Swiss-born illustrator Etienne Delessert is the subject of the new show at the Eric Carle Museum. “What A Circus!” pulls from his career of over three decades that features more than 80 published books. His most recent, “Moon Theater,” was released last September.
Delessert never intended to become an illustrator. As a young man in Switzerland, he spurned a traditional career in favor of pursuing the graphic arts instead, inspired by a golden age of Swiss design that saw inspiration plastered all over the streets.
“Coming back from school, I would spend my way back home looking at the posters changing every two weeks and learning a lot,” Delessert said during an interview this week. “I was very impressed by the idea that ideas could be communicated visually — by photography, by typography, by design, by illustration.”
Even with his interest in graphic design, Delessert did not actually create any images, but that didn’t prevent him from great success in the field at a young age. At age 24 it occurred to him that maybe he could just do the art himself instead of hiring it out.
“I did not draw at the time at all,” he recalled. “I was not one of these kids who can brag that he started doing masterpieces when he was 3. Not at all. I’m really what they call in the States ‘outsider art.’” It was an entirely professional decision to begin drawing, he said.
“At one point I said, ‘I’ve had enough with advertising, I’ve had enough with campaigns, and meeting clients — maybe my life would easier if I could draw.’ As soon as I started doing illustration, other magazines asked me to do work and I was working for Elle Magazine.”
He still had the golden touch professionally, although he said his background in design helped cover up any beginner’s deficiencies he might have had at the time.
“Since I didn’t really know how to draw people, I was using geometry,” he said. “It was stylized by force. I never did any academic drawing ever. Over the years I learned how to look at people and things more closely, and I got enough skill in my hands and brain to be able to draw very realistic things if needed — or how to draw a sketch a drawing of someone and be very precise and close to the subject in line and emotions. But at the time, I could not do that; I would have not dared do that.”
Delessert realized what he really wanted to do was tell stories, and in the 1960s, one conduit to publishing illustrated stories was to work in children’s books.
“It was not because I liked children at the time,” he said. “I just wanted to be able to tell stories with text and pictures and look at them like a film. Probably if I had been born in Paris and not in Switzerland, I would have been a filmmaker. I would never have done children’s books — probably.”
The children’s book industry in France was practically nonexistent — or, at least, microscopic — and Delessert realized he would have to come to America to find a way to tell his stories.
When he arrived, it was sweltering hot, and he could only speak a few sentences of English, which had been taught to him by American students who seemed in part to be playing a practical joke on him. Delessert transcended the situation.
“They told me that an appointment was a date, so I was trying to date every art director in New York,” he recalled. “The secretaries were all laughing at me. But in two weeks I had worked four times. I knew I would like New York; I knew I would find work and I rented an apartment.”
Delessert found himself doing work for publications such as McCalls, Redbook and Fortune, followed soon enough by his own children’s books, including his classic “The Endless Party,” a story about Noah’s Ark. He also went on to collaborate with French/Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco and renowned Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget and worked in animation, including some for “Sesame Street.”
Outside the United States, Delessert is well known for Yok-Yok, his animated character who also starred in books. Yok-Yok is getting a major relaunch in Europe after 30 years, with the 12 original books being brought back into print.
“It is a strange exercise in taking a character that went all around the world 30 years ago, in pirate editions in Iran, and with very high print runs,” Delessert said. “I love the idea that a character that I created could go from China to Iran.”
Yok-Yok was a vehicle for environmental statements — he’s a little guy who lives in a nutshell and works to bring nature to the big city — although Delessert thinks those undertones might be less a part of the appeal now.
“It is more magical now,” he said. “It’s more like a friend who is everywhere — he could be taming monsters, because we all know that monsters are a product of our minds — they don’t exist. It’s just like religion.”
Delessert’s work on Yok-Yok is a reflection of his feeling that children’s books should challenge children and expand their worlds, rather than coddle their existence or strictly teach them.
“I feel that kids who grow up from 2 to 6 are forming their own world and asking questions all the time — to others and to themselves — deserve to have books that provoke them, that not only bring information,” he said. “Information they can get, as we all know, on the Internet and Google and stuff easily, but it’s not what children’s picture books should be.
“They should be stimulating for the imagination and force the child to ask himself questions: Is it possible? What does this adult who has done the artwork and text and concept, what does he know that I don’t know? Or what do I know I know as a child which is similar to what this adult knows — which means that children feel loneliness and death and joys.”
As a veteran of the children’s book world — and one who made his name before it was a high volume business — Delessert bemoans what he sees as a form of “bland storytelling” that has overtaken the field. The industry is dominated by issue-driven books with domestic settings that he doesn’t think are likely to spark creativity in the readers.
And he believes this has larger implications for the country as a whole.
“Before they ever go to school, kids will be trained to ask questions, and that’s how you create invention — people ask questions for new structures and new systems, and that’s where the States are becoming behind,” he said. “To solve the job crisis, people really have to create new ways to do things, and if you only encourage people to go to the supermarket and be consuming, they don’t invent anything. They just follow what marketing people want them to follow.”
Marketing is the central villain of the modern children’s book industry, according to Delessert, and has created a business atmosphere in which the books that get published aren’t guided by editors and art directors, but marketers with little creative vision.
“People are trained to sell stuff, and rarely do they have any imagination or creativity, so they look at what other people have done that has done well, and they try to imitate it,” he said. “That’s a really simplified view of marketing but not that wrong. I feel the best picture books should be really subversive.”
But in Delessert’s experience, subversion isn’t the focus of the typical art class in schools — nor is creativity in general.
“When you’re 6 or 7, you draw great pictures, and then you go to school and then, when you have a red sky and a blue elephant, the teacher will say, ‘Elephants are gray; the sky is blue, you know,’ and that’s it, it’s over,” he said.
He isn’t the only one to take this view. His friend, legendary author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, agrees.
“He says that fantasy and creativity are replaced by nonfiction, and what is left of fiction is so commercial, so flatfooted, that there is no great wind blowing,” Delessert said.
“Sendak told me a week ago, ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with publishing anymore. I hate what’s being published. I hate the commercialism, it’s awful. I have a book that I finished a couple months ago, I don’t even know if it’s coming out, I don’t even care anymore.’ He is a little dramatic sometimes, but I understand him.”
Delessert is happy with his career, however, and over the course of several museum retrospectives, he’s had the opportunity to go through years of work and evaluate his progression. He’s realized that his drawing ability has grown, but in the realm of ideas, he’s the same fellow he’s always been.
“What stunned me is, when you have a retrospective, you try to go to the origin — the early work that you like,” he said, “and clearly it was not as skilled as it became. But conceptually — the level of ideas — I’m exactly the same. I haven’t changed one bit. I would do the same better, but I would do the same pieces. That is very interesting.”