AMHERST — Peter Sís is a victim of his own uniqueness. Truly, there is no one like him: a children’s book author of rare intellectual sophistication and ambition; a wholly contemporary illustrator whose greatest visual affinity may be with medieval illuminated manuscripts; a maker of art of surpassing sweetness that’s shot through with a consistent melancholy. Oh, and he was a 2003 MacArthur “genius” fellow.
Sís loves birds. It no doubt pleases him that his name rhymes with “geese.” Perhaps it also pleases him that it’s impossible to pigeonhole his work. Spiritually aerial, Sís’s art is resolutely on the wing. These rather grand claims are borne out by a visit to “The Picture Book Odysseys of Peter Sís.” It runs at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art through Oct. 27.
Sís also loves maps and, what is not quite the same thing, mapping: the activity that produces the artifact. One way to understand his art is as an atlas of the imagination. We associate maps with space (geography). Sís’s maps are just as much about time (history). He simultaneously operates in three realms: past, present, and fantastic. Maps that predate the Age of Discovery would often bear the warning “Here be monsters.” Every page of Sís’s work could have written on it (in invisible ink, of course, so as not to mar the drawings): Here be magic.
His style is at once distinctive and elusive. So much of both the distinctiveness and elusiveness have to do with his preference for implication over declaration. His often-surreal images feel so calm, even soothing (as surrealism never does) because of how understated they are. He uses color as a kind of visual perfume: It evokes more than it describes. His colors are unemphatic to the point of being quiet — except when they’re not. The forcefulness of the blue that Sís uses to indicate the nighttime sky in an illustration from “Starry Messenger” (1996), his biography of Galileo, dominates the page. The dominance comes in large part through his willingness to use a beige-buff background for the remaining space. Juxtaposition, that secret weapon of surrealism, can take many forms.
Texture is even more important in Sís’s art than color. He loves stippling and shading and delicacy of line. He demonstrates a miniaturist’s altertness to the possibilities offered by smallness of scale. An almost-mystical particularity can result from the accumulation of exacting and unexpected details. It’s the ardent and eruptive finicalness of detailing that connects Sís with medieval manuscripts. In both cases, what happens in the margins is every bit as interesting, and sometimes more so, as what happens in the middle.
So many of the images, teeming with activity, are dense with enchantment. Sís’s “Play, Mozart, Play!” (2006), is about the composer as a child. Yet what comes to mind at the Carle Museum is something by a very different composer (and lyricist). Might it be a song from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific”? Correct, except that the title is slightly different, not “Some Enchanted Evening” but “Some Enchanted Everything.”
The magic that informs Sís’s books comes as a kind of birthright. Born in 1949, he grew up in Prague, that most supernatural of European cities: from fairy-tale cityscape to status as source of both the golem and Kafka’s parables. “The Three Golden Keys” (1994) educes the city’s interweaving of mysteriousness and dailiness as a characteristically Sísian blend of the marvelous and precise.
The place of the magical in Sís’s life extends all the way to Tibet. He was 4 when his father, a filmmaker, was sent there to document the building of a highway by the Chinese Communists. Cut off by a landslide, he spent nearly two years wandering through the Himalayas, finally reaching Lhasa and meeting the Dalai Lama. Sís records these events in what would seem his most fantastical book, “Tibet Through the Red Box” (1998), except that the events did happen.
The interplay of (visual) fantasticality and (actual) history runs throughout his work. “Starry Messenger,” which may be his single most beautiful book, was preceded by a biography of Christopher Columbus (“Follow the Dream,” 1991) and succeeded by biographies of Charles Darwin (“The Tree of Life,” 2003) and the French author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (“The Pilot and the Little Prince,” 2014).
Each was an explorer of one sort or another and embodied intellectual freedom. Freedom and the frequent appearance of birds in Sís’s work go together. He pays specific tribute to the latter in “The Conference of the Birds” (2010), inspired by a 12th-century Persian poem. Their taking literal flight is something with personal resonance. In 1984, Sís defected to the United States from Communist Czechoslovakia. “The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain” (2007) takes a subject that would seem alien to even the worldliest child and, as with Sís’s other books, lends it an irresistible enchantment (that word again).
“Conference” is the one book by Sís not meant for children, though the beauty and quirkiness of its avian characters would charm any youngster. Sís has done children’s books with more conventional subjects: fire trucks and ballerinas and ice cream and dinosaurs and other animals. But those animals, like the birds in “Conference,” retain a Sísian idiosyncrasy. The title creatures of “Rainbow Rhino” (1987) and “Komodo!” (1993) are not commonly found in publishing petting zoos. The whale of “An Ocean World” (1992) is much more traditional as subject, but there’s nothing traditional about the hushed majesty of Sís’s treatment of the cetacean and its underwater neighbors. His presenting the images without any text enhances the book’s sense of mute wonder.
Sís’s art is not restricted to children’s books. What is likely his best-known work is a poster for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority that shows Manhattan as a whale: the map as mammal, the mammal as map. It is at once surreal, playful, simple, intricate, monumental, unexpected, striking, sly, and (not least of all) formally daring, thanks to its radically horizontal orientation. In other words, it is unique, which is to say Sísian.
“Odysseys” covers an entire career. “William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble: A Golden Anniversary” covers a single book in a career even longer and more productive than Sís’s has so far been. The exhibition runs through Dec. 1. Steig’s many years at The New Yorker, where he did more than 100 covers and some 1,600 drawings, and the vast success of the movies inspired by his “Shrek!” (1990), ensure that he is far better known than Sís.
“Sylvester,” the third of Steig’s 40 books for children, relates the story of the title character, a donkey, who finds himself not so much between a rock and a hard place as in a hard place (metaphorical) that is a rock (literal). The show includes three dozen original drawings, both preliminary studies and published illustrations. In geological homage, the show features an artificial boulder in the center of the gallery. That’s eye-catching, but no more so, on closer inspection, than the several bamboo ink pens Steig liked to use and his diminishing glass. That’s the opposite of a magnifying glass. Magic pebbles are all well and good — so are donkeys — but tools of the trade are right up there, too.
THE PICTURE BOOK ODYSSEYS OF PETER SÍS
WILLIAM STEIG’S SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE: A GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY
At Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. 125 West Bay Road, Amherst, through Oct. 27 and Dec. 1, respectively. 414-559-6300, www.carlemuseum.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.