“Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic,” an enchanting exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, reawakens the childhood magic of reading.
A.A. Milne’s gymnastic prose, Ernest H. Shepard’s canny illustrations, and their books’ clarion understanding of the ordinary joys and dilemmas of early youth became a worldwide phenomenon and an early merchandising success in the 1920s.
The exhibition, organized by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and on view through Jan. 6, explores Pooh’s considerable scope, from Russia’s Vinni-Pukh to Disney’s 1966 screen adaptation and beyond. But the key takeaway is the alchemy that occurs when a child snuggles beside a grown-up and imbibes a beautifully crafted story. (Because of the show’s anticipated popularity, admission requires a timed-entry ticket).
Milne, also a playwright, knew how to move a tale along with chatty tone and nimble dialogue. His words have music and rhythm: Rum-tum-tum-tiddle-ums and bump-bump-bumps. Milne and Shepard’s page designs are equally playful: When Pooh climbs a giant tree to find honey, the accompanying sentence runs like a ladder alongside the illustration, a word on each rung, and the reader’s eye bump-bump-bumps down the page.
Meghan Melvin, the MFA’s curator of design, and her exhibition team bring the pair’s wizardry to three dimensions in what turns out to be a muscular pushback against the marvels of screens. Here, with images and words blown up onto walls and hanging from the ceilings, it’s like being inside the book itself — not Pooh’s world of the Hundred Acre Wood and environs, but amid the jouncing text and congenial illustrations. The exhibition stands at the miraculous threshold where language and picture coalesce and come alive inside a reader’s imagination.
There are nooks and crannies, doorways for small people to pass through, a slide, and a stairway where you can sit halfway down, per one of the poems in the first book in which Pooh appeared, “When We Were Very Young.” Galleries with striped wallpaper and crown moldings recall rooms where Milne might have lived with his wife, Daphne, and their son, the original Christopher Robin.
“It started in the nursery; it started with me,” wrote Christopher Milne in his memoir, “The Enchanted Places.” Then his mother joined him, “and she and I and the toys played together, and gradually more life, more character flowed into them, until they reached a point at which my father could take over.”
The Pooh tales were deeply layered. Milne brought his own boyhood experiences to his writing; he and his brother Ken would go on adventures rather like Christopher Robin’s “expotitions.” His books followed in a fantastical English literary tradition that includes characters such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. As a playwright, he adapted Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows” into “Toad of Toad Hall.”
Shepard, meanwhile, a popular illustrator who favored black-and-white ink drawings, had a keen sense of composition and a graceful pen. He applied a terrific economy of line to the stuffed animals he brought to life from Christopher Milne’s nursery (Pooh was, in fact, a hybrid of Christopher Robin’s teddy and Shepard’s son’s bear). He expressed emotional complexity in the tilt of a head or the crook of a back.
By the time Shepard and Milne first collaborated on “When We Were Very Young,” in 1924, they were in their forties, but they clearly had not lost touch with the spirit and wonder of childhood. The innocence that they bottled in their pages doubtless heartened a readership still staggering after World War I.
My favorite gallery, more for grown-up viewers, drills down into the craft of “Winnie-the-Pooh” – writing, illustration, and typography (words skitter, fly, and are Capitalized for Emphasis) – and demonstrates how Shepard fleshed out Milne’s cues and reinforced his themes.
The drawing “For a long time, they looked at the river beneath them,” from “House at Pooh Corner,” illustrates a moment after a round of Poohsticks, a game Pooh invents in which he and his friends toss sticks off a bridge, and we learn of the perils of falling into the river. Eeyore meets that fate after being bounced there by Tigger. He is, it needn’t be said, very Wet.
At the end, we are left with Christopher Robin, Pooh, and Piglet on the bridge, gazing placidly at the slow slip of the water below. Shepard puts Piglet slightly behind Pooh, holding on to him, reminding us (as Piglet himself is so keenly aware) that he is small and vulnerable, and, as is his way, something of a worrier.
The Pooh books remained black and white for decades; it wasn’t until the 1970s, when Shepard was in his 90s and Milne (who died in 1956) was long gone, that he returned to the illustrations and added color. These images are in the final gallery. They need to be here, but they have an intriguing effect.
Color appears sparingly, but enough, in earlier galleries – the Disney movie is duly noted in a merchandising section, and some of the blown-up illustrations on the walls are color; there’s a bridge over a digitally animated river.
After Shepard’s rich ink drawings, his full-color illustrations feel like a needless onslaught. The black-and-white left so much to imagine. Color dulled the lovely, whirring rum-tum-tum-tiddle-ums of my own mind.
Nearby, Melvin has installed early and later editions of the books. I recognized the yellow-covered “Winnie-the-Pooh” from my childhood. I don’t remember reading it, or having it read to me. The Disney movie, which I watched on television, enjoying the soft, humble growl of voice actor Sterling Holloway’s Pooh, obliterated the reading experience from my memory.
And, in the interests of time and animation, the movie dampened the book’s vigor, humanity, and sheer, humming wit. The luxurious visuals of film and digital animation don’t open up the same fertile field in the mind’s eye that Milne and Shepard did. Or, more precisely, the same Hundred Acre Wood.
WINNIE-THE-POOH: Exploring a Classic
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Jan. 6.617-267-9300, www.mfa.org