Saturday, August 4, 2018

Q&A with Géraldine Elschner and Florence Koenig

Géraldine Elschner
Géraldine Elschner is the author and Florence Koenig is the illustrator of the new picture book Anna and Johanna: A Children's Book Inspired by Jan Vermeer. Elschner lives in Heidelberg, Germany, and Koenig lives in Paris.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on two of Vermeer's paintings in your new picture book, and how did you come up with your characters Anna and Johanna?

GE: I always had the impression that both girls (The Milkmaid and The Lacemaker) looked alike: the colors of their clothes, their position, the concentration on their work.

So this mysterious connection built intuitively the heart of the story. A blood relationship? Two sisters? Perhaps...But they had such opposite ways of life...One was rich, the other a servant.

These different social situations brought different characters and a lot of questions and tension to the story: which secret ties did they have? Why had they been separated? I didn’t know, I had to clear up the mystery, to make my own inquiries, to mix all the elements, to find each piece of the puzzle...

Florence Koenig
FK: As an illustrator, when I first read Geraldine’s story, I enjoyed the fact that there were not one but two characters, and from different social backgrounds. It allowed me to imagine interiors, details like objects, fruits, fabrics or historical costumes.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write/illustrate this book?

GE: It was a long way from the first intuition to the scenario with its historical background.

I naturally first visited my girls, one in Paris, the other one in Amsterdam. I collected  information about Vermeer, about the pictures, about the life at that time (appreciated a lot Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, as novel and film!). 

Travel to Calais gave me a feeling for lacework (wonderful Museum for Lace and Fashion). Many days in Delft brought me then on the right way.

In the city of the artist, I could be permeated with its atmosphere: The old streets he walked through, the places where he lived, the channels, the smells of the water, of the leaves, the frog in the morning, the very good Vermeer Center too with its big enlargements of all pictures, which brought new points of view (for example the detail of the blouse and apron of the Milkmaid which looked like sand and sea and inspired the end of the story).

It’s also there I found information about the explosion of the powder magazine of Delft, which could explain the separation of the sisters. I began to lace the threads!

FK: The idea of this collection of picture books pleased me a lot: bring children to discover and appreciate art through a fiction story. It allows them to enter the artist’s world,
in a direct and subtle way. I wished to illustrate for this collection and the first of my list was Vermeer.

The story Geraldine had already written was waiting for me. She told it to me and I liked it very much.
I went the next day to the Louvre to visit the Lacemaker as well as the collection of Dutch paintings from the 17th century.

I worked on colors, objects, still lives, as well as on the optical process used by Vermeer to prepare his pictures: the dark room or camera oscura. I made many sketches and many experiments on colours.

Q: Why do you think Vermeer's paintings still cast such a spell hundreds of years later, and do you have a favorite Vermeer painting?

GE: The particular atmosphere, the magic light, the mystery about the life of Vermeer, the secret world the paintings suggest...My favorite remains the milkmaid. I spent the whole afternoon with her in the Rijksmuseum, looking at each detail (the broken window, the points of light on the bread, the old wall of the kitchen and so on). She is wonderful. A fascination – and a big big emotion!

Vermeer, The Milkmaid
FK: Vermeer allows us to enter the intimacy of his models, his characters. They are caught at a moment of their everyday life, as by a photographer: the movement and the life continue, and it is that intensity which moves us again and again.

I like many of Vermeer’s paintings, my favorite is Girl with the Red Hat. I find it modern and lively.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?

GE: I hope I can make them want to discover the work of Vermeer and other painters. The world of art is so exciting!

I also hope they will understand that social position is not a determining factor. Anna and Johanna are sleeping in the same crib, they have the same parents, the same origin.

But destiny gives them different lives. The servant closes her eyes when she takes one of the sleeping babies. She doesn’t want to choose, to decide about the children. One will be rich, the other not. It’s not fair, but c’est la vie. In spite of this they can be happy, be friends and meet again.

FK: I do hope children will catch this closeness with the characters and that it will allow them to enter the the artist’s world.

Vermeer, The Lacemaker
Q: What are you working on now?

GE: After Anna and Johanna I wrote The Two Doves (inspired by Pablo Picasso) about peace, then L’Homme qui marche inspired by Giacometti, about migration. Now I’m just dancing with Degas!

FK: I just finished illustrating poems and nursery rhymes about Paris and its monuments. I wish to write some stories for young children and illustrate them afterwards.

Q: Anything else we should know?

Fabritius, The Goldfinch
GE: Don’t forget The Goldfinch! It’s such a lovely picture by Carel Fabritius. The painter was living in the same time as Vermeer (he is supposed to be one of his teachers), and he died during the explosion of Delft (on the 12th of October 1654) – so for me, the bird had to find its place in the story.

My text was just finished and Florence had begun the illustrations when Donna Tartt’s book was published. Suddenly, the picture of my small unknown bird was in all the newspapers – a really strange coincidence!

In the story, the Goldfinch saves the children as well as the painting of the sea. So I imagined it could be from Fabritius, as homage to him (most of his paintings were destroyed in the explosion). Mer (sea) and Mère (mother) are almost the same word in French – a double protection for Anna and Johanna...

FK: I don’t always work with the same techniques.
 For Anna and Johanna I painted with acrylic colours, but my last books are made of cut papers
(silk papers also painted with acrylic colours) and I sometimes use soft pastels. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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