A simian and a gathering storm

An exhibition on Curious George and his German-Jewish creators opens in New York.

curious george 311 (photo credit: Courtesy Curious George images)
curious george 311
(photo credit: Courtesy Curious George images)
NEW YORK – In his long life as a hero of children’s literature, Curious George was many things: a happy jungle dweller, a troublemaking Paris resident, a heroic adventurer in outer space. Readily adaptable to new places and cultures, he could also be understood – if you’re not too literal-minded – as a stand-in for his German-Jewish creators.
That unlikely possibility is just one interpretation that can be drawn from “Curious George Saves the Day,” an engaging exhibit that opened last week at the Jewish Museum on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Subtitled “The Art of Margret and H.A. Rey,” the show looks not just at the beloved monkey, but at the married couple who created him – a pair of Jewish artists with a biography not entirely unlike that of their cartoon simian.
Although they were born in Germany rather than the jungle, the Reys followed a geographical journey that will ring a bell for readers, spending years in Paris before ending up in the US. Like their popular creation, the couple worked their charms in a variety of languages, altering their names as circumstances changed. They routinely made the best of a bad situation – and would put an even sunnier spin on things when drawing and writing about George.
“It feels ridiculous to be thinking about children’s books,” H.A. Rey wrote in 1939, and to a large extent, he was right. Weeks earlier, Germany had invaded Poland, igniting the Second World War and sending shock waves into France, where the Reys had lived since 1936.
At the same time, thinking about children’s books also made sense – it was an activity that had helped bring the Reys together and would later play a role in saving their lives.
Hamburg natives with a gift for the arts, both Reys would excel individually at home and abroad – she in advertising and photography, and he as an illustrator and painter. Two years after the Nazis’ rise to power, the pair married in Rio de Janeiro, where H.A. – born Hans Augusto Reyersbach – had acquired Brazilian citizenship.
IT WAS during his South American years that H.A. sketched his first playful monkeys, discovering the creatures on trips along the Amazon. As important as his Brazilian passport would ultimately prove, he and his wife (born Margarete Waldstein) evidently enjoyed their honeymoon in Paris, adopting the city as their new residence and continuing in their work. Now far from the jungle, H.A. began making regular visits to the zoo, developing the style that would define Curious George. A 1939 watercolor piece, from a book about a simian named Raffy, depicts the better-known monkey in a pleasant-looking spot – perched on the neck of a giraffe so tall that ugly storm clouds are now far beneath him.
That sort of wishful thinking would provide a running theme for the Reys’ work, which consistently (if indirectly) reflected what was happening in their personal lives. More than adult fans are likely to remember, transportation and legal papers recur in the Reys’ art, reflecting two key concerns as the pair considered their escape from Europe.
An illustration from 1939-1940 is titled simply “George wanted to get out,” while another piece from the period shows the monkey and his human friend, the Man With the Yellow Hat, proudly presenting their identification papers as they exit a ship. The piece “stands in contrast to the Reys’ plight at the time,” the exhibition notes, when “they were struggling to secure the necessary papers to leave France.”
Similar themes dominate How Do You Get There? a transportation-themed kids’ book created as the pair sought ways out of France. The Reys’ eventual escape began on June 12, 1940, two days before the Germans entered Paris, with the pair making their way to Spain largely by bicycle, then continuing to Portugal, Rio de Janeiro and, eventually, New York.
LIKE THEIR earlier life in Europe and Brazil, the Reys’ American years are presented via profesional correspondence, private journals and dozens of illustrations – a strategy that illuminates connections readers wouldn’t otherwise be able to see. Like Curious George’s creators, the exhibit notes, the monkey became “thoroughly Americanized” as the years went by, now surrounded in illustrations clearly inspired by New York rather than Paris. Their work was copyrighted and trademarked by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
The Reys, for their part, come across as consistently impressive, their lingual abilities showcased in notes and letters written in polished German, English and French. Their artwork, which provided key proof of their profession as they sought travel papers, came with an abiding affection for their best-known creation, a character constantly in trouble for his mischievous “infractions.” The Reys’ warm feelings extended to George’s biggest fans: In his writing, H.A. shows consistent admiration for children and their imagination.
The exhibit itself is also child-friendly, offering a reading area,a collection of Curious George titles and other Rey books. For oldervisitors, the show offers a pleasing stream of small but winningdetails, such as the fact that Curious George’s name was changed toZozo for his arrival in British bookstores – a move made in deferenceto King George VI, England’s monarch at the time.
On displayuntil August 1, “Curious George Saves the Day” is accompanied by alecture series in its opening weeks. In addition to programs focused onthe Reys, the series offers a look at children’s book publishing in the1940s, and at Greenwich Village, where the couple lived for a periodalongside other giants of children’s literature, including MargaretWise Brown (Goodnight Moon) and Robert McCloskey (Make Way for Ducklings).