The Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University reopens September 1, after an August hiatus, with an exhibition of work by beloved children’s book illustrators Jean and Mou-sien Tseng.
“Maples in the Mist: Chinese Poems for Children” in the museum’s Duvoisin Gallery brings together art and children’s literature.
Earlier in the year, the Zimmerli presented this exhibition in a curator-led Art After Hours program and musical performance. At that time, Marilyn Symmes, director of the Morse Research Center for Graphic Arts and curator of the museum’s prints and drawings presented vibrant images by the Taiwanese husband and wife team whose illustrations have introduced some of the celebrated poets of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) to a contemporary audience. “These are poems that have been popular since the 18th century and many Chinese children today learn to read by reciting these poems,” she said. The poems were translated into English by Minfong Ho with the aim of introducing her own children and those of others to traditional Chinese culture. Each image in the exhibition is accompanied by the poem that inspired it.
“The Tang Dynasty is known as the golden age of poetry in China’s 2000-year literary history and the Tsengs’ illustrations are a captivating introduction to that rich heritage,” said Ms. Symmes who organized the exhibition with Beth McKeown, former assistant curator of prints and drawings.
The 22 original watercolors on view were chosen from the Zimmerli’s extensive collection of original artwork for children’s books. The Tsengs’ book was published in 1996; they donated their original watercolor illustrations to the museum in 1998. Each image demonstrates the Tsengs’ mastery of composition and color.
The illustrators capture the coziness of traditional customs against a rural backdrop to yield glimpses of domestic life with some nostalgia. In their illustration of “Traveler’s Song” by Meng Jia we see a mother mending her son’s coat by candlelight before he leaves home. Their image for “Quiet Night” by Li Bai, shows a young man in bed, gazing at the moon and longing for home.
The Tsengs’ feeling for nature finds expression in their illustration to “Symmetry” by Du Fu in which a flock of white egrets fly between willow trees in the foreground and majestic snow-capped mountains in the distance. See also their tender treatment of sunset for “Climbing Stork Tower” by Wang Zhi-Huan.
The exhibition uses three preliminary sketches by the Tsangs to show their creative process in working toward an illustration for Wang Jian’s poem “Little Pine.” The working drawings document the artists at work in developing the pose, clothing, and gesture of a little boy tending a sapling.
According to Museum Director Suzanne Delehanty, the images “demonstrate the craft and process of designing books before computer-generated illustrations became common practice.”
Born in Taiwan in 1940 and 1935, respectively, Jean and Mou-sien Tseng met while studying art at the National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei. Since the couple immigrated to the United States in 1974, they have illustrated more than 30 children’s books, including The Seven Chinese Brothers by Margaret Mahy (Scholastic, 1990), Kenji and the Magic Geese by Ryerson Johnson (Simon & Shuster, 1992), and Fa Mulan by Robert D. San Souci (Hyperion, 1998). In 1999, they illustrated White Tiger, Blue Serpent (HarperCollins) by their daughter Grace. They now live on Long Island, New York.
“Maples in the Mist: Chinese Poems for Children Illustrated by Jean & Mou-sien Tseng” is at the Zimmerli Art Museum at 71 Hamilton Street at George Street on the College Avenue campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Hours are: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and major holidays. Admission: $6 for adults; $5 (65 and over); free for museum members, children under 18, and Rutgers students, faculty, and staff (with ID), and on the first Sunday of every month. For more information, call (848) 932-7237 or visit: www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.