Releasing Girls’ Creativity at the Emmy Zweybruck-Prochaska School in 1920s Vienna

Type two words—“creativity” and “children”—into the search bar, hit the magnifying glass icon, and watch the results cascade down the screen.   The tenor of all these hits to scholarly articles in psychology, curriculum on public television for carers, websites devoted to child development,, etc. is unlocking every child’s imaginative potential is crucial to their intellectual and emotional progress.

Art instruction emphasizing creative self-expression through craft projects is believed to be among the best ways of opening up children’s minds to this process.  The idea that children should be inspired to discover within the seeds of creativity and to release their individuality through art for its own sake rather than to prepare for careers  dates back to early twentieth-century Vienna.  Franz Cizek (1765-1943), the most celebrated professor of art education of his generation, promoted a method which encouraged pupils to teach themselves, discarding the traditional formal study of technique for the exploration of a wide variety of media.

Cizek’s course  inaugurated in 1903 at the School of Applied Arts, with its strong ties to the Viennese Sezession, was not the only place in Austria where boys and girls were taught according to this philosophy.  Emmy Zweybrück-Prochaska (1890-1956) opened a school just for girls in 1915.  nfluenced by Cizek’s progressive, “permissive” methods, she brought deep interests in applied design, and the so-called naïve design language of  indigenous peoples, and women’s handwork in the textile arts.  Zweybruck parted company from Cizek in her practice in bringing out self-expressive potential through achievement of technical proficiency  and her dedication to training both amateurs and young women aspiring to careers as artists.

A sample of work by some of Zweybruck’s students has been preserved in the Cotsen collection.  Among the most delightful are the hand-drawn postcards.  The assignment seems to have been to illustrate the front of a commercially printed card and write a message to their teacher.  The illustration shown below is signed “E. C.” and the signature is “your Evelyn.”   The back is postmarked “1916.”   Lisbeth Haase is one of the most accomplished artists in the archive.  Here is her design of a girl watering a cactus for a postcard.  The black and white drawing is the right-hand half of a frame for a double-page spread in a book.  The third is a clever jumble perhaps of Lisbeth’s favorite things or an assortment of subjects Zweybruck suggested be incorporated into some kind of picture.The largest group reflects the method’s foundational principle of letting children try their hands at different media and includes linocuts, collages, papercuts, and drawings, some signed by the young creators.  One of Zweybruck’s techniques was to read aloud detailed descriptions or little stories lasting around 5 minutes and allowed the students “to find their way as best they can and will” in their responses. One day’s project must have been based on the legend of St. George and the dragon and it’s fascinating to notice the differences between these two attempts.  Unfortunately they are both anonymous designs.Perhaps this whimsical collage of an elephant by “N. J.” was a design for a toy or figurine.  N. J. used silver paper and sequins in addition to different colored papers.The horizontal borders in watercolor or cut papers are unsigned, but the linocut of the fence is credited to Zviki Abramowicz.  The unsigned designs for borders range from abstraction to the highly stylized “primitive. It’s also possible to compare two versions of the same image within the archive.  This design was executed in black and white and in full color.  The black and white version of the Virgin and Christ Child was mounted on the same sheet as a quick sketch of several faces.  This ambitious image is also unsigned.In the coming months, all the materials by Zweybruck’s students in the collection will be reorganized so they will be more accessible to researchers.  The names of all the students who signed their work will also be recorded.  Perhaps someone some day will try to identify the girls who studied with Zweybruck and establish how many went on to be artists.

“They Also Wrote Children’s Books:” An Exhibition at the Grolier Club, New York City

This thought-provoking exhibition, which opened at the Grolier Club (East 60st Street near Madison Avenue) on March 3rd , is scheduled to close May 23rd.    I’ll make a pitch for going to see this handsome selection of books from John R. Blaney’s extensive collection of modern firsts, hoping that the city will be coming back to life in the middle of May.

Blaney’s curatorial concept was to pick a pair of works by each author, one for adults, one for children.   The majority of the pairings are novels with  picture books and it’s quite interesting to compare the differences in packaging.   Kurt Vonnegut is a standout in this respect. Vonnegut is represented by Slaughterhouse-5, with the iconic dust jacket by the “Big Book Look” graphic designer Paul Bacon.  His only work for children, Sun Moon Star was illustrated by another heavy-hitter, Ivan Chermayeff, son of the distinguished architect (and ballroom dancer) Serge Chermayeff, and principal of Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, the firm responsible for some of the great twentieth-century Modernist logos.  Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest also has a typographical Bacon dustjacket, while his Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear has a full-color pictorial dustjacket with an illustration by Barry Moser repeated from inside the book (see above).  Blaney also showcased Gertrude Stein and Clement Hurd in The World is Round, John Updike and Nancy Ekholm Burkert in A Child’s Calendar, Robert Graves and Maurice Sendak in The Big Green Book, and  John Steinbeck and Wesley Dennis,the illustrator whose work is inseparable from Marguerite Henry’s horse stories, in The Red Pony.There are many other ways of breaking out the materials on display.  One unexpected discovery was the works that were collaborations between parents and children, most notably Toni Morrison and her son Slade, which first appeared in  Ms. Magazine’s series “Stories for Free Children” in 1980, seven years before Beloved,  later published as a picture book illustrated by Giselle Potter.  Also noteworthy are Ann Tyler’s Tumble Tower illustrated by her daughter Mitra Modaressi  and William Kennedy, famous for his series of novels about New York politics, and his collaboration with son Brendan on Charley Malarkey and the Belly Button Machine.

Another intriguing aspect of Blaney’s selection are the  books straddling the line between child and adult reader like Ian McEwan’s The Daydreamer  with illustrations by Anthony Browne (better known for his picture books starring Willy the Chimp).   My favorite chapter has always been the ghoulish one about the bad dolls of the protagonist’s sister, who come to life one night when he fails to put them back in their places before turning in.  There has never been any consensus about the effect of scary tales on children and it seems unlikely to be settled any time soon.

Perhaps the most sobering example of a book “for ages nine to ninety” was by Langston Hughes.  He wrote quite a few children’s books, many encouraging African-American children to take pride in their people’s accomplishments such as The First Book of Jazz or The First Book of Negroes.  Blaney chose the most heartbreaking of them all, Black Misery, the last thing he wrote before his death in 1967.  It was illustrated with great sensitivity by Lynette Arouni, who made a career of being a fine artist than a book illustrator.  One perceptive blogger pointed out that just because Black Misery is a picture book, doesn’t mean its portrayal of the coruscating effects of racism on young black child’s sense of self is only for that audience: it will surely sit heavily on any child or adult who takes the time to read it.The exhibition comprises only 39 pairs of books, due to the space  limitations on the Club’s second floor. But a crafty curator leaves us wishing for more.  Maurice Sendak could have just as easily been represented by his illustrations for Randall Jarrell as for Robert Graves. I missed the unforgettable picture book collaborations between Isaac Bashevis Singer and Margot Zemach and the unlikely pairing in Tucky the Hunter of James Dickey, author of Deliverance, and the exquisite calligrapher/illuminator Marie Angel.  Should T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats illustrated by Nicholas Bentley made the cut?   The Book of Adam to Moses, novelist and translator’s Lore Segal’s retelling of the Pentateuch illustrated by Leonard Baskin’s line art, would have added a note of grandeur.   Although it would have exploded the show’s concept, I would have tempted to show at one work interpreted by different artists.  The most obvious candidate would have been Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, with the luxury of chosing from versions by Chris Rascha, Edward Ardizzone, Fritz Eichenberg, and Ellen Raskin.

How remarkable is it that so many writers risk their laurels by creating books for the sometimes inattentive but often ruthlessly acute audience of small people.  Expect no sympathy from this crowd if the book was written to fulfill a contractual obligation AND pay for a new roof on the house.  Be braced for the Amazon customer who points out “every child with whom I shared this book was not interested.”   Be prepared for a review that starts with “Rein in your expectations”  or the one that ends with  “a ludicrous book [that] should more than please the most fervent among the gross-out set.”    It does not follow that if you can win the Nobel, Man Booker, or Pulitzer Prizes, that you can garner the John Newbery, Caldecott, Carnegie medals or the Children’s Laureate.  Kudos to those who have tried for both.

Do visit the Grolier Club website if you’d like to see more of the exhibition on Flickr.