Those of us with fond memories of reading the Babar books to our children could not but look forward with great anticipation to the show devoted to this lovable creature's creator, Jean De Brunhoff, and his art that is now running at the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan. Just as keenly anticipated was some of the fine critical writing that would inevitably greet the show.
I, for one, was swept along by the reasoned, beautifully sculpted opening of the review-essay of the exhibit that staff writer Adam Gopnik contributed to the Sept. 22 issue of The New Yorker.
"A chain of elephants, trunks and tails linked, wanders, with a mixture of upbeat energy and complacent pride, along the endpapers of a children's book. So begins one of the stories that most please the imagination of the modern child and his distant relation the modern adult -- Jean de Brunhoff's The Story of Babar, published in 1931. The Babar books are among those half-dozen picture books that seem to fix not just a character but a whole way of being, even a civilization. An elephant, lost in the city, does not trumpet with rage but rides a department-store elevator up and down, until gently discouraged by the elevator boy. ...
"Once seen, Babar the Frenchified elephant is not forgotten. With Bemelmans's Madeline and Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, the Babar books have become part of the common language of childhood, the library of the early mind. There are few parents who haven't tried them and few small children who don't like them. They also remain one of the few enterprises begun by a father and continued by his son in more or less the same style. Laurent de Brunhoff, who was 12 when his father died, at the age of just 37, picked up the elephant brush after the Second World War and has gone on producing Babar books, with the same panache, almost to this day."
Father and son are represented at the Morgan, and Gopnik, a well-known Francophile, provided a deft assessment of their styles and a quick history of the Babar "franchise."
But, as seems to be the case with so many classics these days, Babar cannot just be Babar. As Gopnik eventually had to admit, Babar is now more than "the sum of his lines."
"By now, of course, a controversial literature is possible about anything, and yet to discover that there is a controversial literature about Babar is a little shocking ... ."
In the past several decades, it has become apparent that "a series of critics on the left, most notably the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman, have indicted Babar in the course of a surprisingly resilient and hydra-headed argument about the uses of imagery and the subtleties of imperialist propaganda. Babar, such interpreters have insisted, is an allegory of French colonialization, as seen by the complacent colonizers ... ."
Gopnik, bless his heart, tries to be evenhanded in all this, but the argument is insulting. Is nothing at all sacred?