Art & Lit

Childhood Memories: Remembering Dick Bruna

Simon and Schuster

When I first learned of Dick Bruna’s death I was, fittingly, sitting below the watchful eye of his most famous creation, Miffy, whose image hangs on the calendar above my desk. On 16th February, Bruna died at the age of 89, remembered by millions around the globe who, like me, grew up under Miffy’s innocent gaze, and those continue to do so.

Born into a family of printers on 23rd August 1927, Bruna was once primed for life on the other side of the publishing desk. His father was a publisher for A.W. Bruna & Zoon, a company which Dick Bruna would eventually join in 1951. During the World War Two, Bruna began drawing and painting whilst in refuge in the Netherlands with his family. Visits from designers and illustrators who worked for his father’s company offered inspiration, and even lessons, to the young Dick Bruna, who was increasingly interested in art. However, after the war, Bruna embarked upon a number of placements at bookshops, including the Broese bookshop in Utrecht, W.H. Smith in London and at the Plon publishing company in Paris, arranged by his father to give him greater experience of publishing. Yet, these placements had the opposite effect, with Paris exposing Bruna to Matisse and Léger, whose work inspired him to spend more of his time drawing. Upon his return to the Netherlands, he enrolled at the Rijksakademie for fine art in Amsterdam, but dropped out in favour of teaching himself the skills he required, and joined his father’s company as a designer. Here he went on to create approximately 2,000 book covers and posters, as well designing logos and posters for other non-literary clients and charities, most frequently the City of Utrecht, who presented Utrecht-born Bruna with a Lapel Pin of the City of Utrecht in 1987, followed by a special Golden Lapel Pin in 2007.

Bruna is perhaps the most fitting subject for Art & Lit, his life and work reflecting the origins of great children’s literature in art, and his talent inspiring a shared love of both across multiple generations.

It was in 1953 that Bruna published his first picture book, The Apple, beginning a career of writing and illustrating that produced over 120 books. His first books bore some of the qualities that became the hallmarks of Bruna’s popularity, such as bright drawings and simple text, but were originally published in a rectangular format unfamiliar to many of his readers today. The rectangular format was dropped in 1959 in favour of square books with hard covers, more manageable for the little hands of his young readers. It was in this format that Miffy was received around the world, appearing in more than 30 books written over 56 years.

And it is undeniably Miffy for which Bruna will be best remembered. Bruna’s birthplace boasts the Miffy Museum dedicated to the fictional rabbit, whose adventures have been translated into 50 languages, and have sold over 85 million copies across the globe. Intrinsic to the stories’ success was Bruna’s artworks, exercises in bold lines and primary colours. There may have been four lines of rhyming text on each page, but these words only ever told half the story, for the rest was always bound up in the minimalist prints that accompanied them. The only thing Bruna’s illustrations have in excess is feeling, and even here the subtler detail produces the stronger emotion, with Miffy is Crying relying on single tears to convey her upset. Bruna was careful never to depict his characters in profile, usually drawing Miffy looking straight at the reader, using direct gaze to increase her emotional impact.  Indeed, Bruna’s attention to detail was startling, his talent lying in his ability to do more with less, to use simplicity to form a universal language, extending to young enough only to recognise images.

It is for this approach that Bruna is perhaps the most fitting subject for Art & Lit, his life and work reflecting the origins of great children’s literature in art, and his talent inspiring a shared love of both across multiple generations.

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