Nicholas Fox Weber
Like Batman, Babar is a favorite of the young, but he is a superhero of a different species, among other things.
Over the years the story of the elephant who grows up, marries, becomes king and lives adventurously ever after has enchanted generations of children in 17 languages.
Babar was invented in 1930 in the countryside near Paris, conjured up as a bedtime story for her two little sons by Cecile de Brunhoff, a young French mother. Thus inspired, her husband, Jean, wrote and illustrated seven stories about this most human pachyderm before his death in 1937. Since 1946, his son Laurent has, as Weber puts it, carried on the family business, producing 30 more tales about Babar, a middle-aged elephant now, but showing not a trace of his years.
Weber, executive director of the Josef Albers Foundation (which promotes the work of Albers, the painter who died in 1976), uses interviews with Laurent de Brunhoff to explore Babar’s history. As biographer-critic, Weber finds subtle differences between the painting styles of father and son. Jean was more meticulous, more faithful about background details-reproducing, for instance, all the items in Babar’s steamer trunk. Laurent, Weber says, is a more spontaneous artist.
Weber makes no effort to hide his admiration for the artists or the magical world they created for Babar, his queen, Celeste, and his cousin, Arthur. Of the 1931 illustration of Babar in a hammock being rocked by his mother’s trunk, Weber writes, “The central figures, drawn in the briefest possible shorthand, are as tender as many a Renaissance Virgin and Child.”
Watercolors by the De Brunhoffs, as well as family photographs, complement the Babar artwork, and Weber’s excesses seem forgivable. His majesty’s followers will be pleased. An exhibition, The Art of Babar, opens Feb. 17, 1990, at the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Conn., the first stop in a 10-city North American tour. (Abrams, $39.95)