Wolf Erlbruch The world from the Wuppertal perspective

The Miracle of the Bears
The Miracle of the Bears | Photo (detail): © Peter Hammer Verlag GmbH

Wolf Erlbruch’s picture books are fun for children and adults around the world. One reason for this is that the illustrator takes his art seriously. Now he was awarded the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.

Wolf Erlbruch Wolf Erlbruch | Photo (detail): © Françoise Saur Wolf Erlbruch comes from advertising, but also from art. That he has become known mainly as a picture book illustrator can only be called consistent: this profession combines the customer-oriented work of the adman with the aesthetic demands of the artist – if the illustrator takes his métier seriously. And Erlbuch takes it seriously. For this he has been awarded the highest honours in his field, ranging from the German Youth Book Prize, the Gutenberg and e.o.plauen Prizes and thrice the Silver Pen to the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the highest endowed children’s book prize in the world, which Erlbuch was given in 2017, the first German illustrator ever to receive it.

TRANSLATION INTO MORE THAN 30 LANGUAGES

Erlbruch, born in 1948, takes his profession so seriously that in 1997 he relinquished his first professorship for illustration at the Düsseldorf University of Applied Sciences when he received an appointment at the University of Wuppertal. Not the greater reputation or the fact that Wuppertal is his hometown were decisive for the change; he was drawn to the opportunity of henceforth teaching art instead of illustration, for Erlbuch baulked at repeatedly teaching what he had already been doing professionally for more than twenty years. He was not only one of the most successful German commercial artists, whose figure of the mole with nickel glasses emblazoned on posters and ads for the Deutsche Bahn AG made a splash by joking about the constant construction work on routes; no, in 1989 he had also illustrated one of the internationally most successful picture books, in which a bespectacled mole was again the protagonist. The story Vom kleinen Maulwurf, der wissen wollte, wer ihm auf den Kopf gemachte hatte (The Little Mole Who Went in Search of Whodunnit) was translated into more than thirty languages and made Erlbuch and his style of illustration famous. It was only his second picture book.
 
Erlbuch’s first picture book appeared in 1985 and was based on a text by James Aggrey (1875–1927), a Ghana-born writer who lived in the United States, which had never been published in Germany. Eagle Would Not Fly tells an African moral legend that was translated, illustrated and published by Peter Hammer Publishers, which had a programme specializing in exotic literature. As the business was located in Wuppertal, it was reasonable to choose Erlbuch as the illustrator. From this publication there developed the continuing collaboration of publisher and illustrator, which includes not only books but also the annual Kinderzimmerkalender (Nursery Calendar), which Erlbuch has designed for more than two decades. In 2018 his son Leonhard, who has followed in his father’s footsteps as an illustrator, assumed this job.

NO TYPE-CASTING OF STYLE

The work on the calendar contributed to preventing Erlbuch from being type-cast according to now famous mole drawing style. The first picture books that he wrote himself, Die fürchterlichen Fünf (The Fearsome Five), Leonhard und Das Bärenwunder (The Miracle of the Bears), published in the early 1990s, were still very much in this manner. But then he developed, not least under the influence of his art professorship, the new trademark of a collage technique, which combines the most diverse sorts of paper and sample sheets with each other. The figures arise from a laying technique instead of being drawn. In place of the pen, the scissors became the central accessory. At the same time, Erlbuch complemented his collages with drawings, and this mixed-media approach became his new trademark.
 
The style is used most accomplishedly in Ente, Tod und Tulpe (2007) (Duck, Death and Tulip), which is his second most successful book and again written by himself. The theme of death treated in it was unusual for German children’s literature. His books based on works by authors such as Goethe, Gottfried Benn, Karl-Philipp Moritz and James Joyce also broke with the customary innocuousness of this genre. It is sometimes difficult to tell whether Erlbuch is writing for children or adults. But both groups show their gratitude to him by reading his books.
 
In recent years, Erlbuch has reduced his activities as an illustrator. In his house in Wuppertal he has set up a foundation for the preservation of his works, which provides accommodation and workstations for researchers. Since he is one of the internationally most renowned representatives of his art, visits to Wuppertal are numerous. The whole world awaits his next books.