Obituary: Leo Lionni

Nicholas Tucker
Wednesday 03 November 1999 00:02 GMT

LEO LIONNI came late to children's picture books from a background as cosmopolitan as any author- illustrator could have had this century.

Born in Holland in 1910, the son of a diamond-cutter father and a concert- soprano mother, he also went to schools in Belgium, America and Italy before obtaining a doctorate in economics at the University of Genoa. Drawn to the artistic world ever since he was allowed as a boy to copy plaster casts in Amsterdam's galleries, he stayed on in Genoa as an abstract painter exhibiting with the Futurists, thereby coming under the approving eye of their leader, F.T. Marinetti. Politically on the left, he married in 1931 Nora Maffi, the daughter of a founder of the Italian Communist Party who was put under house arrest by the Fascists.

Lionni eventually decided to emigrate to America. There he took up a career in advertising, employing contemporary artists including Fernand Leger and William de Kooning. He later worked with the young Andy Warhol on the Regal Shoes account. Lionni's first picture book, as so often in the history of children's literature, developed from spontaneous contact with the young themselves.

Charged with looking after two lively grandchildren on an hour-long train ride from Manhattan to Greenwich, Lionni - by then the art director for Fortune magazine - took out a copy of the rival Life publication and found a page glowing with blue, yellow and green. Tearing the paper as he went, he told a story - later to become Little Blue and Little Yellow (1959) - about two circles who go for a walk. Losing each other in a forest, they are reunited and while throwing themselves on each other for joy turn into another circle, Little Green. Returning home, they are unrecognised and rejected. After crying many blue and yellow tears, they finally "pull themselves together and go home", once more as separate shapes.

As he wrote later in his memoir Between Worlds (1997), "The children were transfixed." Publication followed, but rather than repeat himself after such an initial success, Lionni began a long course of reaching out into new ideas. His next book, On My Beach There Are Many Pebbles (1960) contained a collection of fish and people pebbles hidden away among the other stones on each page. After that came Inch by Inch (1960), where an inchworm, threatened by a hungry bird, survives due to the protection of larger animals who find him convenient as a measure.

Lionni produced more than 30 picture books in total, all utterly distinctive of the man himself. Continuing to work with pieces of paper, glued on to a drawn background, he produced books that combine bright, primary colours with a feeling for nature at its most limpidly harmonious. His animal characters, made up of only a few, simple shapes plus components such as ears, tails, limbs and bright eyes, were easy for small children to pick out. Their stories always hung on simple but deeply felt parables, for example about the necessity of getting on with everyone else or the importance of art as well as food. These satisfied generations of children with the need for occasional gentle moralising in their books.

Some of Lionni's conceits are particularly brilliant. In Swimmy (1963), a tiny fish of that name manages to turn away a marauding giant tuna by organising other small contemporaries into the shape of an even larger predator. Swimmy himself declares "I will be the eye", providing young readers with one more fascinating detail to identify.

In 1961 Lionni returned to Italy, settling down near Radda in Tuscany. Suffering from Parkinson's disease for the last 15 years of his life, he continued to work, writing, painting and sculpting (producing huge, fantasy plants in brass and iron). He also wrote Tillie and the Wall in 1989 - this was all about getting round apparently insuperable obstacles, and was published in Germany at the time its own Berlin wall was coming down.

He leaves a wife, one son and four grandchildren, two of whom must take much of the credit for inspiring one of the finest and most innovative author-illustrators of our times.

Leonard Lionni, artist, graphic designer, writer, illustrator and sculptor: born Amsterdam 5 May 1910; married 1930 Nora Maffi (one son, and one son deceased); died Radda, Italy 11 October 1999.

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