Lifestyle

COMMENTARY | JENEé OSTERHELDT

A walk through the MFA’s Winnie-the-Pooh exhibit wraps visitors in warmth

Print of Pooh sitting on a branch with honeypots by Ernest Howard Shepard, 1970.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Print of Pooh sitting on a branch with honeypots by Ernest Howard Shepard, 1970.

It’s cold outside. Not just the frigid winds, but the political climate of our country.

But a walk through the Hundred Acre Wood at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts wraps me in warmth, reminding me all is not lost. Even a silly old bear has a smackerel of hope.

Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic,” on display through Jan. 6, is not just an exhibit. It’s a reconciliation of the bitter and sweet of life.

I don’t feel very much like Pooh today, said Pooh.

There, there, said Piglet. I’ll bring you tea and honey until you do.

—Winnie-the-Pooh

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Cartoons, when done well, don’t just happy-wash our existence. They grapple with our ups and downs.

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When “SpongeBob SquarePants” creator Stephen Hillenburg died last month, fans paid tribute to the man who made a cartoon that gave us not just the eternally optimistic SpongeBob, but the unapologetically angry and sometimes sad Squidward.

We celebrated Pixar’s “Inside Out” for showing us the importance of being able to express sadness. We love Peanuts for Charlie Brown and his never-ending quests to kick that ball, or get candy for Halloween instead of rocks, or find The Little Red-Haired Girl.

We feel less alone in our fails and dark times when our favorite characters go through it, too.

“Some of these cartoons depict complex emotional lives that people themselves experience and so they see a bit of their own life in these cartoons,” says Lisa Feldman Barrett, Northeastern psychology professor and author of “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.”

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As a student, a professor once gave Barrett “Winnie-the-Pooh” as a reading assignment. The students were to diagnose the characters.

“Eeyore is depressed, Winnie-the-Pooh has positive illusions, Piglet is anxious, Tigger is kind of manic, Rabbit is interpersonally suspicious. They each have their own thing,” Barrett found.

She thinks the popularity of Pooh is partly because of the complexity and subtlety with which these emotions are addressed.

“Sometimes it’s done humorously and sometimes it’s done poignantly,” she said, “but it is always in a way that allows people to identify with the characters.”

Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and Kenneth Grahame’s classic “The Wind in the Willows” came long before author A.A. Milne and illustrator E.H. Shepard gave us “Winnie-the-Pooh” in 1926. But Pooh and friends have transcended generations in a different way.

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The quirky band of animal friends decorate nurseries, sit on office desks, and are given as gifts.

There is a staying power and lasting relevance in the tenderhearted tales with the courage to color our wins and losses, our smiles and tears, our love, laughter, and pains.

Maybe it’s because Milne was inspired by his son Christopher Robin and the actual toys he played with. That intimacy pours over to the readers.

Meghan Melvin, the MFA’s Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf curator of design, says there is no one answer to Pooh’s popularity. But Milne and Shepard being World War I veterans, and the book’s first readers being survivors of that conflict, can’t be overlooked.

“This book came out and was a huge success in the 1920s with an audience who had lived through the first World War, and all of these young men and women whose lives were devastated by war and were lucky enough to be buying books for their children,” Melvin says. “I think there’s an undertone, longing for this idyllic world but also addressing these feelings and having been through the horrors of war. What do you long for, for your children and yourself? As light and as funny as Pooh is, part of it comes out of that experience.”

Milne looked at life poetically. Eeyore isn’t sad for the sake of being sad. His character came to be that way because the real-life stuffed animal had started out new and sat upright, but life wore him down and his head began to hang. Owl and Rabbit weren’t part of Christopher Robin’s gang of toys at the Milne home. The characters were added to push the imaginary world further dramatically.

“Winnie-the-Pooh” and “The House at Pooh Corner,” two books, have led to almost a century of cartoons, movies, toys, merch, and spin-off stories. The bear is a billion-dollar brand. The books have been translated in more than 50 languages. Pooh has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the original toys that inspired the stories sit on display at the New York Public Library.

It’s been more than 90 years, and the honey pot just keeps giving.

In August, Disney released “Christopher Robin,” a live-action Pooh story that reminds us of the importance of living in the moment and how dismal life can be when we lose ourselves to work. Pooh has to drag a grown-up Christopher Robin back into the world of play and imagination and show him the power of being present.

As I pushed through the tiny doors and played on the steps and crossed the bridge at the Museum of Fine Arts exhibit, I found myself bursting with excitement and the freedom to feel my sadness, too.

Among the original sketches by Shepard and notes from Milne, there’s an image of Pooh and Piglet on the bridge with Christopher Robin that tattooed itself on my heart. I’m an Eeyore kind of gal, but there’s something so honest about the way Shepard drew the scene. A scared little Piglet stands behind Pooh, worried he might accidently slip through the bridge, and tenderly holding the bear’s leg as if he wants to steady his friend. Christopher Robin is up above them, growing up and away depending on how you look at it.

And that’s the beauty of cartoons and comics. You can say so much with an image.

Christopher Weyant, a New Yorker cartoonist whose work also appears in The Boston Globe, says the magic of cartooning is that it allows us to use humor to approach things that are challenging.

“When I was a kid, I loved ‘Winnie-the-Pooh,’ ” Weyant says. “It has this melancholy sadness and is also kind of zen. Pooh is this fascinating character, who is in the moment with no expectation of what’s to come. People come in and out of your life, you enjoy them while you have them and eat your honey. There are so many parts of our personalities reflected in the entire Hundred Acre Wood, but I think Pooh is the balance, he’s the one we’d like to be someday.”

In a world that’s often hard to bear, Pooh reminds us to just show up with love and move forward. He’s not so much a bear of very little brain. He’s a bear of very big heart.

Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.