Dick Bruna. Artist

Last year the Rijksmuseum astonished with its presentation of Daan Roosegaarde’s Lotus Dome, and this year one of the Dutch national treasures steps into the spotlight with a humble exhibition titled Dick Bruna. Artist.

Dick Bruna’s recognition came slightly earlier outside his home country. His first retrospective was staged at Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1991, and five years later Groningen Museum curated its own take on Bruna’s work called the Smell of Success. Since then he has been exhibited at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, Utrecht Centraal Museum and now finally at the Rijksmuseum.

The museum shows the best of what this country has produced in a modern yet timeless setting.

Two years ago when I handed in the first draft of my MA thesis, I made a mistake of calling a book ‘a work of art’. Trained as medieval scholar, I always considered books as works of art. The Utrecht Psalter, Van Eyck’s Turin-Milan Hours, William Blake’s illuminated books and so many other treasures should be — in my opinion — referred to as works of art. My supervisor, with best intentions in mind, explained to me that an academic paper cannot define a book as work of art, because it simply isn’t.

While reading the catalogue of Bruna’s exhibition, I was delighted to see that there is a growing appreciation of graphic design and applied art as fully-fledged art discipline not only at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (=the national museum for design) but also at the Rijksmuseum.

It is wonderful to see that there is an old-fashioned art historical research project conducted into the works of a graphic designer displayed at the Rijksmuseum! The exhibition is accompanied by a fantastic publication that makes you appreciate Dick Bruna’s contribution in a new and comprehensive way.

Dick Bruna. Artist.

27 August — 15 November 2015, Philips Wing of the Rijksmuseum

In 1955 Bruna created a small rabbit as a drawing to entertain his young son. This small rabbit became one of the most famous rabbits of all time. He called her Nijntje, a shortening of the diminutive konijntje, ‘little rabbit’. Books featuring this character, who became Miffy in English, have been translated into more than fifty languages and are part of the collective memory of three generations.

We can see Matisse’s cut-out compositions in his book jackets, Léger in Nijntje’s black outlines, Sandberg in his typography, Rietveld in the palette and the unusual, square shape of his book of prints. In the Nijntje illustrations Bruna seamlessly integrates French and Dutch purism in a single image: an expressive (French) handling of line, set in geometrical, sometimes almost symmetrical (Dutch) shapes.

The exhibition shows that not only the book jackets that Bruna designed in his early years, but also our little heroine, are a legacy of an avant-garde movement. And yet, it is Bruna’s individuality that comes to the fore in these comparisons.

Chapter 1: Introduction to the Avant-Garde: Thousands of Zwarte Beertjes

Born in Utrecht in 1927, Dick Bruna is the son of a successful publisher A.W. Bruna. Immediately after the war, under pressure from his father, the young Dick Bruna was sent to work in a publishing house in Paris. As the oldest son, he was expected to take over the family firm. Instead of devoting himself to business, Bruna seized every opportunity to visit museums and galleries. Simple shapes, abstraction, convincing black lines, solid planes and bright primary colors that characterized the works of Matisse, Léger and Picasso, inspired the young Dick Bruna to become an artist.

When he returned home from Paris, with pressure from his family to “make something of himself”, Dick Bruna joined his father’s publishing house as a designer of book jackets. Between 1951 and 1969 he designed more than two thousand covers for the popular detective series Zwarte Beertjes (Little Black Bears).

A book cover must not stand in the way of the reader’s imagination.

Before Bruna began a Zwarte Beertje jacket, he always read the complete manuscript to grasp the essence of the story.

For inspiration, Bruna looked at the world around him. Many of his designs for the Zwarte Beertjes were inspired by movements grouped together as the historic French avant-garde, which emerged around 1916 and continued until the outbreak of WWII. The pre-war avant-garde movements in France were known for their experiments, innovation and deliberate stylistic breaks with the past.

The approach to composition, the simplification of form and the use of color in Bruna’s cover designs reflect the work of Henri Matisse (1869–1954).

I saw Matisse — and came up with Miffy

In 1947 Matisse created the artist’s book Jazz using paper cut-outs. Bruna purchased a facsimile of the expensive work and drew inspiration from it for countless jacket designs.

Jazz, Henri Matisse, facsimile, 1983

Another contemporary of Matisse who worked and lived in Paris was Fernand Léger (1881–1955). Bruna discovered the detachment of plane and line in Léger’s work. He was captivated above all by the double perspective: ‘You can actually look twice. You see the lines, the pattern and the image, and behind them the colors are separate: then you have to look twice, which gives such a fine effect.’ Léger’s bold black outlines return later in almost all of Bruna’s work: in his book jackets and in his book individual drawings, including Nijntje.

Left: Paysage 48, Fernand Léger (1881–1955), 1948 | Right: La Racine Noire, Fernand Léger (1881–1955), 1948

Bruna admired the work of the French avant-garde artist Léger, because he had separated the planes of color from the lines and let them move independently over the picture plane.

‘Fernand Léger said: “the less color I use, the more difficult it is.” Only now do I [Bruna] realize how true this remark is.’

The challenge lay in harmonizing the weight of the lines and the form with the color. The pronounced outlines found their way into the fuzzy or blurred line of Miffy, as well as Bruna’s book covers and posters. In this respect, both Léger and Matisse served as sources of inspiration.

Sandberg

French avant-garde was not Dick Bruna’s only source of inspiration. Willem Sandberg (1897–1984) — curator and director of the Stedelijk Museum as well as a legendary individual — was an important inspiration to Bruna. Sandberg’s countless posters were conceived according to principles of simplicity and clarity, but it was above all his experiments with lettering that defined the image, made his work so innovative and appealed to many young designers. The torn lettering Sandberg used in his designs had an unmistakable influence on Bruna’s work.

Left: Kwadraat (Square) Sheet, Willem Sandberg, offset 1966 | Right: Biblio, Willem Sandberg (1897–1984), lithography, letterpress 1957

In the famous design for Biblio — a survey of the Stedelijk Museum’s collection of books at the time — the letter ‘b’ looks like it is made of torn pieces of paper. In reality, Sandberg used a needle to give the paint ‘torn’ frayed edges. This was a time-consuming, and anything but spontaneous, process.

The Kwadraat sheet series developed by Steendrukkerij De Jong en Co. between 1955 and 1974 was famous on account of its square shape. Prominent artists and designers, including Marc Chagall and Willem Standberg, designed the covers. Bruna’s books — which were still rectangular in the beginning of the 1950s — found their present recognizable form at this printing establishment.

The similarities between Sandberg and Bruna didn’t stand in isolation. The post-war years saw a renewed interest in the style of the first half of the 20th century. It was Sandberg who used the work of Matisse and his contemporaries as inspiration, and as the curator and director of the Stedelijk Museum made it accessible to the Dutch public.

Werkman

Sandberg put Bruna on the track of another legendary Dutch graphic artist and typographer Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman (1882–1945). Werkman is regarded as the inventor of a free approach to printing, combining such techniques as rolling, stamping and stenciling to make a unique print or monotype.

Left: Book Cover for Sabbatsgesänge (Sabbath Singing), H. N. Werkman (1882–1945), 1941 | Right: Book Cover for the Last of the Just, Dick Bruna, 1961

From 1935 printmaker and printer Werkman regularly used the stenciling technique. With a sharp knife, he cut out the forms in a single fluent movement, which he then inked and printed. For the figures in this sheet, he used the same stencil template twice, without re-inking it. This created a visual ‘echo’ in a lighter tone, and a suggestion of depth.

For this book Bruna cut out paper silhouettes that strongly resembled the figures in the book cover of Sabbatsgesänge by H. N. Werkman. Not only is this technique comparable, but the three-dimensionality of the figures in the work of Werkman and Bruna is similar as well. Bruna created depth by overlapping the figures and using staggered planes in different shades of red.

‘I was 18 years old when the war ended. We were in hiding for two years. I really knew nothing. At home we had a book about Rembrandt and Van Gogh. That was all. It was after a while that all kinds of things emerged about what happened here during the war. Then I saw those magnificent prints from Werkman’s Hasidic Legends. Those prints have been really important to me; they were totally direct and abstract things.’

Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman was executed three days before the end of WWII and the world was deprived of a great artist and individual.

Chapter 2: Bruna and Matisse

The influence of the avant-garde was not confined to the cover art Dick Bruna made for the Zwarte Beertjes.

Left: Two Fishes, Dick Bruna, monotype, 1962 | Right: Rooster, Dick Bruna, collage, 1957–63

The device of two simplified figures placed inside an oval shape recurs regularly in the works of the French Cubist artist George Braque (1882–1963). Bruna used torn pieces of paper for his design, a technique that reveals the influence of Braque and Cubism.

This collage — consisting of torn and glued pieces of paper — originated in the same time as Two Fishes. The white ‘echo’ of the creature contrasts strongly with the dark background. Bruna adopted this torn paper technique in part from the Cubists. The rooster was one of Pablo Picasso’s favourite subjects. This Cubist artist and Bruna admired each other’s work.

In most of Bruna’s autonomous work we see above all the unmistakable influence of Matisse. It is striking that Bruna convincingly quotes stylistic elements while retaining individuality, feeling and atmosphere.

Left: Miffy in the Forest, 2007 | Right: Inside Looking Out, Dick Bruna, silkscreen c. 1960–80

The white cut-aways in this composition stand out more than the tree trunks (the main shapes). This is because they echo Miffy’s form, and because of the optical property of white, an achromatic color that appears to advance. The eye continually shifts between the foreground and background. Matisse had made Bruna aware of this way of looking.

Just how much influence Matisse exerted on Bruna, including his use of color, can be seen in the posters Bruna designed from the 1960s. Modern artists, like Matisse, challenged the commonly held view that green and blue could not be placed side by side. Bruna frequently used this color combination.

An obvious difference between Bruna and Matisse’s cut-outs is the black outlines. According to Bruna, the inspiration for the lines came from Léger, and from a chapel in Venice decorated by Matisse. Matisse designed the windows, the altar and the murals for the Chapelle du Rosaire between 1948–1951. He used scissors to create the design for the stained glass. The metal needed to hold the pieces of colored glass inevitably created dark dividing lines, so Matisse made a second design in which he incorporated the lead lines into the composition.

Bruna made a more anecdotal reference to Matisse in Nijntje in het museum: ‘that one is fine, said miffy | the colors are so clear | as if the artist cut them out | and stuck them on up there’

Like Matisse, Bruna cut out his shapes directly from solid colored paper. The almost exaggerated traces of the scissors can even be seen from a distance in the rabbits’ heads on the wall of the imaginary white cube gallery.

The work Nijntje admires in the nameless museum was inspired by Matisse’s The Sheaf (1953). Bruna cleverly transformed the leaves in the original work into rabbit ears.

Chapter 3: Bruna and De Stijl

‘Young man — that’s a really beautiful little shape.’

Gerrit Rietfeld, one of the prominent figures in De Stijl, once complimented Bruna while visiting A. W. Bruna & Zn publishing house. The compliment delighted the young lad who spent a year with his head in the clouds after this remark.

De Stijl — famous and highly influential Dutch movement active between 1917–1931 — was characterized by a radical degree of simplification or abstraction of forms, straight black lines the enclosed uniform planes, colored or not, and a palette reduced to primary colors with addition of black, white and grey.

Van der Leck

Bruna was greatly inspired by the work of a number of members of De Stijl. He thought that Mondrian was too abstract and began to appreciate him only later in life. It was precisely for that reason the early works of Bart van der Leck (1876–1958) appealed to him.

Composition (Milkmaid with a Cow), Bart van der Leck (1876–1958), lithography 1921

Of all the De Stijl artists, Bart van der Leck was Bruna’s most important source of inspiration. From him Bruna recognized how realistic forms could be pared down without becoming entirely abstract. The viewer can even complete the representation himself by drawing imaginary lines with his eyes. Bruna was fascinated by this ‘invisible’ quality.

‘Van der Leck has been the most important member of De Stijl group for me. He started from reality and tried to reduce it to the most essential.’

Dick Bruna adopted De Stijl’s standardized colors for his own palette, but used slightly different tones.

‘They’re called the primary colors, but that’s not right. Rietveld used the same colors as I do, but his blue is completely different from my blue, and we both think that our blue is the ultimate blue.’

Bruna’s red, which he sought for a long time and has remained unchanged for more than 50 years(!), tends somewhat towards orange. And although he quite often used green, which Mondrian hated, in his book covers, posters and books of print, he saw it as a compromise.

‘I always tried to confine myself to the primaries — De Stijl colors’.

Bruna’s rules were: black for the lines, blue for the sky, green for the grass, yellow for the sun and red for everything else.

Chapter 4: The Design Process: Form, Line and Color

Bruna drew Nijntje for the first time in 1955, during a summer holiday. The drawing was intended to amuse his one-year-old son.

From the moment the rectangular shape of the first book was transformed into a square in 1963, Nijntje rose in popularity and this has only increased. In total Bruna made over 30 books with her as a star. Countless translations brought international fame to the little girl rabbit.

Although Nijntje hardly aged in more more than 50 years, she went through significant changes in her appearance. These metamorphoses have given at least three generations worldwide a different perception of the same figure. Nonetheless, everyone recognizes the rabbit as Nijntje/Miffy. And for 60 years she appeared in an unchanging combination of colors.

The first book in the Miffy series — still capitalized at the time — was published in 1955. The greatest difference with her later appearances are her fanciful shapes and adverted gaze. The planes of solid colors and the simple single lines find their origin in the work of his great model.

In 2003 Dick Bruna created de brief van nijntje (miffy’s letter), one of the most adventurous and exciting books.

Design stages for Miffy’s letter, 2003

This tableau shows the design stages for the book Miffy’s Letter, in which Miffy goes camping and writes home about her experiences. Once Bruna was satisfied with a sketch, he scored the lines through onto soft paper. He carefully filled the resulting groove with black poster paint, giving rise to a blurred line. These black outlines were then transferred to translucent film and placed over various colored collages.

What strikes us immediately about Nijntje is the fact that Bruna didn’t produce a cuddly bunny. He sought the kind of iconic abstraction seen in the works of Matisse and Léger. When you see Nijntje for the first time, she may appear to you as immobile and void of intense emotions. She has no eyebrows with which to express herself, no real corners to her mouth or wrinkles and laugh lines. With meticulous care, often extremely subtle, Bruna slaved away for hours to create an animated, thinking and feeling being.

During the last 60 years of her existence, the little rabbit has been surprised, sad, cross, ashamed and happy. She celebrated, stole and mourned for her sins.

In Nijntje in het museum (miffy at the gallery) the little rabbit visits a museum with her parent. At first her father wonders if she is really big enough to go to a serious place like a museum. Luckily she manages to convince him: ‘too small, said miffy, no I am not I’m really big and tall!’

The family sets off at once. In the accompanying caption there is a clue to her emotional state: ‘so miffy was allowed to go. and off the bunnies went. what fun to see a gallery. miffy wondered what it meant.’

Bruna drew her expectant curiosity by making her eyes bigger, longer and wider. A very human reaction: fear, suspense and excitement make the pupils larger. After Nijntje admired the modern masters, it is time to go home. On the way back, the black dots become noticeably smaller. The suspense and excitement are replaced with satisfaction. Although it is so subtle as to be barely apparent, our own interpretation of the situation makes this depiction more effective.

In Nijntje is stout (miffy is naughty), the generally well-behaved Nijntje steals some toffees from a shop. Immediately before she does it, we see her looking around the cake shop. The fact that she is concentrating on something is shown from the relatively short distance between her eyes. The corners of her mouth are wide apart and turned up a little. She is excited about the colorfully wrapped sweets. In the next illustration the deed has just been done: the stolen sweets are sticking out of her pocket. Now the nose-mouth cross is shorter and flatter. Turned-in corners of the mouth indicate tension and frustration: the flattened lips tell us that Nijntje is on her guard. She is standing still so as not to give herself away by making a noise. Her eyes are smaller and rounder and further apart than in the previous picture.

The fact that Nijntje is sorry for what she did and even afraid can be seen in the illustration in which she is in bed at night peeping over the blankets. The cutting-off of her eyes and the fact that she hardly dares to look — is telling. The usually white, innocent rabbit takes on the color of her surroundings. She is swallowed by the darkness.

After she confesses to her mother, who had been alert by her suspicious behaviour, Nijntje returns the sweets.

So much expression with subtle elegance. This is the magic of Nijntje.

Erwin Olaf took this portrait of Dick Bruna at the age of 83. By then Bruna’s artistic career had spanned more than half a century, and he had developed into a world-famous graphic designer and artist. He put away his drawing materials for good in 2014.