Art I Love: I Am A Bunny by Richard Scarry
This is why I love painting. It stills the world and condenses experience into a single potent image that allows us to reencounter unexpected emotions and memories we thought were lost. It preserves colors and conventions from another age, a time when the world was an endless source of mystery and beauty and wonderment. The art we see as children stays with us. It is, for many of us, the first intimation of a world beyond our backyard. My mother read a lot of Richard Scarry to me—way more than she did Dr. Seuss or Maurice Sendak or any of the other popular picture book artists of the early 70s. Strangely it was Scarry’s earlier work from the 1960s that resonated with me the most-especially this image from his I Am A Bunny (1963). This is something I can’t explain. Why would a five-year-old boy prefer one style to another? Maybe there’s an inherent fascination with the world that existed just before we did--a world that lingers around us like a palimpsest, coloring the way we see our own moment in time. Whatever the reason, these more painterly works by Scarry made much more of an impact on me than his increasingly graphic, line-centered work popular during my childhood.
It’s easy to view children as passive receptacles of whatever worldviews or tastes their parents see fit to impart. But looking at this painting now I know that from at least the time of nursery school, I was deciding for myself what I liked best. And when you love something from that moment in your life, it’s a love that lasts forever.
Picture book art—the art of the books first read to us and that we ourselves first read—occupies a lowly, humble position on our culture’s artistic hierarchy. While there are a few superstars everyone can name, the fact is few people take this art seriously—because children and their way of looking at the world is itself not taken seriously. Schools, for example, are designed to equip students for "success''--that is, for adapting their minds to an exclusively adult way of looking at the world. That’s why I love this painting—because it reminds me of how wrong we are to do that. Here I can return again to not the objective, measurable appearance of things but my original, open, intense experience of them. I perceive the world that was and how it felt to be within it.
I write this as the snow falls outside my window. I’m thinking of how long it’ll be till it stops, till I have to shovel—whether or not it’ll cause an icy commute tomorrow, whether or not I’ll be able to take my walk this afternoon. This is not to say I don’t see the beauty of the snow-covered landscape. But the beauty gets drowned out by the noise of all the other thoughts about it—the practicalities, the inconveniences, the familiarity that numbs your vision. For adults, winter often conjures up feelings of isolation, death, despondency, darkness. Psychologists call it seasonal affective disorder. No light, no warmth, no hope.
But Scarry sees snow as a child sees it—as I myself once saw it—which is why this image has stayed with me throughout my life. He greets the windswept vision of a winter world not with sadness but with ecstasy. I get the same feeling when I’m looking at Bellini’s Saint Francis in Ecstasy (c. 1480):
Yes, I actually just compared Richard Scarry to Giovanni Bellini. Why the hell not? The emotions I feel looking at both of them are the same, even if we juxtapose the gravitas of Roman Catholic sainthood and the Western tradition of fine art with the sentimental simplicity of childhood innocence and picture book illustration. Scarry’s work, like Bellini’s, is a call to wonder. I know that cave Saint Francis is emerging from—the skull and book on the study carol tip us off. He’s been looking for God in the cave—the same cave Plato told us about where we see not the world but the dim shadows of it projected from our own minds. There’s nothing there but words and darkness. Step outside and see the transcendent wonder beyond yourself. So simple a child can see it.
Bellini captures the moment when Saint Francis—who wrote hymns to Brother Sun and preached sermons to birds—emerges into the lambent light of the world of nature and sees the divinity present there. This ecstatic vision is the experience of children who cannot put it into words. Instead of needing to control it with interpretations, they simply experience it, as I did, as you did. And Richard Scarry puts it in a picture that gives me a reason to love the sight of snow falling outside my window this morning—seeing snow, seeing the world, as if for the first time.