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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Breaking the Wall of Narrow Nationalism: A Talk with Etienne Delessert

It’s funny who you meet while blogging. Around 2011 I made the acquaintance of the author/illustrator Etienne Delessert. Later, in 2015, I spoke at a conference he had organized called Where the Wild Books Are, which discussed the state of global publishing in America. We kept in touch ever since and just last year I posted a piece on his Swiss foundation, Les Maîtres de l’Imaginaire. Its aim?  To assemble a rich collection of original art by some of the best artists who have worked on children’s books, here in the States, in Europe and soon in Asia with an eye to South America and Africa in the future.

It only made sense to check in with the man a year later to get a new perspective on how things have changed and progressed. For those of you with an eye to international imports, consider this your morning reading.

Betsy Bird: In 2017 you created the Swiss foundation, Les Maîtres de l’Imaginaire, and subsequently, alongside 35 other artists, presented at the Bologna Book Fair. How did it go? And did anything surprise you along the way?

Etienne Delessert: The Maîtres de l’Imaginaire exhibition at the superb Palazzo d’Accursio in Bologna was a great way to put the Foundation on an international orbit.

The show followed a presentation in the Palazzo of Renaissance paintings, and so, why not, was a proof of the vivacity of Graphic Narrative Art at the highest level.

We could not have succeeded without the precious help of Ilaria Tontardini and Lorenzo Ghettti of the Hamelin Association. I live in Connecticut, the Foundation is in Lausanne, Switzerland, we needed their collaboration.

The printed material and the posters were produced in Verona and Bologna. Very international: picture books, the best ones, break the wall of narrow nationalism…

Climbing the monumental staircase of the Palazzo (built in the 15th century so horses could use it), I was also moved by the spirit of Morandi, who’s atelier was nearby: his meditative art related to some of the drawings in our exhibition, as he knew how to paint the essence, the emotion of every day life.  

On the walls we mixed the artists without evident premeditation, each one had three or four pieces of artwork, so the public could be surprised at every step. I only insisted to place the strong paintings of Marshall Arisman for Fitcher’s Bird at the entrance, to invigorate the mind, to prove that beautiful picture books, like Grimm fairy tales,  can shock, and transform the way we think through the ages.

It was evident in this magnificent room that, in the last 50 years, a family of American and European artists, some of them deceased, have considered the illustration of children’s books as a form of serious Art. Their styles are very different, from André François to Alain le Foll, from Randall Enos to Jerry Pinkney, David Wiesner or David Macaulay. With his Nutcracker Roberto Innocenti has entered slowly a dark world, and in her black and white photographic interpretation of The Little Red Riding Hood Sarah Moon evokes the terrors of the second world war: the Wolf is the Citroen of the Gestapo.

Maîtres de l’Imaginaire.

We are far from the pirouettes of a Jeff Koons or the curved walls of Richard Serra.

BB: It’s been a while since I’ve been to Bologna. While there, what have you seen in the international children’s illustration community?

ED: The Bologna Children’s book Fair is still an immense enterprise, publishers and editors come from all over the world, and it is quite impossible to find the jewels in such a vast display of books.

You just have the feeling, after a few hours of moving in crowded aisles, that the huge halls lack fresh air, and perhaps fresh creativity. Since the forces of the market are so strong, there is a feeling of global unity, of commercial mediocre thinking, and of a universal visual style. Few surprises, few sparks of imagination. Good Chinese printers are the only triumphant winners.

It brings us back to the Piazza Maggiore and the Palazzo d’Accursio: most of the territory is covered, and young artists-and editors could find in our exhibition some inspiration, some knowledge of what is important now, and explore the past.

In December The Maîtres de l’Imaginaire will go to China, invited by the Swiss Embassy in Beijing, at the Today Art Museum, and, perhaps, next year at the National Library. I love it, it is a way to present great Graphic Art and absorb the spirit of a very different nation .

BB: Do you feel that the current social and political climate is having any direct effect on the books being produced? Or, for that matter, the art?

ED: The attempt by some to close the walls around our country may reinforce the indifference to foreign creativity. Social, political and artistic creativity.

Should we forget the immense civilizations of China and Iran? I remember how an art school (and a film school) were created in the sixties by the government of Iran: some of their picture books were bursting with talent.

Until a few years ago Illustration -or GraphicArt – was gracing  as well the editorial pages of large newspapers by the originality of the comments –and the clever, beautiful rendering of the drawings. But, recently, have we seen an OpEd glorious page, or a great Time Magazine, New Yorker or Atlantic cover?

No more humorous or dramatic art for advertising. Here and there an interesting graphic novel.

So, yes, not only the uniformity of the digital thinking, but the lack of courage of a younger generation of art directors is similar to the silence of a major political party, or the mutism of an embittered ex-Defense Secretary on a book tour.

None of the Democratic candidates is showing positive, practical imagination, the presidential lies are blooming every day, the press has become ”the enemy of the people”…

Not a good climate to publish original, thoughtful and entertaining picture books.

A children’s book reveals a society’s state of mind.

BB: You once told me that Maurice Sendak told you that children’s books must provide the child and the adult some food for thought. Could you speak a bit more to that and what he meant?

ED: Maurice could be tempestuous in trashing the “commercial” production of picture books! To the point that, after the success of his ”trilogy” he felt so depressed that he turned for years to designs and costumes for the opera, at the invitation of Frank Corsaro.

I still believe that one has to answer to the skunks! But is seems to be even more difficult to find themes that pass the filters of the publishers, or of the all mighty Marketing. Publishing has been, and should be a creative act!

Think about the millions of kids troubled now by the daily lies, the vulgarity of the attacks, the ignorance of some leaders, or the sycophancy of officials as they deregulate the protection of the nature –and of the world.  A different picture book will give a jolt to a child, perhaps some hope against a nihilist destruction. By standing still we are preparing generations of slow, obedient, hateful minds. The Plague.

As the Swiss photographer Robert Franck said: “My sympathies were with people who struggled. There was also my mistrust of people who make the rules”. His book The Americans came out first in Paris, and Robert Delpire, the publisher, went to the extreme of having a drawing of Steinberg on the cover of the 1955 first edition

Let’s open the walls!!

I am somehow lucky to have worked for a long time with a small lively publishing house (and even there clouds are darkening) and my last new book IT? is coming out this month. All about a mysterious creature, seen as in a dream, that enters a dialogue with an unknown character. Does it exist? Is it friend or foe, pet or monster? More than ever we need to tame the wild beasts and perhaps to make friends.

Sendak, I believe, would have called very late at night after getting the book, to smile and laugh about our world.

Many thanks to Etienne for the interview.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.