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Benjamin’s Books: Cow and Horse by Malachy Doyle
Not unlike the writing of articles for a struggling novelist, illustration for children’s books used to be a medium with which any budding artist or design student may showcase their talent and hone their craft while providing an income that allows them the time to pursue their real artistic ambitions. All that has changed. Now the dreams of contemporary art students very often begin and end with children’s books, for there has been a growing tide of children’s illustrations of extraordinary sophistication over the past half a century or so. Picture books have been recognised and embraced not just as a method of showcasing talent but as the best means of reaching out to as many people as possible.
In Australia, leading picture book artists like Graham Base, Jeannie Baker and the incomparable Shaun Tan are marching in to galleries and museums, as picture books are no longer seen by the general public as strictly meant for children, but are increasingly respected as ‘high’ art, worthy of exultant praise in their own right.
Consider the artist Angelo Rinaldi, the illustrator of, among others, the books Cow and Horse by Malachy Doyle. To turn the pages of these books, every square millimetre of which is devoted to Rinaldi’s illustrations is comparable to the sensations experienced by examining piece after piece in a gallery exhibition. Each time the page is turned there is the same critical satisfaction, that same influx of emotions that occur when a work of art is given your attention for the first time. You could be forgiven for thinking that the overlayed text of the book, the written word, is superfluous and distracting, for the full story is perhaps better told through the images alone. Rinaldi’s depiction of the titular farm animals and the classical English rural landscapes within which they live are photo-real, masterful recreations.
From the moistness of the nose of a cow as it gazes through you (you can almost hear her breathing), to the assured replication of the depth of focus of the human eye in the depiction of the universally familiar and much loved English countryside (due in no small part to picture books by Beatrix Potter and the illustrators of Kenneth Graham and Enid Blyton’s works), you could almost feel they could have spared Angelo’s effort and used photographs instead to much the same effect. But in doing so it is this human touch, this humanness that would be lost, as the power of these books stems from the fact that every blade of grass comes directly from his hand, that this is an interpretation of the world albeit one that is near-identical to reality. It is here that the imagination is fired, and children may be awed by the fact that not only is nature beautiful beyond words, but that we are capable of such beauty also.
Art may be said to serve many purposes, but surely none greater than the inspiration of young minds. Rinaldi and his peers have revealed the potential of the picture book format as a way of introducing children to the world, and in doing so have demonstrated beyond doubt that one need look no further than their own bookshelf to encounter works of great artistic merit, to be shared and marvelled at with the same appreciation formerly reserved for the halls and corridors of the world’s greatest galleries.