‘Curious George’ has a chilling backstory 

Who would have thought Curious George could be even more curious — from the outside, looking in?

In a thought-provoking exhibit “Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H.A. Rey” on view at the Jewish Contemporary Museum in The City, curator Claudia Nahson illuminates more than just the artistic prowess of the Reys, a husband-and-wife team who created a character that has withstood the fickle fate of pop culture in the latter part of the 20th century.

Nahson’s goal is to unveil a deeper story-behind-the-story, one that sheds light on the Reys’ lives during one of history’s more dire times.

“Many people weren’t aware and how the stories [of Curious George] came about,” Nahson says. “The Reys’ story captured me because nobody had looked at their art from the point of view of their ‘escape.’”

Take note of the backstory, which begs for a big-screen adaptation: Born in Hamburg, Germany, to Jewish families, the Reys lived together in Paris in the late 1930s. In June of 1940, just hours before the Nazis marched into the city, the Reys boldly fled on bicycles carrying drawings of their children’s stories — one about a mischievous monkey, then named Fifi.

They managed to save their animal characters, even when authorities found them in their belongings.

Those circumstances explain why “saving the day” after a narrow escape became the premise of most of their Curious George tales.

“I definitely believe that their art was galvanizing and helped them get through the situation,” Nahson says.

The exhibit showcases 80 original works, including drawings and bright watercolors for “Raffy and the 9 Monkeys” (in which Curious George makes his debut as Fifi), “Whiteblack the Penguin Sees the World” and “Fifi: The Adventures of a Monkey,” later published as “Curious George.”

There’s also a touch-screen interactive timeline about the Reys’ life in France.

As for Curious George’s longevity, Nahson credits the character with being “endearing” and “timeless.”

“It’s kind of old-fashioned, but the character is 70 years old and still going, still fresh,” she says. “There is something you can connect to because basically, that little monkey is a stand-in for the reader — the young child reading the book — acting out the things that they cannot physically do or are allowed to do. That’s priceless. And it never expires.”

IF YOU GO
Curious George Saves The Day: The Art of Margret and H.A. Rey
Where:
Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., San Francisco
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, 1 to 8 p.m. most Thursdays except Thanksgiving Day and Wednesdays; exhibit closes March 13
Tickets: $10 general, $8 seniors and students, free for those 18 and under; $5 Thursdays after 5 p.m.
Contact: (415) 655-7800, www.thecjm.org

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Greg Archer

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