“And what is the use of a book, – thought Alice – without pictures and conversations? ” (Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)
Most children would presumably agree with Alice here. Our first encounters with pictures often happen on our parents’ laps while we’re looking at books. Colourful drawings illuminate stories and feed our imagination. At the “prereader” stage these pictures also help us to understand the tales, and are just as important as the texts they refer to. At the same time, they’re a decisive visual input and crucial for our later sense of visual perception. I remember how I myself caught every detail as a child, how the stories came to life, and I still remember my favourite ones, which kept my imagination awake for many nights.
The Hungarian Cultural Centre in Covent Garden has just put on an exhibition of children’s book-illustrators, organised by the Association of the Hungarian Fine and Applied Artists and previously shown last year in their exhibition place in Budapest. Staging it in London was something of a challenge, as the London Centre’s hall isn’t intended to function as an exhibition venue – a problem they solved by using every bit of free space on the walls, with over 100 works from 27 different artists. Exemplars of the new generation of children’s illustrators, every artist was represented by three works, and showed the scene’s diversity in terms of techniques and subjects.
Some of the works presented familiar figures, well known from childhood – like the Grimms’ Frau Holle and Andersen’s Ugly Duckling. There were completely new stories too, with nicely developed characters and backgrounds that left you keen to know more about their stories. Inside one of the walls was a vitrine, displaying all the illustrated books, with the catalogue of the exhibition, also accessible online in the Centre’s web page.
Traditional figurative forms and more innovative imagery are both clear trends in recent illustration art in Hungary. From the late 60s the genre has flourished thanks to the publishing scene and, despite a blip in the 90s it seems that these days illustration for children’s books is once again gaining strength.
There were classical representations, painted by Zsófia Varga, Rozi Békési, or Krisztina Rényi. The latter’s works are inspired by codexes, bringing the atmosphere of the middle ages. Her compositions are meticulously crafted, often saturated with mystical or folkloric elements, with floral ornaments, dragons and detailed architectural backgrounds, dominated by red and gold.
Then there were more innovative trends with new visual elements regarding form, technique and colour: the graphic designs of Réka Sajó, the truly fairy-like installations of Virág Vécsey, or the playful digital prints of Kata Pap. Absurd and naïve compositions appeared, especially in poetry. Anna Holló’s funny figures were often combined with comments, and worked perfectly with the poems of Petra Finy. Her texts are characterised by playfulness and humour as she alters or mixes up words, creating new meanings, as children themselves sometimes do.
Was there anything particularly “Hungarian” about these works? I found them quite international, or at least European. Reading through the artists’ names you found, too, that most of them are women: whatever that may reveal, it’s notable, and perhaps an issue for further research.
Our children’s visual education is a genuine responsibility, and it’s important to raise awareness of it. These talented illustrators are doing their best to reveal our world, and to explain it arrestingly and with a sense of fun.
Once upon a time… An exhibition of children’s book illustrators from Hungary ran from 2-17 November at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, London.