He may be quieter than the mouse, but Winnie-the-Pooh actually accounts for as much as 20% of the Disney company’s billions of dollars in annual sales. The bear who lives in a forest where not much of consequence ever seems to happen took instant hold of children’s imaginations from his very first appearances in British author A.A. Milne’s books of the 1920s, and he has seemingly never let go since. Pooh doesn’t ever really go anywhere or do anything in the way that other famous characters from children’s stories go places and do things, but he nonetheless shows no signs of slowing down: many generations have now grown up with and adore Pooh and his friends. If plot and story aren’t the central draw, then what exactly is it about the little guy and his world that has endeared him to so many different generations of children around the world for so long?
You can find few better or more enchanting places to contemplate an answer to that question than the new exhibition Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring A Classic, which originated at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2017 and is currently making its first stateside stop at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art through September 2.
What visitors make of the show will depend in large part on what they make of E.H. Shepard’s sketches, which form the central focus of the exhibition. The images may come as a surprise to young viewers who arrive primarily familiar with Pooh from the popular Disney films: the overall look of those movies was inspired by Shepard, but animators translated his visual style into the very different, quintessential Disney language of sharply distinguished volumetric forms and bright colors. The vividly painted gallery walls themselves may burst with color, and there a few examples of hand-colored line block prints that Shepard made late in life, but his early pencil sketches are colorless, as are the ink illustrations that eventually appeared in the wildly bestselling books.
The sketches, though they depict images that will be familiar to those who grew up with the books, have a surprising and appealing sense of quick energy and spontaneity, even tentativeness and shagginess, that aren’t present in the finished ink illustrations that eventually appeared alongside Milne’s text. It’s strange to see Shepard thinking his way through a particular line or the placement of a limb in an image that was seared onto your brain as a child.
What becomes most clear from looking at the sketches is how much the creation and success of Winnie-the-Pooh as we know him was truly the result of a successful collaboration between the author Milne and the artist Shepard. Images don’t simply illustrate what’s described in the story; they seem to merge with the text, to coexist with it, to extend it, to bring it to life. When describing his field to Christopher Robin, Eeyore, in characteristic understatement, says, “It isn’t so Hot in my field about three o’clock in the morning as some people think it is. It isn’t Close, if you know what I mean – not so as to be uncomfortable. It isn’t Stuffy.” Shepard’s illustrations show the character slowly being covered by snow. It’s typical of the collaborator’s sense of humor and invention; the ultimate effect doesn’t derive from text alone or from image alone, or even a “one plus one” addition of the two, but through their lively interaction and variance. (It’s interesting to note that one of the earliest and most famous of the Disney Pooh films, Winnie-the-Pooh and the Blustery Day, which won an Oscar when it was released in 1968, shows the illustrated Pooh literally coming to life on the page of a book, walking his way through the text, the letters of which become scattered by the wind. Many Disney films are based on other primary sources — several of the films make reference to an original text — but that is singular in the Disney oeuvre, I think, in that it seemingly bows to the absolute supremacy of the strategies of the original source. Here, the book is the story.)
In his illustrations, Shepard adhered closely to the unique topography of Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, England, where Milne, a successful London playwright for adult audiences, had bought a second home and first began telling the Pooh stories to his son, Christopher Robin, based on the child’s collection of stuffed animals. For me, one of the most memorable aspects of the books is actually the topography of Shepard’s illustrations: even when I read the books as a child, those landscapes evoked a feeling something like nostalgia, a sense of cozy, comfortable familiarity with a place I’d never actually been. The place names on Shepard’s map of the Hundred Acre Wood that appear in the book’s frontispiece may all be tongue-in-cheek, but the fact of the map’s inclusion itself seems utterly serious to a child. One’s first understanding of the Hundred Acre Wood is that it’s a place that can be known, charted, studied and learned before being entered. Again, this wonderful, instigating idea isn’t one that emerged from author alone or illustrator alone, but from their close collaboration; a framed letter from Milne to Shepard in the exhibition next to an early sketch of the map makes this clear.
Shepard’s visual ideas for the world of Pooh, which became the basis for Disney’s, are so familiar that it’s easy to forget that other artists have created for the character, as well. One of the exhibition’s most intriguing digressive extensions is a gallery showing ephemera including other illustrators’ takes on the characters in the wake of Pooh’s global popularity. The Russian Winnie-the-Pooh has his charms, and he diverges interestingly from both Shepard’s and Disney’s conceptions.
One of the things that emerges most strongly in the exhibition is a sense of the singularity of Pooh in the realm of children’s literature. Freudians can have a field day analyzing all the psychosexual energy latent in other children’s stories, but they’ll inevitably come up a little short when searching for salacious things to say about Pooh. Christopher Robin is male, as are almost all of the characters in the books, but there’s a touch of something gentle and feminine, even sexless and genderless, about nearly all of them. This may seem an odd observation to make about a children’s book, but the same cannot be said of, say, Sleeping Beauty, Harry Potter, Charlotte’s Web, The Wizard of Oz or almost any other famous children’s story you can name. Kanga, the stories’ lone female character, was actually originally male in Milne’s early notes; the author may have eventually sensed the need for at least a bit of variety in the forest’s population, so to speak, but in changing the kangaroo to female, he instantly withdrew any possible hint of a romantic or erotic charge to her presence by turning her into an orderly, respectable, protective, rule-giving mother.
What Milne’s and Shepard’s creations bring most vividly to life is the comic interaction, coexistence and variance of personality, which is an unusually mature subject for children’s stories, a fact belied and obscured by the tales’ overall cuddliness, nonsense verse and the like. (Dorothy Parker loathed that cutesy aspect of the books, and satirizing Milne’s style, said it made her want to throw up when she reviewed the second collection of Pooh stories, The House at Pooh Corner, for The New Yorker in 1928). In a 2000 issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, a group of researchers in the pediatrics department at Dalhousie University published a satirical report that assigned each Milne character a psychological disorder. But of course, in the end, that’s satire: things never seemed truly pathological in the Hundred Acre Wood. There are misunderstandings, mistakes, little adventures and mishaps, but true conflict, threat or danger — even change — seem almost nonexistent.
The animals in the Winnie-the-Pooh illustrations and stories don’t look or behave at all like real animals. The humor derives from personality, but they don’t behave like real people exactly either. They still live in a forest after all, and Pooh readily acknowledges in one of his most famous episodes that it’s in his nature as a bear to climb trees to get honey. They’re not animals, they’re not people, but in the exhibition, one begins to get a sense of what they are and why they’ve stayed with us for so long: they are a child’s idea of animals, a wish for what they could be like, brought to vivid life for the world through the attentive care of two talented, wonderfully collaborative adults.