Dr. Seuss’ formal art training was limited to one high school art class that he never completed. Yet, he went on to become a professional draftsman and a lifelong, serious student of art.
We see this student clearly in Seuss’ latest posthumously published book, “Dr. Seuss’s Horse Museum.” It was discovered in fragmentary form in 2012. The editors of Random House and Ohio State University art historian Terry Barrett put it together editorially, and veteran children’s book illustrator Andrew Joyner turned Seuss’ plans and rough sketches into polished pages.
It looks like a typical Dr. Seuss book for children and is marketed as such, but Random House has given us a book that is unlike anything else in the Seuss canon. It doesn’t rhyme. It features paintings by Georges Seurat, Lucian Freud, Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso and Edouard Manet, among many others.
A wag might say that this is not your kid’s Dr. Seuss, even though it is packaged in the form of a regular Dr. Seuss book. That gets it full points for novelty but, is it any good? And what is it good for?
“Dr. Seuss’s Horse Museum” begins with the question, “Art. What’s it all about?” The short answer: “Art is when an artist looks at something, like a horse, for instance, and they see something in that horse that excites them, so they do something about it. They tell you about it, in any one of a number of ways.”
This approach is promising. Humans have been drawing horses since we started marking up cave walls. When you can see how everyone from Paleolithic painters to Picasso rendered the same creature, it might tell you something about a number of things, from the development of form and technique to our changing relationship with the horse.
Dr. Seuss takes a different, more individualistic tack –- with insights that can still be useful to those who approach the subject more rigorously. He focuses on what the artist “sees,” from the form and rendering of the individual pieces. From both a Susan Rothenberg drawing and stone etchings, for instance, Seuss says that “some artists look at a horse and see its outlines.”
Seuss judges that the oil painter Charles Verlat “looked at a horse and saw strength.” Others saw “speed”; “color”; a throne for royalty; and even, in the case of Pegasus, immortality. “Greek artists painted horses with wings as symbols for ideas – like immortality – that are hard to show in a picture,” the book explains.
Ernest Meissonier’s 1807 painting “Friedland” produces my favorite and most classically Seussian insight. Meissonier pictures a great mass of military riders on horseback, some charging into battle but some just sitting there, almost bored, waiting for what is in front of them to clear up so they can get about their business. To Meissonier, says Seuss, “the horse was a Jeep, in the days before the Jeep was invented.”
While there are obviously many more things that we could say about all of these works of art, trying to distill a piece down to one overarching trait is a useful exercise. However, the book doesn’t just leave it at that. All art is featured twice: first in the main text as part of the reader’s virtual museum tour and then again right after the story is over, so that readers can gain some context and decide if they want to explore further.
These thumbnail notes include potted biography and history. The entry on Verlat’s 1864 oil painting “Horses Straining at a Load” tells us: “Horses, dogs, cats, birds, tigers, and buffalo are among the many animals painted by Belgian artist Charles Verlat – who also painted portraits and historical subjects. But he is perhaps best known for his satirical paintings of monkeys dressed in clothing and behaving like humans.”
In 1961, Newton Minow was new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. At a meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters, he told television network executives that what they were producing was a “procession of game shows, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.” This all amounted to a “vast wasteland,” and they ought to be ashamed of themselves.
I bring this up here because one of the network execs (perhaps apocryphally) replied that, sure, what they were producing left room for improvement, but the American television audience was just “not ready for Shakespeare.” And I wonder if parental buyers of “Dr. Seuss’s Horse Museum” will be ready for what happens when they buy this book for their precocious children. At the very least, they’re going to want you to take them to a museum after.
• Jeremy Lott is creator of the comic book “Movie Men.”
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DR. SEUSS’S HORSE MUSEUM
By Dr. Seuss
Illustrated by Andrew Joyner
Random House, $18.99, 77 pages
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