Call it curious george and the Great Proletarian Revolution. The art of a mischievous little monkey and of a mischievous Communist are on display in two separate shows this winter. Curious George opened up a world of possibilities for generations of children in the West, while Mao dictated culture to a generation in the East. They both did it in vivid colour.
The Curious George exhibit is as much about creators H.A. Rey and Margret Rey as it is about the monkey.
The show is a book-by-book voyage through the creation of each beloved story. From Curious George Takes A Job to Curious George Goes To The Hospital, we get to see the process from sketch through dummy page to finished page, as colours, lines and lively storylines combine to create the wonderfully illustrated tales.
The Reys created many other delightful characters like Pretzel the wiener dog, Whiteblack the penguin and Katy No Pocket the disabled kangaroo, but none so thoroughly captured the imagination of children as Curious George (known to the Brits by the name of Zozo so as not to offend the memory of King George).
Unfortunately, the exhibit tries to demonstrate the monkey's lasting influence through a series of yellow hats decorated by celebrities. Bette Midler covered hers in satin roses, to the dismay of people with taste everywhere, while Today Show co-host Matt Lauer attached a Curious George doll that's eating a hot dog while waving an American flag.
Entering the Art Of The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution exhibit at the Power Plant, you are immediately confronted by a portrait of Chairman Mao himself casually strolling through hills that look like the set from The Sound Of Music. Smoking a cigarette in a grey collarless suit, he resembles a combination of the Marlboro Man and Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies.
The exhibit is full of posters and paintings from the period in history when art and propaganda were one and the same. Whether depicting an idyllic vision of the life of rural peasants under the Communist regime or a call to arms, the quality of the work was superb.
Images from newspapers in stark black and red, the favoured colour of the Cultural Revolution, line a wall. Stunning paintings with masterful colour and composition show proletarian youth supporting their country. Delicate sketches and crafted woodblock prints portray the simple pleasures of the common peasant's life.
Expect to see a lot of Mao, a man who was vain in the name of the cause. An entire wall of portraits of the man is awash in so much gold and Communist red that it feels like a glorious sunrise. There's nothing unintentional about this art.
The excellent show coincides with a popular return of Mao's image both in China and abroad, this time driven by commercial interests rather than the Communist ideal.
H.A. Rey and margret rey at TD Gallery (Toronto Reference Library, 789 Yonge), to Feb 2. 416-395-5577. Rating: NNNN
art of the great proletarian cultural revolution at the Power Plant (231 Queen's Quay West), to Mar 2. 416-973-4949. Rating: NNNN