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Tiger, Mog and Pink Rabbit: A Judith Kerr Retrospective

1 September 2015 | Imogen Greenberg

The Jewish Museum’s retrospective of the much-loved children’s author and illustrator Judith Kerr invites families to have tea with a life-sized Tiger, curl up in Mog’s basket and discover the childhood drawings of Judith Kerr’s escape from Hitler’s Germany. London Calling went down there and discovered an exhibition that embraces the most serious and playful elements of Kerr’s work all at once.

Judith Kerr’s story is undoubtedly remarkable. Aged just nine, her family escaped Nazi Germany. Kerr went to nine schools in four countries, and all the time drew what she saw. Despite the very little they carried with them, Kerr’s drawings survived. Aged just nine, Kerr began a lifelong desire to express the world around her, both the extraordinary and the utterly ordinary. Generations of children have fallen in love with Kerr’s work, and delighted at the extraordinary tiger in the ordinary kitchen, or the extraordinary circumstances of war seen through the eyes of an ordinary child. This exhibition explores the whole body of Kerr’s work as an illustrator and writer. It is rare, and remarkable, to see an artist’s work progress from aged 9 to 90.

Kerr put so much of herself and her story in to her work, that the exhibition feels very personal. Herself and her brother are clearly the basis for Anna and Max in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and the resemblance between a family photograph taken in Germany, and Kerr’s illustrations of the fictional family, is clear. Throughout the exhibition, the curators mark Kerr’s life against her work. The early years are inevitably darker, covering persecution in Germany and war in London. The curators have managed it well, and children are invited to sit at old-fashioned children’s classroom desks, to explore what it was like moving about, learning new languages and making new friends; Kerr’s incredible childhood drawings and the words she wrote retrospectively in later life bring it to life.

The curators have also presented a picture of wartime London; Kerr’s sketches of people sheltering from the nightly bombs sit next to a photograph of an improvised air raid shelter on the platform of Elephant & Castle station. There is archive film footage of London during the blitz, as well as photographs and classic posters of campaigns like ‘Dig for Victory’. As with the Kerr’s journey from Germany, it deftly balances the history with her personal story, and the fictionalised versions that later emerged.

The second half of the exhibition transitions, and brings Kerr’s work to the fore rather than her life. The Tiger Who Came For Tea began as a favourite story she told her children, and became one of the best-loved children’s books ever. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a miniature kitchen in which a giant tiger greets you. Most of the children love it, though one bursts in to tears in horror when she rounds the corner and is confronted by the giant tiger, who tries to console her that he’s very friendly really. The kitchen is stocked with toy food that the children are happily trashing, just like the Tiger in the story.

Next, children are invited to climb inside a giant cat basket to discover the stories of Mog the cat. As children sit in the basket, they can look up and see illustrations of Mog’s adventures in her dreams, chasing birds as she flies with butterfly wings, blown up large across the walls. This exhibition does wonderful things with scale, such as the kitchen and the cat basket, allowing children to become fully immersed in the story whilst still presenting the wonderful original drawings for those taller than 3ft. The beauty of the exhibition is that a few generations have grown up with Mog, and parents and children might both remember the stories.

The exhibition brings Kerr’s work right up to the present day, and it is personal, moving and funny. Kerr explains on film how she works in the studio at the top of her house. She continues to be inspired by her own life. My Henry was inspired by the loss of her husband, and her dreams of the time they might be spending together on adventures. The friends who have supported her since his death inspired The Great Granny Gang, a group of elderly women the youngest of whom is 82, who go on great adventures together.

Kerr’s work and her words have resonated with children and families for decades. The lasting resonance of Kerr’s work is shown through a film of a project where Kerr worked with children from Christ Church Primary School in Shieldfield, Newcastle. Many of the children are themselves refugees, learning new languages and settling in to new homes. The film includes Kerr explaining the circumstances of her own childhood, and she is gentle but also honest. Though her work is aimed at children, its inspiration has deeper resonances, which especially at the moment feel apt. This exhibition deftly balances Judith Kerr’s life story and her art with humour and sensitivity. Though aimed at children with its bold and bright displays, the beautiful illustrations and the deeper stories beneath the bright surface will capture any audience.


Tiger, Mog and Pink Rabbit: A Judith Kerr Retrospective is at the Jewish Museum until the 14th October.

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