Kid-friendly art from A to Z
Fine art from the collection of the Norton Simon Museum is use to teach children the alphabet in a new book, "Picturing the ABCs." (Courtesy of Norton Simon Art Foundation / December 16, 2012)
Just in time for the holidays, the Norton Simon Museum has published its first-ever children's book: “Picturing the ABCs at the Norton Simon Museum,” featuring an eclectic and often unexpected selection of works solely from the museum's notable collections.
Yes, this 108-page hardcover book, conceived by the Norton Simon's education department as a directive from Chief Curator Carol Togneri and in consultation with the curatorial staff, does begin with “A is for Apple.” The single apple in question, however, viewed by the book's readers at first only through a die-cut window, is part of Gustave Courbet's 19th-century still-life oil painting, “Apples, Pears and Primroses on a Table.” The full painting is revealed on the page that follows.
The ubiquitous “D is for Dog” depicts no ordinary mutt, but a 17th-century painting of a noble hound, titled “Aldrovandi Dog.” Elsewhere in the alphabet, “T is for Tutu” puts the focus on the skirt worn by Edgar Degas' graceful bronze sculpture, “Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen.” “H is for Hat” spotlights the vivid yellow hat worn in Vincent van Gogh's “Portrait of a Peasant,” while the elephant that illustrates the letter “E” is a bronze sculpture of the elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesha, circa the late 10th or early 11th century.
“N” is for Norton Simon himself, of course. The renowned art collector, who died in 1993, is shown in a 1973 drawing by portrait artist Don Bachardy.
Other choices are further off the beaten path. “C” is not for “Cat” here, but for the cheerful circles in Thomas Downing's 1966 acrylic abstract, “Red.” The letter “R” is represented by the impressively starched and sizable “ruff” worn around the neck of the winsome subject of “Portrait of a Lady,” a 17th-century oil by Dutch painter Johannes Corneliszoon Verspronck.
A die-cut window isolates each object chosen to illustrate a letter of the alphabet; the image of the entire painting, drawing, print or sculpture from which the object is taken is revealed on each following page.
The die-cut windows were used as a way to “maintain the integrity of the art works,” said Education Assistant Manny Guardado, who shares author credit with the museum's head of education, Lynn LaBate, and who worked on the book's design. Some art-centered museum books for children “tend to crop images,” he said, “and you can lose the integrity of the picture [and] not get the full experience.” Using a die-cut window to focus the eye on the elements in the artworks that represent the letters of the alphabet, Guardado said, was “creative and fun, and provides the reader with an element of surprise” when each die-cut page is turned.
Deciding what works from the Norton Simon's extensive collections to include began informally, with a walk through the galleries by staff members who simply chose some of their favorites. LaBate, who arrived at the museum after the idea for the book was first conceived, refined the selections with an eye for the appropriateness of the works' subjects and concepts for young children who were just learning their ABCs, and to “show off” the Norton Simon's diverse collections as well, she said.
“We wanted to use all of the different riches that we have in the museum,” LaBate said, “so we didn't do the obvious things. We have that fabulous Thomas Downing piece with all of the circles, and I thought, well, kids are also learning their shapes, and this is a choice that is very particular to the Norton Simon collection.”
Kandinsky's colorful abstract painting, “Open Green,” illustrating “Z is for Zig-Zag,” was another unexpected choice. On the other hand, the Courbet painting representing “A is for Apple” replaced an originally proposed “A is for Architect,” which LaBate felt wouldn't be a concept that a toddler would easily grasp.
LaBate and Guardado have their own favorites in the book. “I is for Ice Cream,” a small drawing, circa 1964, of a trio of ice cream cones by Wayne Thiebaud, “was a very beautiful, but playful piece to include in the book,” Guardado said. “And I love ice cream.”
One of several that LaBate singles out is “M is for Moonlight.” The die-cut window shows only a yellow moon and its subtle glow. A turn of the page reveals a delicate 19th-century gouache-on-paper work in soft colors, titled “Figure in the Moonlight.”
The book's eye-catching design, credited to Danny Brauer and Guardado, uses a broad color palette that LaBate describes as “a little more sophisticated than the usual primary colors,” but one that should engage children who are also at an age where they are learning their colors, she said.
And if families want to bring their children to the museum to see the originals of the works in the book, that's fine with LaBate. “We're hoping that kids will form connections with our collection that will stay with them,” she said.
“The museum has a very active education department, and one of our most important audiences is families,” LaBate added. “We felt that this book was a great vehicle for involving families in the art. It allows us to work with toddlers, which we don‘t normally do, and it's engaging for both adults and children. We felt that it fell in with our educational mission, and that it allows us to expand our mission, too.”
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.
What: “Picturing the ABCs at the Norton Simon Museum.” Hardcover book, 108 pages, full-color illustrations.
Cost: $15 at the Norton Simon Museum Store, Pasadena and online at store.nortonsimon.org.