Leo Lionni – Norman Rockwell Museum, USA
18 Nov — 27 May 2024
Between Worlds: The Art and Design of Leo Lionni is the first major American retrospective dedicated to the art and design work of groundbreaking modernist designer and children’s book illustrator Leo Lionni (1910-1999). “Design is form,” the artist said, “Sometimes it is decorative form, and has no other function that to give pleasure to the eye. Often it is expressive form, related to conceptual content, to meaning. It is always abstract; but like a gesture or a a tone of voice it has the power to command and hold attention, to create symbols, to clarify ideas.” Together with Chief Curator Stephanie Haboush Plunkett, the exhibition is co-curated by author and children’s book historian Leonard Marcus and illustration and design historian Steven Heller. The Museum is also working closely with Annie Lionni, the artist’s granddaughter.
As the old distinction between fine and applied art came up for lively reconsideration after the Second World War, Leo Lionni emerged as one of the international design community’s indispensable pathfinders and bridge-builders. Idealistic and globally minded, Lionni viewed pithy, smart, deceptively simple graphic design as a worthy contribution to the post-war effort to reassert democratic values and establish a visual lingua franca to unite people across generations and cultural boundaries. A kind of twentieth-century Leonardo, he pursued his creative vision across several related domains, each of which will be explored in depth in this exhibition, including graphic design and advertising art; his art direction at Fortune and Print magazines; the creation of forty children’s picture books; and personal works including printmaking, photography, drawing, painting, and sculpture.
“[I feel] an irresistible urge to make things.”
Offering a compelling glimpse of Italian American artist Leo Lionni’s early life in Amsterdam, Brussels, and Genoa, Between Worlds invites the exploration of his first inspirations, including the terrarium from his childhood bedroom that heralded the beginning of his lifelong fascination with natural forms, influencing the look and proportions of his picture books. A section on graphic design will highlight key examples of Lionni’s innovative freelance work for Olivetti, Container Corporation of America, Ford Motor Company, the American Cancer Society, the Ladies’ Home Journal’s Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman” campaign, the prototype issue of Sports Illustrated, and the Museum of Modern Art, including his poster for MoMA’s 25th anniversary and work for the Family of Man exhibition curated by Edward Steichen. Noted graphic designer, author, and historian Steve Heller, the Co-Curator of this exhibition, observed in Print’s column, The Daily Heller: “Lionni believed that formal precepts could be applied to virtually any advertisement. But this is not a “how-to,” it is a “Hey, what’s this?” When was the last time a promotion piece to sell advertising asked aesthetic and formal questions? I wonder whether clients today would understand it. I doubt that any publication today would invest in such an abstract idea.”
PROVOCATIVE ART DIRECTION
Lionni’s work as the art director at Print (1955-1956) and Fortune (1948-1960) will be explored. In addition to designing striking covers and interior layouts he was instrumental in launching the careers of many younger artists and designers, including celebrated picture book artist Eric Carle. This pivotal section looks at the “Unfinished Business” exhibition that Lionni designed for the United States Pavilion of the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, which gave a frank account of the struggle for racial justice in 1950s America. Visitors from around the world appreciated the installation’s honesty about the United States’ ongoing efforts to live up to its ideals, but pressure from southern politicians shut down the exhibit long before the fair’s end. As Annie Lionni has aptly noted, her grandfather created his first children’s book one year later. She sees this as his way of “finishing the business” that had been interrupted in Brussels: Little Blue and Little Yellow and the many picture books that followed were all about community building, problem solving, and striving for a better world. The collage elements of Lionni’s graphic design images became visual building blocks in the realization of that better world on the pages of a book that an open-minded four-year-old could both enjoy and learn from.
CLASSIC MODERNIST PICTURE BOOKS
Original art and preliminary drawings for several of Lionni’s most notable children’s picture books will be on view, including Frederick, Inch by Inch, Pezzettino, Matthew’s Dream, and others, which have been published in foreign-language editions around the world. The Aesop of our time, Lionni was a fabulist and philosopher who brought unexpected psychological and moral depth to the picture book while working within the visual idiom he shared with such post-war International style designers as Paul Rand, and Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames. The artist’s granddaughter Annie Lionni, who is a collaborator on this exhibition, notes that Lionni began creating children’s books in “his retirement years.” “The traditional story of how Leo came to write his first book for children involves my brother, Pippo, and me in 1959. At the time, Leo was an art director at Time Life, and he took us on the commuter train out of Grand Central Station in New York to spend the weekend with him and our grandmother, Nora, in Greenwich, CT. He entertained us by tearing colored paper from a magazine that he had in his briefcase to create the story of Little Blue and Little Yellow. The positive response we gave to his story was enough to inspire him to recreate it with some construction paper in his studio at home. His friend, Fabio Coen, who later became an editor at Pantheon Books, saw the mock-up over the weekend and they decided to publish Little Blue and Little Yellow.” Lionni’s literary legacy includes four Caldecott Honors for excellence in illustration as well as dozens of other prizes, an elementary school curriculum based on his books described in Vivian Gussin Paley’s The Girl with the Brown Crayon, inclusions in best books lists, and countless praise from teachers, librarians, parents, and children.
IMAGINED WORLDS: PARALLEL BOTANY
“Parallel Botany” is the fully elaborated fantasy plant world that Lionni created over a period of years in a variety of media: drawings, prints, bronze sculptures, paintings, and an illustrated artist’s book. These imaginative works circle back to the home terrarium that sparked his childhood love of nature and will serve as a final statement of Lionni’s belief in the importance of embracing nature while also feeling free to re-imagine the world as we find it.