An exhibition in Solothurn is offering an insight into the highly creative - and complex - process of illustrating children's books. Entitled "Once upon a time there was an idea..." it opened on the eve of the city's annual literature festival.
Illustrators of children's books are frequently underrated as artists, and one of the exhibition's aims is to rectify a misconception shared by many Swiss adults - including schoolteachers. "Illustrators frequently get asked whether they are working for children or whether they are artists," says the exhibition organiser, Inge Sauer.
"In Switzerland and Germany," she added, "the illustrations are widely underestimated and are considered from an educational rather than an artistic point of view. On the other hand, Britain has a long and great tradition of children's book illustrations dating back to the 18th century. There, they are seen as complex works of art."
Sauer says much of the blame for their comparative lack of artistic appreciation in Switzerland lies with teachers, many of whom regard picture books for the young as a pedagogic tool. "They are the enemies of the artists," she told swissinfo, "because they want the children to learn something.
"There's nothing wrong with that in itself, but it's an attitude lacking the fantasy element. The artists themselves simply want to tell the children something. As for the children, they are not as visually undeveloped as many suppose. Young people tend to be much more capable than their parents of identifying a very complex picture."
The exhibition features the work of living Swiss and German illustrators, examining not just the final product but also the entire creative process of converting an idea into pictures which will fascinate and amuse the young.
The process usually starts with pencil sketches, which as they leave the drawing board stage are transformed into brightly coloured flights of fantasy.
"You have to be more than an illustrator," said Sauer. "You have to have the gift of being able to tell a story in pictures. The real challenge is in holding a child's attention. Many young illustrators are able to create one very good picture, but not a complete book.
"The secret is to sustain the suspense in much the same way as film directors work. In fact the children's book illustrator has a similar role to that of the director, in creating and then organising a sequence of images."
The exhibition is at Solothurn's Palais Besenval until June 2.
by Richard Dawson
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