100 years of Fiep Westendorp

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On December 17th of this year it will be exactly a hundred years ago that Fiep Westendorp was born. She was a well-known Dutch illustrator most famous for bringing writer Annie M.G.Schmidt’s characters to life in the 50’s. Her work is still relevant, as most children nowadays are still familiar with characters that were illustrated by Westendorp a long time ago. I would even go as far as saying that her illustrations are part of Dutch cultural heritage. I read books with Westendorp’s illustrations during my childhood and enjoyed them thoroughly. Well-known books such as Jip en Janneke and Pluk van de Petteflet still bring joy when I think of them.

It is really special that Fiep Westendorp’s animations are still so popular in 2016, but that isn’t a huge surprise (at least not to me). Westendorp’s illustration in Annie M.G.Schmidt’s Jip en Janneke are black silhouettes of a boy (Jip) and a girl (Janneke), which makes it easy for every child to identify and relate to. The reader can decide for her/himself what the characters will look like to them in their mind as physical characteristics and facial features don’t play a role in the depiction of the characters. Apart from that, her illustrations still look very contemporary today because they are almost iconic as they are easily recognizable from far away and because they represent universal concepts such as childhood, innocence and playfulness. The simplicity of the illustrations also connect very well to the work of Annie M.G.Schmidt, since her writing, targeted to children, is also very simple to read.

Some of Westendorp’s illustrations are not necessarily tied to a specific period in time. No, the illustrations and the stories that accompanied them are still relevant today. There is proof of this: the Dutch store HEMA, for example, still sells products (plates, lunch boxes, clothing, etc…) with Westendorp’s illustrations on them. Even the kids section of the public library has posters of Jip en Janneke. I also did some of my own research for this article by going out to a Fiep Westendorp exhibition. To my disappointment, when I arrived at the exhibition, it looked more like a classroom full of young children playing, while they were learning about Westendorp’s work. I should have known this; Westendorp’s illustrations were created for children, not for adults. I immediately left, sensing that this wasn’t for me. For a moment I felt like I had wasted my time because of my failed plans, but I soon came to the realization that Westendorp’s work still holds a lot of importance in our Dutch society – clearly there is still a feeling that her work had to be celebrated and passed along to the next generation.

In general, there is a lot of information available on Westendorp’s life and her work. In a video of an interview with Westendorp in 1984 she talks about the first time that she met Schmidt: “in a journalism café, Scheltema […]”, Westendorp says to the interviewer. She also talks about how the story of Jip en Janneke came to be: Het Parool wanted Schmidt to write a small story, and Westendorp had the idea of providing the illustrations. This was in 1952, and the stories became so popular that they were made into books that are still widely popular today.

I enjoyed reading about Westendorp’s life; she created a lot during her lifetime and that really inspired me. I also enjoyed reading about Annie M.G.Schmidt’s work and life; I couldn’t leave her out of this article as she was such a big part of Westendorp’s work. Despite the fact that I had fun learning a bit more about one of the most famous illustrators of the Netherlands, I found myself wanting to stop reading and learning any more after some time. Why? Because I did not want to ruin the great magic that I experienced during my childhood because of Westendorp by getting to know too much about the “backstage” work of one of my favourite childhood characters. That being said, I’m still happy that some of these illustrations live on in 2016. And, of course, this generation of kids will probably look up to other characters, especially because there has been a slight shift from books to television. But, I’m glad that Fiep Westendorp and her famous work have not been entirely forgotten.

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