All Together Now

L illian and Russell Hoban aren’t exactly household names. “But even if you don’t know who they are, you know the books,” says Elizabeth Frengel, head of research services at the Beinecke Library. Best known among the Hobans’ children’s books are six in the Frances series, including Bread and Jam for Frances and A Bargain for Frances, which Russell wrote and Lillian illustrated. According to Publishers Weekly, the series has sold more than four million copies and counting.

An overview of the Hobans’ work as a husband-and-wife team is part of a triptych of exhibits billed as + The Art of Collaboration, on view at the Beinecke through April 15. The second exhibit focuses on the collaboration of novelist Richard Wright with numerous figures of stage and screen when adapting his novel Native Son. The third is a chronological string of 18 mini-exhibits displaying the collaborative efforts of many other artistic pairs and teams, including Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan and Pablo Picasso and Saul Steinberg.

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While + The Art of Collaboration aims to “[reveal] the creative—and sometimes destructive—tensions that are parts of artistic collaboration,” as its brochure notes, it does so with a light touch, leaving many conclusions to the viewer. In the case of the Hobans, we learn something of their method of working together: Russell Hoban would draft and revise his text, then turn it over to Lillian, who would literally cut and paste it into a “dummy” book and sketch preliminary drawings. “Getting that balance of text and illustration just right… is the key to a successful children’s book,” says Frengel, who curated this portion of the exhibition.

Included in two display cases on the lower level are early drafts of many of the Hobans’ classic children’s books as well as finished drawings and first editions. Their collaboration, however, wasn’t limited to the two of them. Also contributing to the work were illustrator Garth Williams, who did the first Frances book and made her a badger; editors Ursula Nordstrom and Ferd Monjo; several writers and directors who adapted the Hobans’ last project together, The Mouse and His Child; and even the Hobans’ children. Two of their daughters remember that “at the end of the day, often [Russell would] have a set of pages, and everyone would gather around in the living room, and he would read… to the group, and they would make their comments,” Frengel says. Later, daughter Phoebe Hoban became a published biographer and collaborated with her mother on a children’s book titled Ready, Set, Robot! Another daughter, Julia, also became a writer, and son Brom illustrated one of his father’s books.

While the Hobans, who divorced in 1975 and went on to have individual careers in publishing, appear to have had a mostly productive and supportive relationship with their editors, the writer Richard Wright’s experiences with many of his collaborators were fraught. Appearing in two cases on the second floor, Richard Wright’s Native Son on Stage and Screen, curated by Melissa Barton, takes us behind the scenes of the 1941 Broadway production directed by 25-year-old Orson Welles and the 1951 film, both based on the novel. Photographs, letters, drafts of scripts and a video of Wright’s screen test for the film show what can happen when a novelist puts his work in the hands of creators with visions different from his own.

The stage version of Native Son began as a collaboration between Wright and the playwright Paul Green, who Wright’s agent, Paul Reynolds, dismissively considered “arty.” One of the largest debates centered around the amount of responsibility the character Bigger Thomas would take for the murders he commits. Tensions arose between playwright Green on one side and director Welles and producer John Houseman on the other, with Wright in the middle. The conflict led Wright to write a disgruntled sketch about “Black Man” and “White Man” (Wright and Green) debating race and capitalism, which was performed on WNYC radio during the show’s Broadway run.

Nevertheless, Wright went on to pursue the later film adaptation, which posed different problems. For one, “the story would have to be heavily altered or censored to pass Hollywood production codes and gain distribution in the South,” one exhibit label states. For that reason, it was filmed in Buenos Aires by an Argentine film company with Wright in the lead role, a bizarre choice as he was 40 years old and his character was 18. This collaboration required a director (Pierre Chenal), two producers (Jaime Prades and Atilio Mentasti), a distributor (Walter Gould) and literary agent Reynolds, among others.

The Argentine poster for the film dominates one of the cases. A melodramatic image of Wright as Thomas holds a gun whose smoke forms an ethereal cloud around a murdered white girl. Below them, the Spanish title, Sangre Negra, is written in bloody letters. Tensions were reportedly high between Chenal and Wright, and Reynolds offered faint praise for the film’s final cut, calling it “somewhat amateurish but I think valuable.”

More than anything, + The Art of Collaboration breaks down the romantic idea of the artist as an autonomous creator. Instead, we’re reminded that most of the art we consume is a collaboration of many skilled artisans, technicians and businesspeople working to bring it to fruition and then to its public. The Hoban and Wright displays examine these machinations in the familiar realms of publishing, theater and film, but the 18 mini-exhibits, curated by Nancy Kuhl, show us some more unusual partnerships.

For Asian American Tarot Deck, a group of 25 editors, artists and writers created cards based on new archetypes including “the Adoptee, Survivor, Ancestor, Lecher, Patient and Deportee” as part of a project exploring “mental health issues in Asian American communities.” These intriguing cards examine the Asian American experience as fragmented and constantly rearranged, a suggestion that would have been muted or lost had a single artist attempted to create them. In the final display case is Miss 2017, a project of the Victory Garden Collective, which created sashes reminiscent of both suffragettes and beauty queens and bearing clever titles such as “Miss Judged” and “Miss Fortune.” Worn by women attending the January 2017 Women’s March, these sashes carried a message both humorous and painful into a crowd of tens of thousands of women who were not just their audience but also participants in the work itself.

It becomes obvious that + The Art of Collaboration is itself a collaboration, and not just among curators Frengel, Barton and Kuhl. “It took a lot of the three of us meeting to try to tease out [a] balance and to see it conceptually as one show that has three very different aspects to it,” Frengel says. Then she acknowledges many of those who contributed their work as well: staff in conservation, research, editorial, design and more.

“Really,” Frengel says, “it takes the work of everyone who works here to make all of this possible.”

+ The Art of Collaboration
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library – 121 Wall St, New Haven (map)
Mon 10am-7pm, Tues-Thurs 9am-7pm, Fri 9am-5pm, Sat noon-5pm, Sun noon-4pm through April 15
(203) 432-2977
www.beinecke.library.yale.edu/exhibitions/art-collaboration

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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