The Daily Heller: Leo Lionni in Three Acts

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A wise man once told me that an artist has at least three acts in their creative lives. Throughout his, Leo Lionni had three major roles that intersect this weekend with the opening of “Between Worlds: The Art and Design of Leo Lionni” (Nov. 18–May 27) at the Norman Rockwell Museum, the Bershires’ hub for illustration. This retrospective is devoted to Lionni’s graphic design and direction (Act 1), his children’s book writing and illustration (Act 2), and his painting, prints and sculpture (Act 3). Three years in the making, the project was curated by Stephanie Haboush Plunkett, author and children’s book historian Leonard Marcus, and me, working closely with Annie Lionni, the artist’s granddaughter.

Drawing from a rich personal archive of Lionni’s multiple media, I selected the graphic design, Marcus scoured the children’s books, while Annie has long staged her grandfather’s exhibitions.

For those unfamiliar with one or all of his unparalleled contributions, the show and catalog provide a vivid picture of the renowned artist in the essays and images: “Leo Lionni (1910–1999) was a modern man in a renaissance guise—teacher, author, critic, editor, painter, sculptor, printmaker, designer, cartoonist and children’s book illustrator. Born in Holland into a world with cultural and political revolutions in the air and on the streets, his father was a diamond cutter from a well-to-do Sephardic Jewish family, and his mother was a singer. Her brother, Piet, an architect, allowed his adoring 5-year-old nephew to play with his drafting supplies. And two other uncles, both collectors of modern art, fed his artistic inclinations. At that time, Amsterdam’s government was influenced by a Socialist party whose ideas underpinned a progressive educational system. ‘There was great emphasis on nature, art and crafts,’ recalled Lionni. ‘In an early grade I was taught to draw from a big plaster cast of an ivy leaf; I remember rendering all of the shading with cross-hatched lines. There was something magical about it.’ For him, ‘Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Mondrian, design, architecture, even music were one big mood to me.’ Art was as important as design.”

Anticipating the opening Saturday afternoon, Haboush Plunkett has provided this sneak peak of the gallery.

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