Leo Lionni, The Children’s Book Author Who Was Also an Artist

In the children’s book A Color of His Own (1975) by Leo Lionni, a lonely chameleon worries that he won’t find happiness if his skin keeps changing constantly. He wishes that he could stay the same, single hue — until he finds another chameleon who convinces him to embrace his rainbow multiplicity, and together they explore the world. The book’s creator was a bit like his color-changing character: Lionni is perhaps best known today as the writer and illustrator of around 40 celebrated children’s books, but he was also a prolific artist, graphic designer, educator, and art director. He lived at a time when the boundaries between applied and fine art were firmer, and he was careful to keep his artistic and commercial output separate for most of his life. It wasn’t until Lionni was in his 80s — when retrospectives in Italy and Japan presented all of his work together, without distinctions — that the artist publicly embraced the many facets of his practice.

Lionni’s varied identities come together in Leo Lionni: Storyteller, Artist, Designer (Abbeville Press), a new catalogue edited by Steven Heller, Leonard S. Marcus, Annie Lionni, and Stephanie Haboush Plunkett. The book, which accompanies an exhibition on view at the Norman Rockwell Museum through May 27, presents archival materials and examples of Lionni’s work from across his output to reveal the personal and professional complexities of the artist, whose life and career spanned continents and media.

Born in Amsterdam in 1910 to a wealthy family, Lionni fell in love with drawing early on, and found inspiration in local plants and animals and his family’s art collection; Marc Chagall’s painting “La Violiniste” (c. 1912) hung outside his childhood bedroom. By the time he finished high school, Lionni had lived in Brussels, Philadelphia, and Genoa, Italy, a peripatetic upbringing that drove his lifelong sense of curiosity and his wide-ranging creativity. He began his art and commercial design careers in Italy, and in 1939, he and his young family moved to Philadelphia and later New York, where Lionni worked as a graphic designer for Ford Motor Company, General Electric, the American Cancer Society, and others. While serving as the art director of Fortune magazine, Lionni commissioned up-and-coming contemporary artists like Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, and a young Andy Warhol to produce work for the publication.

12 Figure 15 Brussels Worlds Fair 1 UnfinishedBus Sit 12
Exterior of Unfinished Business, the United States pavilion designed by Lionni at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair

In the book, a cogent essay by Marcus convincingly argues that Lionni’s children’s books were not only avenues for the artist to express his own personal and political views but also striking reflections of their time. Lionni’s first children’s book, Little Blue and Little Yellow (1959) — about two colors who become great friends despite their differences — was one of the first picture books to feature purely abstract artwork, and, Marcus asserts, speaks to Lionni’s commitment to racial justice. He highlighted the cause in his controversial exhibition design for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair US Pavilion titled Unfinished Business, which was forced to close after southern political leaders took issue with the artist’s candid confrontation of inequality in America.

It’s gratifying to learn about the historical context surrounding Lionni’s books, and the artistic experimentation and thoughtfulness he invested in each. “The picture book became both his laboratory and his playground,” Marcus writes, pointing to Lionni’s Tillie and the Wall (1989) about a mouse who refuses to accept the limitations of a huge wall — a timely Cold War fable that was published just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The new book also sheds light on Lionni’s Parallel Botany, an expansive project from the 1970s encompassing drawings, prints, large bronze sculptures, and an eponymous book published in Italian and English. These works’ strange and fantastical take on plant life evinces Lionni’s long-time interest in nature and science, but also the vastness of his imagination. By this time, he had left his prestigious design job behind and was focused on his picture books and visual art. Lionni continued to paint through his Parkinson’s diagnosis in the early 1990s, and passed away in 1999.

Leo Lionni: Storyteller, Artist, Designer offers a fascinating look at the man behind the beloved children’s books whose themes continue to resonate with young readers today. His story is an encouraging reminder that being ourselves — however many selves there may be — is always best.

4.31 Figure 19c Gerladine whistled the gayest of tunes
Leo Lionni, illustration for Geraldine, the Music Mouse, colored pencil and graphite on board
2.7 Lionni and Sculpture
Lionni with one of his Parallel Botany sculptures in Venice, c. 1971

Leo Lionni: Storyteller, Artist, Designer, edited by Leonard S. Marcus, Steven Heller, Annie Lionni, and Stephanie Haboush Plunkett (2024), is published by Abbeville Press and is available online and in select independent bookstores.

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