Jutta Bauer Queen of the Realm of Colors

Children’s book illustrator Jutta Bauer; © photo: Ute Karen Seggelke
Children’s book illustrator Jutta Bauer | Photo (detail): © Ute Karen Seggelke

Jutta Bauer’s most important means of expression is color. The illustrator started her career as a cartoonist; today she is one of the best known children’s book artists in Europe.

In 1998, with her Die Königin der Farben (Queen of Colors), Jutta Bauer ascended to the children’s books throne after a career spanning more a decade and half as illustrator and cartoonist. The Queen of Colors is, of course, herself. How this Queen Malwida in the prize-winning children’s book commands the three primary colors, expostulates and disputes with them, and finally how they and she are reconciled before she lets loose a many-colored game with her three subjects in a grand finale – that is the dream of every draughtswoman. It is certainly the dream of Bauer, who more than any other German illustrator has made color her primary means of expression.

Caricature and sketch-like style

Poetic tone, simple pictures – “Königin der Farben” (Queen of Colors) Poetic tone, simple pictures – “Königin der Farben” (Queen of Colors) | Photo: Jutta Bauer © Beltz Verlagsgruppe Initially Bauer was perceived to be primarily a cartoonist. The line drawn by Bauer, who was born in 1955 in Hamburg, is in fact caricature-like. It comes from America, from Peter Arno and William Steig and from Tomi Ungerer, the Alsatian. He gave the Americans completely new lines when he went to New York in the fifties. The influences of Ronald Searle, Sempé, Hans Traxler and Claire Bretécher may also be seen in Bauer’s work, to name a few of her European roots. But more than these teachers, the German draughtswomen emphasizes the sketch-like element. At the start of her career, Bauer rendered services only to texts by other authors.

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That changed in 1995 with the first book of her own: Abends, wenn ich schlafen geh (At Night, When I Go to Bed). Bauer’s text for this little book is so short that it can be quoted here in full: “At night, when I go to bed, fourteen foxes stand around me, two to my right, two to my left, two at my head, two at my feet, two that cover me up, two that wake me up, two that point me the way to Paradise” (“Abends, wenn ich schlafen geh, vierzehn Füchse bei mir stehn, zwei zu meiner Rechten, zwei zu meiner Linken, zwei zu meinen Häupten, zwei zu meinen Füßen, zwei, die mich decken, zwei, die mich wecken, zwei, die mich weisen in himmlische Paradeisen“). The lack of regard for rules of grammar and spelling in this poem, reminiscent of a child’s prayer, make the origin of these lines immediately clear: the nursery of Bauer’s flat. Her son Jasper was born in 1986, and by the end of his first decade of life his mother had created all sorts of rewards, appeasements and conciliatory gifts, which she then detached from their private context and published as her own books. To this series belongs Schreimutter (Scream-Mother), the children’s book that was to bring the illustrator the 2001 German Youth Literature Award.

Little to read, a lot to see

The insight that can be gained from Bauer’s children’s books is this: there is infinitely more to see than to hear. None of these books may require more than a minute to read, but they are still a lasting pleasure. This is true of Selma, Die Königin der Farben (Queen of Colors), Liebespaa... küsst euch ma... (Lovers … Go On and Kiss…), Opas Engel (Grandpa’s Angel), Engel & anderes Geflügel (Angels and Other Poultry) and even Ich ging durch die Hölle (I Went through Hell), which is more in the way of a cartoon book. To begin with, the delectation with which these texts can be read is thanks to their concision and that they deliberately refrain from being more than suitable cues for children to the illustrations. And then it is thanks above all to the pictures themselves, which make out of the few minutes reading a quarter or even a half hour of reading pleasure because you cannot see enough of these large, lavish motifs.

Much love in small formats

“Juli und das Monster” (Julie and the Monster), illustration for a story by Kirsten Boie “Juli und das Monster” (Julie and the Monster), illustration for a story by Kirsten Boie | Photo: Jutta Bauer © Beltz Verlagsgruppe This applies even to the smallest of these works, Selma (1997), the story of a self-sufficient and just for this reason happy sheep. Selma is still Bauer’s best-selling book, although it had a completely incidental origin. Bauer used the free strips of a print sheet to make a quick annual present for friends. Because the printer had a strict deadline for this work, Bauer finished her story consisting of 24 pictures in a single night; as a stimulus, she listened to a radio conversation with a woman farmer. The rest is children’s book history. Bauer has remained true to her love of short formats. A common characteristic of her short books is that their plots refrain from all non-essential elements and embed the characters in nothing else but that realm over which Bauer is queen: colors.

Feeling comfortable with various techniques

“Schreimutter” – small rings of smoke “Schreimutter” – small rings of smoke | Photo: Jutta Bauer © Beltz Verlagsgruppe The illustrations of her children’s books are now mainly done in watercolors, though when Bauer began her career illustrating other authors’ texts she preferred to work, just like a cartoonist, with colored pencils. How comfortably she uses the specific effects of these techniques may be seen, for example, in Schreimutter in such details as the small rings of smoke coming from a steamship. They are done, like the only sketched outline of a cabin structure, in wax crayon, whose broken, black application stands out against the flat watercolor background. Other pictures in this book, such as a sunset in the Sahara, are done by using watercolors and colored inks to fill in sketches in colored pencil. In the use of her tools, Bauer is as playful as Malwida, her Queen of Colors. We cannot expect that a ruler such as she favors one of her subjects over another. Accordingly, Jutta Bauer’s palette will continue to have a surprisingly wide range.