Review of Curious George Exhibit at Jewish Museum

by John Zeaman

Curious George, the impish monkey who is always getting in trouble, made his picture-book debut in 1941. Today that book is in its 71st printing, and George is one of the classic characters of children’s literature.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, given the serious attention the culture has been paying of late to children’s books, George is also now the star – or co-star – of an exhibit, “Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H.A. Rey,” at the Jewish Museum.

This is a cross-generational show of a type that the Jewish Museum has proved very adept at. As with previous exhibits on author-illustrators Maurice Sendak and William Steig, it simultaneously caters to children and adults. For the children, the gallery has been dressed up with fake doorways and building facades that recall the Paris of the first George book. Halfway through there’s a kids reading area with pillows and heaps of picture books by the Reys.

For parents and older children, there are nearly 80 original drawings and watercolors from books about George and some of his predecessors, including a penguin named Whiteblack and a lonely giraffe named Raffy. George first appears as one of nine supporting characters in “Raffy and the Nine Monkeys,” except in this book he’s called Fifi.

There’s quite a bit of biographical material about the Reys, particularly the odyssey that brought them to the United States in 1940, one step ahead of the Nazi occupation of Paris.

Both of the Reys were German Jews. Originally their names were Hans Augusto Reyersbach and Margarete Waldstein. Hans was self-taught as an artist, while Margret had studied at the famous Bauhaus School. The couple were married in Rio de Janeiro, where Hans’ family had business interests. Curious George evolved from sketches of monkeys that Hans did on boat trips into the rain forest.

Interestingly, however, Curious George was never given an essential part of monkey anatomy – a tail. In that sense, he is closer to a chimpanzee or, more important, a human child.

With Hans doing the art and Margret the text, the Reys turned out seven books while living in Paris from 1936 to 1940. They fled Paris on bicycles. They were almost detained at a border crossing, but when their valises revealed they were carrying children’s book illustrations, they were waved through. Eventually they reached New York, and the first Curious George book was published by Houghton Mifflin.

That first book, which takes place in Paris, brings to mind the story of Babar the Elephant, the subject of a show a little over a year ago at the Morgan Library. Like Babar in 1931, George came straight from the wild to a domestic life in Paris. Both had a lot of adjusting to do. Both had a nameless protector: the “Old Lady” for Babar, and “the man with the yellow hat” for George.

Unlike Babar, however, George never learns to wear elegant clothes and drive a car. Nor does he return to the wild and become a king. Instead, like the Reys, he appears to move to New York. More significantly, he never grows up. George remains the perfect child surrogate – always getting in over his head. He accidentally sets off a fire alarm. He gets a newspaper route, but folds all the papers into boats and sends them downstream. He paints pictures on the walls when some house painters take a break.

No matter what trouble he gets in, he’s always rescued at the last minute by the man with the yellow hat.

It is this sense of getting into tight places, then escaping, that ties together the two threads of the show.

from North

The original text of the article may be found here.


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