The artist behind the world-famous Miffy books, Dick Bruna, died last month. A sad loss for anyone who remembers the bright blocky books about a little rabbit with affection. The story behind Miffy’s creation is more complex than you might imagine from the simple outlines on the page however, and one heavily influenced by Modern art and Dutch design theory.
Miffy was originally created to placate Bruna’s one year old son. Bruna’s family were in publishing, with his great-grandfather founding the great Dutch publishing house A.W Bruna & son in 1868. However although he was an avid sketcher, his passion for the family business was limited, and he was sent in his youth for an ‘internship’ in Paris, where he spent time in the city’s museums soaking up the art he saw there. “I really went from one gallery to another, all day,” he said. “I was so much impressed by the work of Picasso and Léger, Matisse, Braque and all those people.” He returned, married and indeed began to work for the family firm, designing covers for a new range of affordable paperbacks.In the simple flat shapes and bold use of colour the influence of Matisse can clearly be seen.
In 1955 the first Miffy book was published, and once again the primary colours and uncompromising combinations (the long disapproved-of combination of blue and green being frequently used together for example) drawn from Matisse were in evidence, as well as the dark outlines of French cubist Fernand Léger. Bruna himself drew attention to the similarities in one Miffy book where she visits a museum and observes: “that one is fine, said Miffy. The colours are so clear as if the artist cut them out and stuck them on up there.”
He also acknowledged his dept to the Dutch design movement De Stijl which used a very limited palette of primary colours, black and grey, saying “I always tried to confine myself to the primaries — De Stijl colours.” The limited palette and following of basic colour logic throughout the series is certainly part of Miffy’s enduring appeal. A world of blue sky, green grass and yellow sun, instantly familiar, comforting and decipherable – for children of all ages.
For more information about Dick Bruna’s life and work see the Miffy Museum.