Wednesday, December 12

How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

by Jacques Prevert
translated and illustrated by Mordecai Gerstein
Roaring Brook 2007
originally published as pour faire le portrait d'un oiseau
by editions GALLIARD 1949

Thankfully, and perhaps because of its age, the publisher has refrained from printing "From the acclaimed screenwriter of the French classic Children of Paradise" because that would have prevented me from picking the book up at all.

Actually I was drawn to the book by the illustrations. From half way across the room I saw the cover and said "Is that a new Gerstein book?" because there's just something about his style that is distinctive to me. A few pages in and I knew I was in some sort of picture book trance. There is something about the language, the pacing, something that ultimately has to do with patience.

In short sentences we are given specific instructions on how to paint the portrait of a bird. The illustrations show us a boy in bed visited by a blue and yellow bird on his open windowsill. Carefully we are instructed that one is to paint a cage, and supply it with a treat, and then take that painting out to the woods and set down beside a tree, there to wait. The bird follows and sits on a branch above the painting. Eventually the patience is rewarded as the bird enters the 2-dimensional plane of the painting where the boy carefully is instructed to close the 3-dimensional cage door. Once captured on the canvas the instructions explain how to carefully erase the cage and in it's place paint a tree for the bird to sit on. you can then take the painting home to enjoy the bird in the privacy of your room where, come sun-up, the bird will fly off the canvas. You can always paint another bird tomorrow, you are reminded.

(For a translation of the poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti go here. Note that the book continues beyond the last line of the poem. You can leaf through the book online here.)

What is at first odd, then comforting about the text is how contemporary it feels while at the same time feeling classic. That Prevert was a poet as well as a screenwriter is evident in the deliberation used to give us instruction; there is a respect for the nature of time as well as the arc of the narrative. What Gerstein brings to the party are the things not spoken, the watercolor, pen, and ink world that permits objects in different dimensional planes to co-exist and interact. Nothing changes in the illustrations but our perspectives as we learn both how to "paint" the surrounding imagery in order to "capture" the nature of the thing observed. It's also a lesson in capturing the moment, giving it temporary shelter, and then releasing the moment in order to re-experience it again in the future.

I'd gladly accept a 90% reduction in new releases of picture books if it meant more like this was the result. It has the depth of European title and the approachability of an American book and, for the early picture book set, is clearly one of the smartest titles in the room.
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