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Curious George: The Art of Margret and H. A. Rey at the Contemporary Jewish Museum
H. A. Rey, cover of dummy for La Rue: Découpages à colorer (unpublished), Paris, c. 1938, pen and ink, color pencil, and crayon on paper. H. A. & Margret Rey Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi.
SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- The Contemporary Jewish Museum presents Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H. A. Rey, an exhibition of nearly 80 original drawings that reveal a dramatic story of escape and survival. Curious George, the impish monkey protagonist of many adventures (who will make a special, costumed appearance on November 14th at the exhibition opening), may never have seen the light of day were it not for the determination and courage of his creators: illustrator H. A. Rey (1898-1977) and his wife, author and artist, Margret Rey (1906-1996). They were both born in Hamburg, Germany, to Jewish families and lived together in Paris from 1936 to 1940. Hours before the Nazis marched into the city in June 1940, the Reys fled on bicycles carrying drawings for their children’s stories including one about a mischievous monkey, then named Fifi. Not only did the Reys save their animal characters, but they were saved by their illustrations when authorities found them in their belongings. This may explain why saving the day after a narrow escape became the premise of most of their Curious George stories.

After their fateful escape from Paris and a four-month journey across France, Spain, Portugal, and Brazil, the couple settled in New York in the fall of 1940. In all, the Reys authored and illustrated over 30 books, most of them for children, with seven of them starring Curious George. Seventy years after the arrival of Curious George in America, the monkey’s antics have been translated into over a dozen languages, including Hebrew and Yiddish, to the delight of readers, young and old, around the world.

Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H. A. Rey was organized by The Jewish Museum, New York. Most of the art and documentation in the exhibition was lent by the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi.

The Exhibition
The exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum offers visitors a rare opportunity to view nearly 80 original drawings and vibrant watercolors of Curious George and other characters. Many of these works have never been displayed before. Preparatory dummy books, vintage photographs, and documentation related to the Reys’ escape from Nazi Europe, such as H. A. Rey’s journals detailing the couple’s perilous journey to freedom, are also included.

Exhibition highlights include original drawings and bright watercolors for: Raffy and the 9 Monkeys (in which Curious George makes his debut as Fifi), featuring a lonely giraffe named Raffy and the nine monkeys that become his playmates; Whiteblack the Penguin Sees the World with Whiteblack setting out on a globe-trotting pursuit of new adventures; Fifi: The Adventures of a Monkey (later published as Curious George); and subsequent American escapades of the famous monkey hero.

In addition, the exhibition features an interactive timeline, accessed via a touch-screen computer, about the Reys’ life in France from the late 1930s through their fateful escape in the summer of 1940. Visitors will be able to view additional pages of H. A. Rey’s journal detailing the couple’s journey to safety, images of illustrations by H. A. Rey, photographs taken by Margret Rey in France, documentary photography related to early World War II in France, historic video, and listen to an interview with the couple.

Visitors to the exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum will have the opportunity to share their personal journeys and to discover where other people, who call the Bay Area home, originated. At a computer kiosk stationed in the gallery and at a large interactive map, visitors can plot their journeys.

"This wonderful exhibition has something for all ages," says Connie Wolf, Director and CEO of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. "Children will love seeing and learning about their favorite storybook monkey, and adults will be fascinated by the Reys’ personal story of escape and survival. Art was what saved them and allowed them to rebuild their lives. There's quite a powerful narrative behind one little inquisitive monkey."

The Reys’ Journey
H. A. Rey (né Hans Augusto Reyersbach) had no formal art training, but in the early 1920s designed and lithographed circus posters in Hamburg. Margret Rey (née Margarete Waldstein) studied art and photography at the Bauhaus School and then worked in advertising firms and photographic studios in Germany and England in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The two first met in Hamburg before Hans departed for Rio de Janeiro in 1925, to work for a relative. They were married in 1935, after Margret joined him there, following Hitler’s ascent to power in Germany.

An extended honeymoon took them to Paris, where the Reys stayed and began working on children’s books. Filled with gentle humor and illustrated with H. A. Rey’s vivid watercolors, their stories were usually formulated by Hans and later developed by Margret into a full plot.

Following the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939 and France’s declaration of war against Germany, the Reys sought refuge first in the southern region of the Gers and later in Normandy, fleeing Paris for the third and last time on June 12, 1940. Despite the difficulties, the Reys were prolific in France, publishing seven books from 1937 through 1939 (three in both French and English) and completing the manuscripts and drawings for at least four others later published in America. On October 14, 1940, the Reys finally reached New York. Within a month, four of the manuscripts they had brought with them were accepted for publication by the publisher Houghton Mifflin.

Whether falsely alarming the fire department while experimenting with a telephone, going up in the air with a bunch of balloons or a kite, or falling in the water after a failed attempt to fish with a mop, the little monkey known as Curious George is always in trouble, both propelled and undone by his insatiable curiosity and appetite for adventure. While the idea of the monkey’s narrow escape from danger was introduced in the first Curious George story created by the Reys in France, the concept of “saving the day” is only used in their later books written while in the safety of the United States. By the time the man with the yellow hat comes to his rescue, George’s capers have already been mitigated with some poetic justice, which may be understood as emblematic of the important role the character had played both in saving the Reys’ lives when fleeing Nazi Europe and later helping them rebuild their careers in the United States. In turn, the little monkey born in France acts out the fantasies of many immigrants: he lands an acting job in Hollywood soon upon arrival, advances research by traveling in a spaceship, and makes it to the front page of newspapers, all the while becoming thoroughly Americanized.

The exhibition will be on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum from November 14, 2010-March 13, 2011. Throughout the duration of the show the Museum will present a variety of programs for adults and families.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum | "Curious George Saves the Day" | Margret and H. A. Rey |




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