbeth Zwerger was recognized early in her career and in 1990 was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen medal, a coveted European award for children's book illustration.
She's always been drawn to classic fairy tales and the earlier work shows her admiration for Carl Larssen and Arthur Rackham. Her figures have a loose-limbed grotesque character that is accented by her lyrical sepia pen line and atmospheric watercolor washes. The other half of her oeuvre displays a purposeful distancing from the European fairy tale style to a more psychological and emotional theater-like space. During a talk on Sunday, she compared her early version of the Nutcracker story and a more recently published version. You’ll have to compare the two and decide for yourself that you prefer. She made an eloquent argument in favor of her artistic integrity and the price to be paid for fame with an easily copied style. Consequently, she went deeper into her self and the classic texts and created an original approach that has little to do with technique and materials.
After touring the exhibit with some friends (the talented James Steinberg among them -picture to the right) we settled into the auditorium for a Q & A session led by founding director and exhibit curator Nick Clark, Lisbeth Zwerger and her long-time publisher Michael Neugebauer. Many luminaries were present ( I spied Jerry Pinkney in the crowd) and I had the pleasure of chatting with Leonard Marcus, Etienne Delessert, Barbara McClintock and Leslie Breen Withrow.
The surprise of the evening was Neugebauer’s announcement that he was donating his extensive collection of Lisbeth Zwerger’s original art to the Eric Carle Museum.