Sequential picture story for a schoolbook

Anton Pieck was a Dutch engraver, painter and etcher who is best known as a book illustrator. He enjoyed a long career which encapsulated almost the entire 20th century, even though one couldn't tell from looking at his art work. His drawings and paintings were always set in the past, particularly the 19th century. He made countless works with a cosy, nostalgic feel to them. The Romantic illustrator was furthermore well known for his portrayals of fairy tales, such as his iconic 'Fairy Tales of Grimm' (1940) and 'Arabian Nights' (1943-1956). These later became the template for the Dutch theme park De Efteling, for which he designed the fairy tale forest and most of their architecture. Anton Pieck has always been an audience's favourite, but was reviled by serious art lovers for being petty kitsch. Still, friend and foe had to admit that he was an accomplished draftsman with a highly unique, instantly recognizable and barely imitated style. While Anton Pieck made few comics in his life, he did create occasional text comics for the magazine Zonneschijn in the 1920s and provided sequential illustrations for various novels.


From: Arabian Nights

Anton Franciscus Pieck was born in 1895 in Den Helder. His father had a small position with the Royal Dutch Marine, while his mother was a housewife. Pieck had a twin brother, Henri, who shared a similar gift for drawing. Yet Henri would lead a different, far more exciting and dangerous life than Anton. As an adult he became active within the Dutch Communist Party, working as a spy for Soviet Russia. Henri's artistic interests also differed from those of Anton. While he was interested in modern art Anton loved old-fashioned illustrations and paintings. Among his graphic influences were Herman Heuff, Henri Daalhoff, Theo Goedvriend, Adriaan Mioléé, Cornelis Springer, George Hendrik Breitner, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Frans Hals, Carl Spitzweg, Charles Rochussen, Walter Vaes, Henri De Braeckeleer, W.O.J. Nieuwenkamp, Hokusai, Gustave Doré, George Cruikshank, Arthur Rackham, Edmond Dulac, Hablôt Knight Browne and Carl Larsson. He studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and the Bik en Vaandrager institute, both located in The Hague. After graduation he stayed at the latter school to become an art teacher.

During the First World War the Netherlands remained neutral, but nevertheless many young Dutchmen were mobilized just to be on standby in case of a military conflict. Pieck was one of them. He was named sergeant, but nevertheless spent most of his spare time drawing for his fellow recruits. A 1915 psychological army rapport described Pieck as "someone who looks more at the past than the future and will therefore never amount to anything." Under the realization that they couldn't use him for ordinary military duties Pieck was sent to The Hague, where he gave drawing lessons to other soldiers. For four evenings a week of two hours each Pieck could spend all his time on doing what he loved best. After the war Pieck became an art teacher at the Kennemer Lyceum in Bloemendaal. He would stay there until his retirement in 1960, even though he was never quite happy with his job. After school he couldn't wait to dash home and continue drawing and painting. But the job at least offered him financial stability and the luxury of picking out commissions which pleased him, rather than being forced to work on stuff he disliked. Apart from teaching he also illustrated diplomas, bulletins, ex-libris, birth cards and other administrational documents for his school.


Pieck's illustrations for the four seasons in the Netherlands

In the 1920s Anton Pieck published his first drawings. He struck a friendship with the Flemish novelist Felix Timmermans (father of cartoonist GoT), whose jovial attitude convinced him to become more spontaneous and follow his own spirit. Pieck illustrated Timmermans' signature novel 'Pallieter' and visited Flanders to research the local atmosphere. He would remain an enthusiastic traveller his entire life, visiting England, France, Ireland, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Poland and Morocco to make sketches. Yet he had no interest in modern architecture. Instead he looked at nature and picturesque cities and villages. Pieck always saw Belgium and England as his second mother countries since they weren't as modernized as The Netherlands and because he was an unapologetic nostalgic. Despite having only lived in the final five years of the 19th century Pieck had a strong longing for this era. He made countless paintings, drawings, etchings and engravings depicting Dickensian scenes. People in high hat or crinoline taking coach rides, watching a magic lantern or listening to barrel organs or chamber concerts… they all contributed to his artistic ideal. Naturally he only accepted commissions which allowed him to illustrate novels or short stories set in some ancient era, like Hildebrand's 'Camera Obscura', Selma Lagerlöf's 'Nils Holgersson' and Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol'. Above all he was very sensitive for cosy atmosphere. Everything that looked ancient appealed to him. Buildings, stairs, roads and wells had to look crooked, crumbled or rusty. Nothing was allowed to look new or be built completely straight.

Pieck was such a nostalgic person that basically every piece of art he made was set in a romantic past. Even though he lived long enough to experience the 1980s the general public assumed he was actually a 19th century artist who presumably passed away decades ago! Yet it was true that Pieck felt he was born in the wrong century. He never enjoyed his own time period that much. The nostalgic artist had no love for modern art, architecture or technology. The man was so old-fashioned that he still made all his prints by hand, using an authentic printing press in his own house! He didn't even own a car, nor a radio or a TV. Pieck regretted that so many old buildings were torn down in favour of more contemporary architecture, devoid of any character. In his opinion people in the past spent more time crafting beautiful buildings since they basically had to live in their vicinity. The arrival of cars and highways made people travel great distances between locations, making it less important that every spot looked nice. Yet he wasn't completely out-of-touch or against modern life either. He had, for instance, tremendous respect for the work of Norman Rockwell and Walt Disney. Other than these and other little things Pieck mostly dwelled in his own dreams of idealized pasts, which he visualized so memorably on paper.


Illustration for Zonneschijn (1930)

Pieck's ability to mimick days of yesteryear in his work made him a natural for illustrating fantasy stories and fairy tales too. During the mid 1920s he joined the children's magazine Zonneschijn, where his illustrations appeared alongside those by Hans Borrebach, Tjeerd Bottema, Rie Cramer, H. de Hoog, Jan Feith, Jan Kraan, Freddie Langeler, Jan Lutz, Johanna Bernardina Midderigh-Bokhorst, George van Raemdonck, Henri Verstijnen en Jan Wiegman. He made drawings for various children's stories, some published in text comic format. Naturally he also created several holiday-themed illustrations for Zonneschijn's annual Christmas books. Pieck could completely immerse himself into a world of childish wonder. He loved drawing castles, dark woods, giants, gnomes, witches, kings, princes, princesses and dragons. The man illustrated two books about mythological stories, namely C. van der Horst's 'Het Boek der Helden' (1929) and A. van Hamel's 'De Tuin Der Goden' (1940/1947). However, his most famous illustration work was done for 'Grimm's Fairy Tales' (1940) and 'Arabian Nights' (1943-1956). For the latter monumental work Pieck spent six weeks in Morocco to sketch local buildings and people to evoke a convincing Middle Eastern setting. Even though he was hardly the first to illustrate these classic stories Pieck still managed to give them a certain unique feel which looks as if it was all actually created "once upon a time, a long time ago."


Illustration for Grimm's The Wishing-Table

His illustrations of Grimm's fairy tales directly led to Pieck's most famous contribution to Dutch popular culture: theme park De Efteling. In the early 1950s he was asked to make designs for a fairy tale forest set in Kaatsheuvel. At first he wasn't interested, since he assumed it would merely be a couple of cardboard sets. When the organizers convinced him they would build actual houses based on his designs, the artist eventually opened up to the idea. On 31 May 1952 the theme park Efteling opened for visitors. Pieck designed all the houses, buildings and animatronic inhabitants of the fairy tale forest, including Little Red Riding Hood at her grandma's house, Sleeping Beauty's castle, Frau Holle's well and Hansel and Gretel's gingerbread house. Lesser known tales like 'The Six Servants' were also included. The long necked servant Langnek is still the park's mascot, along with Pardoes the jester who was designed by Henny Knoet in 1989. As the park grew Pieck gave other fairy tales a spot too, some by authors whom he never had illustrated, like Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen and the Belgian queen Fabiola. More general fantastical creatures and places like gnomes, trolls, a dragon and a haunted castle were added as well. Pieck was furthermore responsible for giving basically every object, from the water fountains to the trash bins, his own artistic touch. He wasn't too timid to remind the architects to build things as crooked as depicted in his designs. Some of the builders were given a little alcohol beforehand, while Pieck once even demanded a freshly built chimney to be knocked a bit more slant. It gave him the nickname “the mild dictator”, but all was forgiven when De Efteling effectively became a huge success. Today it's still the biggest and most visited theme park of the Benelux. Even Walt Disney once visited it to seek out inspiration for his own theme park Disneyland (1955). Pieck too kept visiting De Efteling on a weekly basis. One of its squares has been named after him and harbours a carrousel he used to ride on in his youth. The park owners were able to buy the original ride, restore it and put it in the park. In 1972 another attraction designed by Pieck opened its doors: the Autotron in Drunen. The place was created to exhibit old-timer cars in a aesthetically fitting location. Even though he didn't like cars he still enjoyed designing the entire building in his signature style. The Autotron still exists today, but the car collection has moved to Rosmalen. The original building in Drunen is nowadays named De Voorste Venne.

Schrijvende Kabouter by Anton Pieck

Anton Pieck was extraordinarily popular during his lifetime. From 1938 on he started designing Christmas cards for the children's benefit organization Voor Het Kind, which were not only a success in his home country but also huge best-sellers in the United States. This lead to a huge industry which reduplicated his paintings as imagery on greeting cards, calendars and puzzles. General audiences still love Pieck's cosy and nostalgic drawings and buy this merchandising by the score. Surprisingly enough, many are too young to have ever experienced the time periods themselves. The majority even live in modern cities, far removed from these old-fashioned buildings next to nature. Yet many can relate to the simpler times in the "good old days", as romanticized as they are. And thanks to De Efteling and the Autotron they can even visit it in real life, which might explain their success. These attractions function as some kind of time portal, much like the illustrations themselves. Pieck is so beloved with audiences that in 2004 he was voted to the 81th place during the election of "The Greatest Dutchman".

Artwork by Anton Pieck

At the same time Pieck was and still is often derided by art critics and people with sophisticated taste. They regard his work as petty, corny and sentimental kitsch, with De Efteling as a triumph of mediocrity. It doesn't help much that Pieck had no artistic pretence other than delivering fine craftmanship. He was never an innovator and had no interest in any of the more groundbreaking art movements of his own time period. Instead he was an unapologetic Romanticist when this was considered to be highly square and conventional. Pieck's work is furthermore devoid of any message, controversy or personal drama. He never even made an actual self portrait. The commercialization of his work naturally did his public image little good. When the Dutch newspaper HP/De Tijd organized a parody of "The Greatest Dutchman" in 2004 called "The Worst Dutchman" Pieck was one of their 100 nominees, though he was never voted into the final list.


Het Wilde Meisje

Still, Pieck merely wanted to draw and paint for his own enjoyment. As he pointed out: many artists in previous centuries just wanted to create fine work, unaware that it would once be judged as "art". He didn't care what critics said and just worked day in, day out. By being so dedicated to one passion he led a quiet and productive life. As polarizing as his work can be to some, nobody can deny he was a gifted artist whose style has practically become an eponym: "Pieckian". Few artists are as instantly recognizable as him. Some of his artworks even can be said to have some historical importance, as Pieck sketched many streets, villages, cities and landscapes before modernization changed them forever. And while his work lacked socially conscious messages Pieck did put his talent to good use during World War II. He helped out the resistance by counterfeiting official documents to mislead the Nazi authorities. He did his job so well that many were fooled and those who survived the war even had trouble convincing officials that these papers were faked. Pieck furthermore helped Jewish refugees hide in his home. He had the audacity to refuse becoming a member of the Nazi-controlled Kulturkammer, even though many artists were forced to do so at the time. Pieck's brother Henri was directly involved with the Dutch resistance and therefore sent off to concentration camp Buchenwald, though he luckily survived. After the war Anton Pieck was decorated as a Knight (1960) and an Officer (1980) in the Order of Orange-Nassau for his brave and noble accomplishments. The veteran received other honours too. In 1977 he was asked to design an official stamp for the Dutch postal office. In 1983 a bronze statue of his head was unveiled at Overveen and a year later he received his own museum at Hattem. Anton Pieck kept working until the day he passed away, in 1987.

from Zonneschijn, by Anton Pieck

Despite never having been accepted by highbrow art fans Anton Pieck's popularity has endured, even after his death. De Efteling still attracts thousands of visitors to this day. His books and paintings keep being reprinted and he had quite some notable admirers, like Felix Timmermans, Willy Vandersteen, Jacques Laudy, Dick Bruna, Adolf Melchior and the British illustrator Pat Cooke. In 1973 the Dutch poet Drs. P (who once wrote the comic strip 'Dan Teal' for Johnn Bakker) wrote a poetic song named 'Winterdorp' (1973), in which he pays homage to Pieck's art. Seeing that Drs. P was quite old-fashioned himself the admiration was understandable. On the occasion of Pieck's passing Belgian poets Bert Peleman and Anton van Wilderode both wrote an 'in memoriam' to him. Last but not least Anton Pieck also had a cameo in Willy Vandersteen's comics series 'Suske en Wiske'. In the album 'De Belhamel Bende' (1982) he is pictured behind his easle, drawn by Paul Geerts.


Anton Pieck with Willy Vandersteen, looking at the Suske & Wiske album 'De Efteling-Elfjes'

www.antonpieck.eu

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