Leo Lionni:
Drawings

March 15 - May 31, 1990

Curated by Nina Castelli Sundell

   

Mound, 1982, 23" x 33"

 

THE PARALLEL ETHOLOGY OF
LEO LIONNI

—Brian Swann


For someone who says he regards himself as lazy, Leo has done an awful amount of varied and distinguished work: which means he has a large number of friends who have come into his life through different entrances (speaking of entrances, I haven't found Frederick inside his house too often. Frederick is a field-mouse: a mouse of the open world, always out doing something, even if only "gathering words"— being a poet.) I came in through the entrance of words. My friend, Patrick Creagh, with whom I was staying, had translated Parallel Botany from Italian (It was published by Knopf in 1977. It must be reissued.), and he was taking me over the hill from Spanda to Porceignano for dinner. That evening has stayed in my mind: the beautiful house and surroundings, the bright conversation, the wonderful Nora and her terrific meal. And there was so much to look at on the walls, in the rooms, all so perfectly balanced and placed, but comfortable-looking. Something like this later struck me as a quality of all Leo's work, its conciseness, its freshness, its balance.

 

Collection, 1982, 23" x 33"



But back to Parallel Botany. I've read it a number of times and recommend it to those who know Leo only as a creator of children's books or as artist (or graphic designer, or art director, or sculptor, or teacher, or whatever). Its rich mixture of real and mock erudition, its wit and inventiveness, its elaborate fictions, lies and make-believe, make it a true Borges-Calvino delight, as it piles improbable Pelion on impossible Ossa (or is it vice-versa?), with drawings of parallel plants, fake photos, and inside jokes (including a chapter on "the Camporana or kite-plant"). To quote the blurb, which I suspect the author wrote himself, the book shows "ineffable brilliance", and is "the last word on the subject."

 

Artis Natura Magistra, 1980, 23" x 33"


One of my favorite pieces of autobiography, and one which is a key to Leo's genius, is an essay we published in Chelsea, 44, "Artis Natura Magistra." It is a description of his early boyhood on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Here we can see the stirrings of Leo's mythic imagination, as it absorbs the real, transforms whatever it touches, and clarifies. In the essay, all the childhood details flood back with the "sense of being there." He notes his "vehement passion for nature" (including "the etiology of white mice"—progenitors of Frederick and co.). The boy Leo made a world of all sorts of small animals in his terrariums, "all elaborate fictions." Add this to the world of art and museums and we have the incipient etiology of Leo Lionni and his career of "reality and dream: Magic."

 

Adam's House, 1987-8, 27 1/2" x 20"



Parallel Botany ends with: "It is reported of the Swedish philosopher Erud Kronengaard that he once said to a friend: 'There are two kinds of men, those who are capable of wonder and those who are not. I hope to God that it is the first who will forge our destiny." Leo has changed the world, not only for children, but for all of us. Making allowance for narrative tongue-in-cheek, we can say the same of Leo as he says of Erud: he has taken us "with feverish enthusiasm to the exploration of an unknown world rich in exciting possibilities."

 

Untitled (Crumpled paper), c. 1980, 15 7/8" x 29 3/4"