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Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H. A. Rey

November 12, 201- February 5, 2012

 

America's favorite monkey, the irrepressible Curious George, is always in trouble. In a great turn of fate, the beloved children's book character actually helped his creators out of a life-threatening situation. Norman Rockwell Museum is presenting the exhibition, Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H. A. Rey, from November 12, 2011 through February 5, 2012. The impish monkey protagonist of many adventures, Curious George may never have seen the light of day were it not for the determination and courage of his creators: illustrator H. A. Rey (1898 - 1977) and his wife, author and artist Margret Rey (1906 - 1996). They were both born in Hamburg, Germany, to Jewish families and lived together in Paris from 1936 to 1940. Hours before the Nazis marched into the city in June 1940, the Reys fled on bicycles carrying drawings for their children's stories including one about a mischievous monkey, then named Fifi. Not only did they save their animal characters, but the Reys themselves were saved by their illustrations when authorities found them in their belongings. This may explain why saving the day after a narrow escape became the premise of most of their Curious George stories. (right: H. A. Rey, final illustration for "This is George. He lived in Africa," published in The Original Curious George (1998), France, 1939-40, watercolor, charcoal, and color pencil on paper. H. A. & Margret Rey Papers, de Grummond Children's Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi.)

After their fateful escape from Paris and a four-month journey across France, Spain, Portugal, and Brazil, the couple settled in New York in the fall of 1940. In all, the Reys authored and illustrated over thirty books, most of them for children, with seven of them starring Curious George. Seventy years after the arrival of Curious George in America, the monkey's antics have been translated into over a dozen languages including Hebrew and Yiddish, to the delight of readers, young and old, around the world.

Organized by The Jewish Museum in New York, this exhibition offers visitors a rare opportunity to view nearly 80 original drawings and vibrant watercolors of Curious George and other characters. Many of these works have never been on display before. Preparatory dummy books, vintage photographs, and documentation related to the Reys' escape from Nazi Europe, such as H. A. Rey's journals detailing the couple's perilous journey to freedom, are also included. One of the exhibition galleries was transformed into a reading room for visitors of all ages inspired by the beloved monkey's escapades in Curious George Flies a Kite.

In addition, the exhibition features an interactive timeline, accessed via a touch-screen computer, about the Reys' life in France from the late 1930s through their fateful escape in the summer of 1940. Visitors will be able to view additional pages of H. A. Rey's journal detailing the couple's journey to safety, images of illustrations by H. A. Rey and photographs taken by Margret Rey in France, documentary photography related to early World War II in France, and historic video, as well as listen to an interview with the couple.

Art and documentation in the exhibition was lent by the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi. (left: H. A. Rey, final illustration for "He crawled into bed and fell asleep at once," published in The Original Curious George (1998), France, 1939­40, watercolor, charcoal, and color pencil on paper. H. A. & Margret Rey Papers, de Grummond Children's Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi.)

H. A. Rey (né Hans Augusto Reyersbach) had no formal art training, but in the early 1920s he designed and lithographed circus posters in Hamburg. Margret Rey (née Margarete Waldstein) studied art and photography at the Bauhaus School and then worked in advertising firms and photographic studios in Germany and England in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The two first met in Hamburg before Hans departed for Rio de Janeiro in 1925, to work for a relative. They were married in 1935, after Margret joined him there, following Hitler's ascent to power in Germany.

An extended honeymoon took them to Paris, where the Reys stayed on and began working on children's books. Filled with gentle humor and illustrated with H. A. Rey's vivid watercolors, their stories were usually formulated by Hans and later developed by Margret into a full plot.

Following the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939 and France's declaration of war against Germany, the Reys sought refuge first in the southern region of Gers and later in Normandy, fleeing Paris for the third and last time on June 12, 1940. Despite the difficulties, the Reys were prolific in France, publishing seven books from 1937 through 1939 (three in both French and English) and completing the manuscripts and drawings for at least four others later published in America. On October 14, 1940, the Reys finally reached New York. Within a month the publisher Houghton Mifflin accepted four of the manuscripts they had brought with them for publication.

Exhibition highlights include original drawings and bright watercolors for: Raffy and the 9 Monkeys (in which Curious George makes his debut as Fifi), featuring a lonely giraffe named Raffy and the nine monkeys that become his playmates; Whiteblack the Penguin Sees the World with Whiteblack setting out on a globe-trotting pursuit of new adventures; Fifi: The Adventures of a Monkey (later published as Curious George); and subsequent American escapades of the famous monkey hero.

Whether falsely alarming the fire department while experimenting with a telephone, going up in the air with a bunch of balloons or a kite, or falling into the water after a failed attempt to fish with a mop, the little monkey is always in trouble, both propelled and undone by his insatiable curiosity and appetite for adventure. While the idea of the monkey's narrow escape from danger was introduced in the first Curious George story created by the Reys in France, the concept of "saving the day" is only used in their later books written in the safety of America. By the time the man with the yellow hat comes to his rescue, George's capers have already been mitigated with some poetic justice, which may be understood as emblematic of the important role the character had played both in saving the Reys' lives when fleeing Nazi Europe and later helping them rebuild their careers in the United States. In turn, the little monkey born in France acts out the fantasies of many immigrants: he lands an acting job in Hollywood soon upon arrival, advances research by traveling in a spaceship, and makes it to the front page of newspapers, all the while getting thoroughly Americanized.

 

Additional images

 

Selected Exhibition-Related Programs and Events in January 2012

 

AFTERNOON FOR EDUCATORS AND LIBRARIANS
The Journey that Saved Curious George
Friday, January 13, 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.
 
Trace the personal and artistic journey of Curious George creators Margret and H. A. Rey with author Louise Borden, who documented their 1940 wartime escape from Paris with few possessions but their children's book manuscripts, which helped to ensure their safety. In her book, The Journey that Saved Curious George, the author used primary resources, including Hans Rey's pocket diaries, to tell this dramatic tale. Exhibition tours, classroom materials, and refreshments will be included. Remarks at 4p.m. Free.
 
 
THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ARTISTS
Curious George Saves the Day! The Story of Margret and H. A. Rey
Saturday, January 14. 1 p.m.
 
Discover the unexpected during this dynamic look at the remarkable lives of Margret and H.A. Rey, creators of Curious George and his unforgettable friends, with historian/author Louise Borden. In 1940, the couple fled Paris with a Curious George manuscript in their suitcase. During a tense inspection of their belongings by border officials, the illustrations were found and they were allowed to continue on their way. Free with Museum admission.
 
 
ART WORKSHOP
Watercolor Whimsy
Saturday, January 28, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Paint whimsical watercolors inspired by the art, props, and costumes portrayed in our special exhibition, Curious George Saves the Day, with accomplished artist Deborah Hanson Greene. Unique hats, costumes, stuffed treasures, and memorabilia will provide a rich sampling of colors and textures. The artist's work has been exhibited regionally and beyond. Fee.

 

 


Resource Library editor's notes:

Curious George, and related characters, created by Margret and H. A. Rey, are copyrighted and trademarked by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. © 2010 by HMH.

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