Miffy creator Dick Bruna - the art of reduction


The little cartoon Miffy is famous the world over, from her native Holland to Japan, where they build football pitch-sized illustrations of her in tulips. Her creator, the recently retired graphic illustrator Dick Bruna, has made a career of stripping characters down to their very essence.


Blueprint

Words Yolanda Zappaterra

Utrecht is a strange, somewhat surreal Miffy world; a perfectly normal Dutch town that just happens to have this odd cartoon rabbit popping up in the most unexpected places. Here she is gazing out dispassionately from the first-floor window of an otherwise everyday Dutch townhouse, there she is on a pedestrian crossing light, on the back of a ticket to the town's Centraal Museum, and on a large white dais in the middle of a huge shopping centre.

Miffy, or Nijntje as she is known in Holland, is celebrating her 60th birthday this yea. Photo: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, on loan from D. Bruna, Utrecht and Mercis Publishing BV
Miffy, or Nijntje as she is known in Holland, is celebrating her 60th birthday this yea. Photo: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, on loan from D. Bruna, Utrecht and Mercis Publishing BV

– This cute, cartoon rabbit is iconic for her reduction of shape and lack of detail. Photo: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, on loan from D. Bruna, Utrecht and Mercis Publishing BV
This cute, cartoon rabbit is iconic for her reduction of shape and lack of detail. Photo: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, on loan from D. Bruna, Utrecht and Mercis Publishing BV

She's everywhere -- much as her creator used to be. Recently retired, Dick Bruna's daily routine consisted of a bicycle ride through his hometown to his rooftop studio at around 8am, home for lunch at noon, and back to work at the studio until 6pm. He'd been doing it for five decades, in that time creating more than 30 books about Miffy, or Nijntje (little rabbit) as she's known in her native Dutch. But Bruna wasn't always such a homebody, and the character he is world famous for is just one part of a body of groundbreaking graphic work.

Dick Bruna works at his rooftop studio in his hometown of Utrecht
Dick Bruna works at his rooftop studio in his hometown of Utrecht

Bruna started out as a designer in his father's publishing house, experimenting with styles for AW Bruna & Zoon's Black Bear series of pocket paperbacks. These drew on a wide range of influences. In France, young Bruna's head was filled with Picasso, Braque, Léger and Matisse and the bold graphics of Savignac and Cassandre. Back home, he studied and absorbed young Dutch graphic designers like Otto Treumann, Dick Elffers and Jan Bos, and soaked up the ideas of Holland's homegrown version of European avant garde, the De Stijl movement being championed by Willem Sandberg as director of the Stedelijk Museum -- and a fellow artist working with collage.

Bruna has designed more than 2,000 book jackets in his lengthy career. Photo:Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, on loan from D. Bruna, Utrecht and Mercis Publishing BV
Bruna has designed more than 2,000 book jackets in his lengthy career. Photo:Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, on loan from D. Bruna, Utrecht and Mercis Publishing BV

Most have been for detective and thriller writers, including Georges Simenon and Leslie Charteris. Photo:Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, on loan from D. Bruna, Utrecht and Mercis Publishing BV
Most have been for detective and thriller writers, including Georges Simenon and Leslie Charteris. Photo:Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, on loan from D. Bruna, Utrecht and Mercis Publishing BV

Bruna's resulting 2,000 or so book jackets, for detective and thriller writers such as Georges Simenon, Leslie Charteris and Ian Fleming, are classics: impactful, poster-like compositions meant to draw the eyes of commuters at railway stations, which is largely where the books were sold.

His compositions are meant to attract commuters at railway stations, where most of the books were sold. Photo:Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, on loan from D. Bruna, Utrecht and Mercis Publishing BV
His compositions are meant to attract commuters at railway stations, where most of the books were sold. Photo:Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, on loan from D. Bruna, Utrecht and Mercis Publishing BV

Bruna uses transparent film and collages for the coloured panels to build up his designs. Photo:Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, on loan from D. Bruna, Utrecht and Mercis Publishing BV
Bruna uses transparent film and collages for the coloured panels to build up his designs. Photo:Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, on loan from D. Bruna, Utrecht and Mercis Publishing BV

Here were interpretations of the Saint, the Shadow and Maigret that clearly referenced the work Bruna had seen in Paris -- the bold black outlines of Léger and pared-back colour palettes of Matisse -- combined in graphic interpretations that have been his lifelong practice. 'I always search around for a long time, throwing lots away, before I reach the moment of recognition.

A drawing by Bruna inspired by the work of Matisse (1953). Photo:Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, on loan from D. Bruna, Utrecht and Mercis Publishing BV

What matters is reducing everything to its essence. No line is redundant. Every shape captures the imagination, and I leave plenty of space for the reader's imagination. That is the strength of simplicity: the art of omission,' Bruna has said of his work.

Perhaps more than anything else it's an art rooted in the work of Matisse, and in particular in a visit in the Fifties to the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, where the artist's bold black-and-white wall paintings and stained-glass windows of blue, yellow and green shapes set the young designer on a path that would take him to the painstaking process and methodology he's employed all his life. Fluid outlines, paper cut-outs and montage proved so effective in his book jackets and posters that even Picasso and Gerrit Rietveld commented admiringly on his work, leading Bruna to a new form of expression.

Bruna works on hundreds of expressions for Miffy — not easy when they’re just two dots and a cross

Bruna works on hundreds of expressions for Miffy — not easy when they’re just two dots and a cross
Bruna works on hundreds of expressions for Miffy -- not easy when they're just two dots and a cross

It's hard to imagine now the impact of Bruna's early picture books, but at the time they were unlike any other on the market -- flat, stark compositions whose innovative graphic style incorporated other seductive elements for young children, not least the square format. Imposed by paper costs, the format appealed to Bruna for its simplicity of form and to children because they could easily hold the book and enjoy the full-page illustrations.

Bruna works on hundreds of expressions for Miffy — not easy when they’re just two dots and a cross

Bruna works on hundreds of expressions for Miffy — not easy when they’re just two dots and a cross
Bruna works on hundreds of expressions for Miffy -- not easy when they're just two dots and a cross

Through it all Bruna continued to refine his process and methodology and develop his own style from those early influences. Nowhere will the influences be more apparent than at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, which will be holding an exhibition of his work later this year to mark the 60th anniversary of Miffy's first appearance.

Bruna works on hundreds of expressions for Miffy — not easy when they’re just two dots and a cross

Bruna works on hundreds of expressions for Miffy — not easy when they’re just two dots and a cross
Bruna works on hundreds of expressions for Miffy -- not easy when they're just two dots and a cross

Using some of the 120 Bruna artworks the gallery has on permanent loan, assistant curator of 20th-century prints and drawings, Caro Verbeek, will mount an exhibition that demonstrates Bruna's close links to Matisse, Léger and De Stijl via his posters, book covers, autonomous work and, of course, Miffy. A key figure will be the artist, typographer and printer HN Werkman, famous for a range of techniques such as stencilling cut-out figures in one or two colours. 'The figures in his prints were very spontaneous and direct, which is why they were so important to Bruna's development,' says Verbeek.

Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1961). Photo:Dick Bruna, Centraal Museum Utrecht / Mercis BV
Robert Bloch's Psycho (1961). Photo:Dick Bruna, Centraal Museum Utrecht / Mercis BV

Georges Simenon’s Stoplicht (1964). Photo:Dick Bruna, Centraal Museum Utrecht / Mercis BV
Georges Simenon's Stoplicht (1964). Photo: Dick Bruna, Centraal Museum Utrecht / Mercis BV

Works by Sandberg, Bart van der Leck and Theo van Doesburg will be alongside Werkman's, clearly showing the connecting threads between past and present. And best of all, perhaps, will be one Miffy book, De brief van Nijntje (Miffy's letter), deconstructed so that the entire design process is on display, from pencil drawing to painting lines and the use of transparent film and collages for the coloured planes. The title was chosen, says Verbeek, 'because it's very versatile in its design and storyline: it shows Nijntje both in her warm comfy home, concentrated on a letter, and cheerful outside in the cold. It's very sensorial and animated in that way. Bruna uses context and colour to express emotions and temperature.'

Leslie Charteris’ De Saint Wordt Piraat (1958). Photo:Dick Bruna, Centraal Museum Utrecht / Mercis BV
Leslie Charteris' De Saint Wordt Piraat (1958). Photo:Dick Bruna, Centraal Museum Utrecht / Mercis BV

Verbeek is unequivocal in her praise of Bruna as an original artist. 'Although the French avant garde is apparent in his bold, black lines, simplicity of form and expressivity of coloured planes, one always recognises the hand of Bruna. His designs and illustrations have a certain playful harmony and cheerfulness. They are not meant to disturb or distress the viewer, although for the detective book covers there can be a high level of suspense, because he always leaves plenty of room for the imagination.'

A poster design for the Red Cross (1991). Photo:Dick Bruna, Centraal Museum Utrecht / Mercis BV
A poster design for the Red Cross (1991). Photo:Dick Bruna, Centraal Museum Utrecht / Mercis BV

His figures such as Nijntje, the Saint and the Shadow are highly iconic in their reduction of shape and lack of detail. They are characterised by their clarity of line and shape. And last, but not least, he uses very specific colours that were inspired by De Stijl, but whose tones and shades are unique. Although Bruna is open about his sources of inspiration -- the cover of Miffy in the museum being a very clear homage to Matisse, for example -- he would never literally copy anything or anyone.'

A white dove becomes a symbol for Stop Aids Now (2003). Photo:Dick Bruna, Centraal Museum Utrecht / Mercis BV
A white dove becomes a symbol for Stop Aids Now (2003). Photo:Dick Bruna, Centraal Museum Utrecht / Mercis BV

In Utrecht, Edwin Jacobs, director of the Centraal Museum, is equally enthusiastic about Bruna's originality, and roots it partly in Utrecht's long heritage as a 'centre of art', a place from which artists ventured out to the wider world to bring back influences, styles and techniques resulting, eventually, in the graphic contrasts of De Stijl... 'works whose compositions are very economic, colours very explicit, and an aesthetic style of which Bruna is on the outside borders of'. He is busy working on his own homage to Bruna, consisting of a replica studio which will 'offer the opportunity to experience Dick Bruna through his own eyes', a retrospective this summer in the Centraal Museum, and a refurbished Dick Bruna Huis, opening this year.

A poster design for Amnesty International (2002). Photo:Dick Bruna, Centraal Museum Utrecht / Mercis BV
A poster design for Amnesty International (2002). Photo:Dick Bruna, Centraal Museum Utrecht / Mercis BV

In the current house, closing for refurbishment in April, signage in Japanese, as well as English and Dutch, reflects the popularity of Miffy there. It's a popularity that Verbeek thinks may be down to the work 'appearing simple but actually being extremely complex', something that Bruna himself has touched on: 'I'm not an illustrator, I'm more of a graphic artist. I'm always thinking in shapes and trying to pare elements down. If I have to draw an elephant, I go to the zoo and sketch an elephant, then I begin to strip away all the unnecessary stuff, to be left with the essence of elephant. It's like an alphabet or graphic language, an international symbol of the subject... maybe that's why my work is so popular in Japan.' And the work is hugely popular there: for Miffy's 45th anniversary in 2000, six Miffy illustrations the size of football pitches were planted in tulips across the country, and have been every year since.

A replica of Bruna’s studio is being constructed for a retrospective of his work later this year at the Centraal Museum, Utrecht. Photo: Pal Hanson
A replica of Bruna's studio is being constructed for a retrospective of his work later this year at the Centraal Museum, Utrecht. Photo: Pal Hanson

But Jacobs raises a point that might be equally valid, and is more elliptically bound up in Bruna's process of working. Bruna is famous for being incredibly precise in all aspects of creating each Miffy image, from working on hundreds of her 'expressions' -- not easy when they're just two dots and a cross -- to find the perfect one, to typing out the stories on a manual typewriter and drawing his outlines by hand using a brush and ink to achieve 'lines with a heartbeat'. 'The age of the selfie is making it hard for us to connect, and I think Bruna's work is all about connecting. At a time when there's such a big disconnect between time and place, it has a real impact,' Jacobs says simply.





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