This spring our colleague Julie Mellby in Graphic Arts presented Cotsen with over a dozen Muenchener Bilderbogen. Their publisher Braun & Schneider issued 1230 of these illustrated broadsides between 1848 and 1898, which were available individually or bound up in sets annually. Cotsen’s holdings consist mostly of sets that look to have been bound up and sold between 1900 and the late 1920s. There are collections of sheets starring Kasparel, the German Mr. Punch, an assortment of twenty-four sheets issued with a cover design of a clown throwing Bilderbogen out of the tower window of Munich’s Frauenkirche, Lustiges aus der Tierwelt, thirty-eight sheets about the comic antics of animals, and another motley group of thirty-two sheets enticingly titled Wer will lachen? [Who wants to laugh?]. Also on the shelves are some English-language translations, Walk up! Walk up! and see the fool’s paradise: with the many wonderful adventures there; as seen in the strange surprising peep show of Professor Wolley Cobble, published by John Camden Hotten around 1871.
This is a wonderful addition to Cotsen’s collection of late nineteenth-century French and German popular prints for children, which were forerunners of the comic strip. The Muenchener Bilderbogen was one of the most influential of them all and featured the work of Victor Adamo, Wilhelm Busch, Lothar Meggendorfer, Adolf Oberlander, Count Pocci, and Moritz von Schwind. (von Schwind’s “Herr Winter” was featured in another post on this blog). The standard for artistic excellence was such that a writer for the journal The Academy (August 7 1880) wished that the Bilderbogen were more widely available in England because they were a wonderful way of introducing children to the history of art.
This seems like extraordinarily high praise for anything connected with the comics and funny papers… So could these German broadsides have been that much better than their Anglo-American counterparts? (Some of the American ones were uncredited reprints of German ones with awful translations of the captions.) Processing the prints from Julie was a good way to see if there was any truth in the journalist’s statement about their excellence.
Two prints caught my eye because of the way the artists used lines of characters to organize the overall composition. The first one was the fifth edition of number 1177 in the series, “Maerchenzug” [Fairy tale parade] by Hermann Vogel (1854-1921). The colors and printing quality don’t seem to have deteriorated over time, as I would have expected.
“Maerchenzug” is divided into three horizontal panels, with a mass of characters moving from right to left. The three captions below each panel, however, read from left to right, with the quatrain identifying individual characters in the cluster above it. In order to go back and forth between the figures and the words, the eye has to distinguish the boundaries of the three groups that make up the panel, but it still sees the line of characters as a whole.
My favorites in the top panel are the cocky Frog Prince, Puss in Boots, and the Bremen Town Musicians, but the figures of Hansel and Gretel and a dreaming child are also there. In the other two panels, look for more frogs and dwarves, a handsome prince or two, a wicked stepmother being punished (that one is tricky), and a book of Grimm’s fairy tales. Not all the characters in this fairy tale puzzle picture are mentioned in the captions, so even Jack Zipes who knows his Grimm cold, might have to work a bit to identify the characters from the lesser known fairy tales.
The second print, number 577 (also in a fifth edition), “Der Knabe Whittington und seine Katzen,” by Eduard Ille (1823-1900) retells the familiar story of Dick Whittington in four horizontal panels. Its style couldn’t be more different than that of “Maerchenzug.”
At first each of the panels appears to be one continuous image, but look at it more closely and it’s quite difficult to ignore the spaces between the two blocks that compose each panel. The figures, which are all in black including the Europeans, are drawn in profile almost as if they were silhouettes. Their limbs have a static quality, almost as if frozen in space and time.
What helps propel the narrative along is the careful positioning of the heads and the direction of their gaze: in the second panel, you can see the word travelling from left to right, from one person to the next down the line. And the word is that help is in sight. The panel is infested with climbing, clinging, leaping, creeping, congregating mice.
In the third panel, Whittington’s cats get to work and the inhabitants dispose of the vermin carcasses with glee. Look closely at the characters’ headdresses, clothing, and accessories at the upper three panels and you’ll find they have been carefully individuated so that you can identify them throughout. The text says that it takes place in Djakarta, but the costumes may be a fantasia on authentic Indonesian garments. This part of Whittington does take place in a country where there are no cats, but an exact location isn’t important to the action. For Ille, it seems to have been a major source of inspiration.
The people are so grateful to Whittington for extermination services and presentation of four kittens to the nation that he and the two old cats are sent off in fine style–you can see the publisher’s name emblazoned on the camel’s caparisons–in the final panel.
The journalist in The Academy was onto something, I think. And thank you, Julie, for the gift of Muenchener Bilderboden.