Friday, February 27, 2009

Jan Balet's 'Amos and the Moon' conclusion

For those of you who have not been following along with the story, here's a brief synopsis:

Amos awakes one night to find the moon has moved into his mirror.

He is delighted at the prospect of playing with the moon the next day, but when he wakes in the morning, the moon is gone. He sets out in the neighbourhood, asking everyone he encounters if they have seen his moon.

Each shopkeeper gives Amos a small gift to assist him in his quest to recover his moon.

In the end, its Joe Ming, the Chinese laundryman, who solves Amos' dilemma.

He gives Amos an old bird-cage and tells him, "You hang this over your mirror. Once in a while, maybe once or twice a month, you will catch the moon, and he will be with you for a little while."

By this time its getting dark. In his travels Amos has collected, besides the bird-cage, a lemon, a piece of bologna, a watch and chain, Harry the Horse, "and a couple of drops of water which was all that remained of the piece of ice."

I love that Balet thought to include the policeman, still watching over Amos even though he has been on duty since early in the day, when Amos made his first stop to visit Pete the Iceman. Why in the world did we choose to trade in our cops walking the beat for uncaring surveillance cameras?

In case you missed this yesterday, there's a quirky element that Balet included in the story that gave me pause: everyone had been kind to Amos except the barber. "The barber," Balet wrote, "was an angry man. "Here you, I don't care what you wonder, " he shouted at Amos. "Don't bring that stuff around here."

What an odd thing to include in a children's story, especially as each shop-keeper is branded with a distinct national identity. I doubt you could do such a thing in a modern children's book for fear of offending one group or another. But I believe Balet included this element, not to suggest Italian barbers are mean-spirited in general, but rather to simply say to children, "this is reality - not everyone you encounter is going to be nice to you."

"That very night," writes Balet, "... the room was filled with a wondrous blue light and Amos remembered what Joe Ming had told him. No one has the moon always - just once in a while."

I like that Balet found a way to strike a balance between the magical wonderment of Amos recapturing the moon, and the idea that such moments are fleeting, and should be cherished. Nothing lasts forever.

Jan B. Balet, died on Saturday, January 31, 2009.

Born in Bremen, Germany on July 20, 1913 he was schooled in Friedichshafen and Munich. He attended schools of arts and crafts in Munich and Berlin and spent several years at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. After traveling throughout Europe he left Germany in 1938 in protest to the Hitler regime and immigrated to New York City as a free-lance artist. While living in NYC he was the art director for Mademoiselle and Seventeen. He was also well-known for his illustrations in various magazines, including Vogue, Good Housekeeping, and House and Garden. He did work for Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and many other shops. He has written and illustrated many children’s books including What Makes an Orchestra, Joanjo, Amos and the Moon, Ned, Ed and the Lion, The Five Rollatinis, Ladismaus, Das Geschenk, Der König und der Besenbinder, Der Zaun, Ein Skizzenbuch, Katzen-Skizzen, Skizzen-Paare, and Paris-Skizzen. He has also illustrated many books including Rumpelstiltskin, Bean Blossom Hill and Papa Pompino. He received many Gold Medals, Awards of Merit and Certificates of Excellence for his children’s books and graphic arts exhibits. His ads for Lees Carpets won an Award for Distinctive Merit from the Art Directors Club of New York. While in NY he had a residence and studio in NYC and a summer home in Long Island. He traveled throughout North America in his own plane. In 1965 he moved back to Munich, Germany then La Landell, France. In 1978 he made his home in Estavayer-le-Lac, Switzerland where he continued to paint and produce masterful lithographs which are fancied all around the world. For the past thirty years he has had many successful expositions throughout Europe. He has also been cited in many publications and books including American Artist, Vogue, Schöner Wohnen, Masters of Naïve Art, and Die Naiven der Welt.

Balet’s works are in permanent museum collections in Europe, including the Stadt Museum in Munich, the Regierungspräsidium in Tübingen, the Kunsthalle in Bremen and the Langenargen Museum in Bodensee.

Though often described as a “contemporary primitive” or “naïve” artist because of the simple stylized appearance of his work, Balet referred to himself as “a sophisticated primitive.” His works exhibit a dry wit and refreshingly candid, satirical view of life. Droll yet charming, enchanting yet dark, Balet’s works are the perfect marriage of nostalgic yearning and slightly rueful knowledge. Throughout all his works is the force of human nature which is humorous but insightful. Balet said he drew inspiration from both ancient Greek and ancient Egyptian art. Brought up by his maternal grandparents, Balet evokes the era of these people, the most important figures of his formative years.

In the business and among his peers Jan Balet was known as a cartoonist or a ‘decorative’ illustrator who worked in a ‘humorous’ style. American Artist magazine called his work “graphic whimsy.” One gentleman wrote: “He was a great person to know, with an honest, salty sense of humor which one sees in his artworks.” He was an avid collector of folk art in all its forms from painting to sculpture, metalwork, weaving, pottery and music.

He is survived by his son, Peter Balet and wife, Marie, of Ballston Spa, NY. His grandson, John Balet, and wife, Sandra, granddaughter, Suzanne Haight, and husband, David, and great grandchildren, Benjamin and Elizabeth Balet, Andrew and Julia Haight all of Ballston Spa, NY

With thanks to Peter and Marie Balet for providing the recent photo of Jan Balet and his obituary. We will not forget him.

* My Jan Balet Flickr set.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Jan Balet's 'Amos and the Moon' part 4

As I've been preparing this week's scans from Jan Balet's 1948 book, Amos and the Moon, I couldn't help but marvel at some of the interesting details...

How times have changed! Can you imagine a children's book today that includes a nudie calendar as a prop?

Even the notion of a young child wandering alone down a city street, going shop to shop without parental supervision, is a frightening concept to most moms and dads in today's society.

A sad side effect of urban planning that encourages isolation and the corporatization of shopping. Balet shows us the charm of a time when people shopped in their own neighbourhoods and the shopkeepers were their friends and neighbours.

Another interesting point: Balet included shop owners from a variety of ethnic and national backgrounds, associating them to the sort of businesses they would stereotypically have been involved in. Perhaps I'm mistaken but I get the feeling that very few Americans (outside of a few large metroplolitan cities) could have related much to the likes of Zirimis the baker, Blanchard the butcher, Krailevizchs the shoe maker or Salvadore the barber.

Times have changed... that sort of 'united nations' inclusion is almost mandatory in modern kids lit (just as showing nudie calendars is definitely out) but in 1940's America, as much as Jan Balet's atypical style of art, it reveals, I think, a certain European sensibility.

* My Jan Balet Flickr set.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Jan Balet's 'Amos and the Moon' part 2

Marie Balet sent this interesting anecdote yesterday about the creation of Amos and the Moon:

Did you know that Jan was going to call it “Peter and the Moon,” but there were many books coming out at the time with Peter in it so he changed the name to Amos. We found the “mock-up” of the cover with “Peter and the Moon” as the title.


* Thank you to those who left notes of condolence and appreciation yesterday. Thanks especially to Ward Jenkins for reminding us that he has scans of Jan's 1953 children's book, The Lazy Lion, uploaded to his Flickr - as well as a fabulous Better Homes and Gardens cover.

* My Jan Balet Flickr set.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Jan Balet (1913-2009)

Sad news from Jan Balet's children that Jan passed away on Saturday, January 31st. As many of you will remember, Jan was in the hospital after a fall. He had sent a note by way of his children, Peter and Marie, expressing his enthusiasm to correspond about his career and planned to write again after his recovery. Unfortunately that recovery never came.

Just two weeks before Jan passed away, I discovered a copy of his first children's book, Amos and the Moon, in a dusty old used bookstore an hour's drive from here. It was published 61 years ago, when Jan was just 35. In all my years of searching I've never come across any Jan Balet children's books, and this one is apparently quite rare.

A long, successful and varied career lay ahead of Jan Balet in 1948. I was looking forward to hearing all about it from him and sharing those details with you in another series of posts. I'm sure you are as sorry as I am that that won't happen now.

Without further comment from me, I'd like to honour the memory of Jan Balet by presenting images from Amos and the Moon each day this week. Marie sent a copy of Jan's obituary, which I will post at the conclusion of the story on Friday. My condolences to Jan Balet's family and friends.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Merit of Drawing Well - In Your Own Way

After forcing you to endure yesterday's lecture, which I have now dubbed 'Leif Peng's Theory of Meritorious Illustration Relativity', I figured I had better come up with a concrete example of what I was talking about. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Savignac.

Fortune magazine, under the art direction of Leo Leonni (there's that name again) had some of the most progressive illustration of the 1950's both on its covers and as interior content. Even more remarkable for a staid business and industry publication, Fortune regularly included a portfolio section showcasing the work of a specific artist. In November 1951, Fortune presented the remarkable Parisian, Raymond Savignac.

From the accompanying article:

Quiet, introverted Raymond Savignac is the author of the most flamboyant and extroverted posters in Europe. He is not a frustrated painter; nor does he suffer any delusions that he has prostituted his talents. His art is art for posters' sake.

Art critics and poster fiends the world over have been charmed by his delightful humor, his unorthodox imagination, and his unmistakably personal style. (emphasis mine) What is more important, French manufacturers are buying his non-commissioned posters.

That, my friends, is how you draw a ham well.

Savignac refused to draw happy consumers enraptured by the client's product. In the words of Charles T. Coiner, he refused to draw 'squirrels'.

To U.S. admen, continues the article, who know that most commercial art is conceived, controlled, and invariably changed by art directors, writers, account executives, and clients, the idea of an independent, self-starting poster artist may sound shockingly foreign.

No kiddin'! I would venture to guess it sounds pretty outlandish to most illustrators as well. I'm in the middle of an assignment right now (yes, its a ham), and the client has just about sucked all the flavour out of it, believe me. The sad thing is, the changes are largely inconsequential, based on (a lack of) personal taste, but they have eradicated much of the charm and interest from the piece. But anyway, enough whining from me -- back to our story...

Savignac said, "The man on the street walks with his eyes turned to the inside; fixed on his torments and passions. Only a scandal can turn him away from himself and confer on him a certain altruism. The scandals of the street range from the pickpocket, to the fire, to the crime, etc... The poster is a visual scandal."

"If I express myself with gags, puns, and graphic clowning, it is first of all because I like that, and secondly because the man on the street is so bored with his daily routine that I believe advertising has the duty to entertain him."

What a breath of fresh air! Imagine, an artist who happily chose to employ his creativity in the service of promoting the most mundane and commercial of products (meat extract, soap, zippers, etc.) and circumnavigated the traditional power structure of the client/ad agency relationship to directly engage the manufacturer and the public with his art.

Some might suggest there was a lot of luck involved in Savignac's success. That is the lazy, self-serving artist's attitude.

There was a clear understanding on Raymond Savignac's part that his art must addressed the needs of the client, and that success lay down the path of clever concepts drawn well in his own way.

Again from the article:

In this turbulent atmosphere of intellectualism, Savignac posters are like a fresh breeze loaded with the smell of garlic and good rosé. They are simple, catchy, memorable. They have the directness of children's drawings, the humor of a Fratellini clown, the simplicity of a trademark.

Just give any of these gay posters a quick look and then try to forget it. Even better, try to avoid looking at them altogether and you will see how hard it is to escape Savignac's visual scandals.

* My Raymond Savignac Flickr set.