Laurent de Brunhoff, artist who made Babar famous, dies aged 98 – cialisdfr
Laurent de Brunhoff, artist who made Babar famous, dies aged 98
Laurent de Brunhoff, artist who made Babar famous, dies aged 98

Laurent de Brunhoff, the French artist who maintained his father’s creation, a beloved, very Gallic and very civilized elephant named Babar, for almost seven decades – sending him, among other places, to a haunted castle, in New York and in outer space – died Friday at his home in Key West, Florida. He was 98 years old.

The cause was complications from a stroke, said his wife, Phyllis Rose.

Babar was born one night in 1930 in a leafy Parisian suburb. Laurent, then 5, and his brother Mathieu, 4, had trouble sleeping. Their mother, Cécile de Brunhoff, a pianist and music teacher, began telling a tale about an orphaned baby elephant who escapes the jungle and flees to Paris, which is conveniently located nearby.

The boys were captivated by the story, and in the morning they rushed to tell their father, Jean de Brunhoff, an artist; he embraced the tale and began sketching the little elephant, whom he named Babar, and describing his adventures.

Jean imagined that in Paris, Babar was rescued by a rich woman – simply called the Old Lady – who introduced him to all sorts of modern temptations. Armed with the Old Lady’s bag, Babar visits a department store where he rides the elevator up and down, teasing the operator: “This is not a toy, Mr. Elephant.” He buys a suit in a “trending shade of green” and, even though the year is 1930, a pair of trousers, the elegant gaiters of a 19th century gentleman.

He drives the Old Lady’s car, enjoys a bubble bath, and gets tutored in arithmetic and other subjects. But he misses his old life and cries for his mother, and when his young cousins ​​Arthur and Celeste discover him, he returns to the jungle with them—but not before dressing Arthur and Celeste in their fancy clothes.

Back home, the old elephant king has died after eating a bad mushroom (these things had a tendency to happen) and the other elephants, impressed by Babar’s modernity – his fine green suit, his car and his education – make him their new king. Babar asks Celeste to be his queen.

Histoire de Babar (“The Story of Babar”), a large, lavishly illustrated picture book in which Babar’s escapades are told in Jean de Brunhoff’s looping script, was published in 1931. Six more picture books followed, before Jean died of tuberculosis in 1937 when he was 37 and Laurent was only 12.

The last two books were only partially colored after Jean’s death and Laurent finished the work. Like his father, Laurent trained as an artist, working in oils and exhibiting his abstract works in a Paris gallery. But when he turned 21, he decided to continue Babar’s adventures.

”If I became a writer and illustrator of children’s books,” Mr. Laurent wrote in 1987 for the catalog that accompanied an exhibition of his work at the Mary Ryan Gallery in Manhattan, ”it was not because I had in mind to create children’s books; I wanted Babar to live (or, as some will say, my father to live). I wanted to stay in his country, the world of elephants, which is both a utopia and a gentle satire on human society.”

His first work, Babar’s Cousin: That Scoundrel Arthur, was published in 1946. Mr. de Brunhoff would go on to write and illustrate over 45 more Babar books. For the first few years, many readers did not realize that he was not the original author, so fully had he realized Babar’s world and his essence—his quiet morality and composure.

“Babar, c’est moi,” M. de Brunhoff often said. It seems that the artist and the elephant share the same Gallic urbanity and optimistic outlook.

In the 1960s, Babar was indeed a very famous elephant.

Charles de Gaulle was a fan. Babar’s books, he said, promoted “a certain idea of ​​France.” So was Maurice Sendak, although Mr. Sendak said he had been traumatized for years by Babar’s origin story: the brutal killing of his mother by a hunter.

”This sublimely happy childhood was lost after only two full pages,” Mr. Sendak wrote in the introduction to ”The Babar Family Album” (1981), a reprint of six titles, including Jean’s original.

Mr. Sendak and Mr. de Brunhoff became friends, however, and the latter encouraged the former, as Mr. Sendak wrote, to give up his “frenzied Freudian excavations.”

”I calmed him down,” Mr. de Brunhoff told The Los Angeles Times in 1989. ”I said straight up that the mother had died to leave the little hero to fight life alone.”

There were other criticisms. Many accused Babar of being the epitome of sexism, colonialism, capitalism and racism. Two early works are particularly offensive: Jean de Brunhoff’s The Travels of Babar (1934) and Laurent de Brunhoff’s Babar’s Picnic (1949) depict “savages” painted in the brutal style of their time as cartoonish depictions of Africans . In the late 1960s, when Toni Morrison, then a young editor at Random House, Babar’s publisher, objected to the imagery in “Babar’s Picnic,” Mr. de Brunhoff demanded that it be taken out of print. And he took care to remove the racist scenes from Babar’s Travels when that title was included in Babar’s Family Album.

“Should we burn Babar?” author and educator Herbert Kohl wondered in the title of a 1995 book subtitled Essays on Children’s Literature and the Power of Stories. Well, no, he concluded, but nevertheless argued that Babar’s stories were elitist glorifications of capitalism and ill-gotten wealth. Where did the Old Lady get her money? Mr. Cole asked, irritated by the implication “that it is perfectly normal, and indeed admirable, for some people to have wealth for which they do not have to work.”

Nonsense, Mr. de Brunhoff told The Los Angeles Times in response to an earlier Marxist analysis of his stories, “These are stories, not social theory.”

They were also works of art, and critics compared Mr. de Brunhoff’s use of color and his naïve style to artists such as Henri Rousseau.

“With Bemelman’s Madeleine and Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are,” wrote Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker in 2008, when the Morgan Library displayed the sketches and mock-ups of Jean and Laurent du Brunhoff’s early efforts, “the books of Babar have become part of the common language of childhood, the library of the early mind.

Like Babar, Laurent de Brunhof was born in Paris – on August 30, 1925, in a family of artists and publishers. His father’s siblings were all in the magazine business: his brothers, Michel and Maurice, were editors respectively of French Vogue and La Décor Aujourd’Hui, an art and design magazine; his sister, Cosette, a photographer, was married to the director of the fashion magazine Les Jardins de Modes, and it was under this magazine’s imprint that Babar was first published.

Laurent works differently from his father, who conceives his stories as a whole, narrative and photographs in tandem. (Jean also wanted to include his wife as his co-author, but she adamantly refused. “My mother was adamantly against it,” Laurent said, “because she felt that even if she had helped with the idea, the entire creation belonged to my father.”) About Laurent, the idea and imagery are first-rate — what if Babar had been abducted by aliens or practiced yoga? — and then started sketching and drawing what that might look like. When he married his second wife, Mrs. Rose, professor emeritus of English at Wesleyan University, they often collaborated on text.

The couple met at a party in Paris in the mid-1980s – Ms Rose was working on a biography of Josephine Baker – and fell deeply in love. “After dinner, we sat together on the couch,” Mr. de Brunhoff told an interviewer in 2015. “She said, ‘I love your work.’ I said, ‘I don’t know your work, but I love your eyes.’ And that was the beginning. “

Mr. de Brunhoff joined Ms. Rose in Middletown, Conn., in 1985 and brought Babar with him. The couple married in 1990 and later lived in New York and Key West.

In 1987, Mr. de Brunhoff sold the licensing rights to his elephant to a businessman named Clifford Ross, who then sold those rights to a Canadian company, Nelvana Ltd., with the stipulation that Mr. Ross would continue to be involved in the concept of future products. What followed was what The New York Times described as an “elephant array” of Babar-abilia – including Babar pajamas and slippers, wallpaper and wrapping paper, perfume, fruit drinks, backpacks, blankets and bibs. There was Babar: The Movie (1989), which critics said was boring and violent, and a TV series in the same year that critics said was less boring and less violent.

And then there were the lawsuits. Mr. Ross found Nelvana’s creations distasteful and demeaning to Babar’s healthy image, as he charged in a lawsuit. M. de Brunhoff, with typical composure, kept out of the fray.

“Celesteville is kind of a utopian city, a place where there is no robbery or crime, where everyone is on good terms with each other, so there’s really no need for lawyers there,” Mr. du Brunhoff told The New York Times.

Federal District Court Judge Kenneth Conboy agreed.

“In Babar’s world, all colors are pastel, all rainstorms are short, and all enemies are more or less benign,” he wrote in his decision, ruling that Nelvana had unfairly excluded Mr. Ross from licensing. “The storylines extol the persistence of goodness, work, patience and perseverance in the face of ignorance, discouragement, laziness and misfortune. Hopefully the values ​​of Babar’s world were evident in the documents filed in this case.

In addition to his wife, Mr. de Brunhoff is survived by his brothers Mathieu and Thierry-Jean; daughter Anne de Brunhoff and son Antoine de Brunhoff from his first marriage to Marie-Claude Bloch, which ended in divorce; stepson, Ted Rose; and several grandchildren.

“Both Babar and I enjoy an amicable family life,” Mr. de Brunhoff wrote in 1987. “We take equal care to avoid over-dramatizing events or situations that arise. If we take the right, effective steps, we both believe that the happy ending will come. When I write a book, my intention is to entertain, not to give a “message”. But one can still, of course, say that there is a message in Babar’s books, a message of non-violence.

Babar’s stories have been translated into 18 languages, including Japanese and Hebrew, and have sold millions of copies. Mr de Brunhoff’s latest book, Babar’s Guide to Paris, was published in 2017.

“Laurent’s idea of ​​a good story,” Ms. Rose said by phone, “is this: something bad happens, nobody panics, and everything turns out okay.”

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