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Woodmere's Charles Santore show is a trove of illustration, from Columbo to Cowardly Lion

Charles Santore, a lifelong Philadelphia illustrator, moved from TV Guide covers to lavish editions of children's classics.

Charles Santore, “The next moment it seemed as if she were flying through the air” (1991), watercolor and ink on paper. Illustration for “The Wizard of Oz”
Charles Santore, “The next moment it seemed as if she were flying through the air” (1991), watercolor and ink on paper. Illustration for “The Wizard of Oz”Read moreRick Eichelmeyer photo

In one of the more memorable images from "Charles Santore: Fifty Years of Art and Storytelling," at the Woodmere Art Museum through May 13, we see the Cowardly Lion as we've never seen him before.

First of all, it's a real lion we're seeing, not the sort of businessmanish figure created by W.W. Denslow for the original Wizard of Oz book, or the characterization by Burt Lahr in the movie. Santore's watercolor shows him leaping across a ravine, with a bonneted Dorothy astride his back. He is outlined against a sky that looks blue above and sunny below.

He is fierce and strong, but his eyes are closed. That's how we know he's afraid. He can ferry his three companions across the chasm, but he can't stand to look. The picture foreshadows one of the lessons he will eventually learn — that he has all the courage he needs, but he just needs to recognize it.

Santore, a celebrated illustrator who was born in Philadelphia in 1935, has spent the last three decades illustrating children's books that revisit familiar stories: Paul Revere's ride, Noah's Ark, Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, and others. Before that, he was a successful freelance magazine illustrator who frequently did covers for TV Guide.

De-Disneying kids’ books

In his children's books, Santore seems preoccupied with de-Disneying the imagery of childhood literature. Though his style is detailed and maximalist, like the Disney animators, he eschews the cute. His pictures are often filled with animals that appear to be zoologically accurate depictions, even when, as with Oz's flying monkeys, we know they're not. Even Snow White's dwarfs, an unattractive lot, were drawn from life.

Santore is really at his best with animals. His wonderful picture of the tortoise crossing the finish line in the famous race shows a menagerie in attendance. A fox and a lamb hold the finish line ribbon, while other animals — including a wild boar, an owl, a bear, a lip-licking wolf, a monkey in royal robes, and a lion with a donkey coming out of its mouth — look on. If you don't look carefully, you might miss the hare straggling in so far behind that one of his feet is out of the picture.

In his earlier work, and especially when he had only the tiny area of a TV Guide cover to work with, he was more minimalist, doing the least necessary to evoke a star or a whole group of characters in a tiny area. His 1972 painting of Peter Falk as the aggressively shambling detective Columbo incorporates the character's sidelong look, ratty raincoat, and cigar, and it gives him an impressive mane of hair. But he has no shoulders.

Once you notice this absence, you might question where, exactly, the hand that's in the foreground is coming from. But, really, it's something you're not supposed to notice consciously. The portrait is a distillation of a character, not a photograph. It makes the Columbo character a little more ghostly. He doesn't merely investigate evildoers, he haunts them.

Santore has donated a selection of these TV Guide covers to the Woodmere, and they are really fun. I particularly like the 1973 Streets of San Francisco cover that shows Karl Malden and Michael Douglas shoulder to shoulder. Malden's hat and dark suit and Douglas' flowing hair and plaid sports coat mark them as members of different generations. But the wit of the picture is in the contrast between Douglas' symmetrical facial features and Malden's well-worn mug and bulbous nose.

These and most of Santore's earlier commercial works are shown on Woodmere's balcony, which is off-limits to small children. All the children's book illustrations are on the main level, which most viewers are likely to see first. Thus the show gets Santore's life backward, chronologically at least.

I think there is actually a value — provided you are over 10 years old and allowed on the balcony — in seeing the earlier work first. That's not because we are looking at the achievement of an important artist, but rather because the show documents the talents and tactics of a skilled visual storyteller. His magazine illustrations and posters are more obviously stylized than the pictures for children's books. Because they offer less dazzle, the designer's intention is more apparent.

Vertigo, in ads and adventures

One of Santore's 1980s advertisements — for a drug to treat vertigo — directly foreshadows an illustration he made just last year of Alice falling through the hole into Wonderland. She is falling through a spatially distorted classical library or gallery, her gold hair flying upward as she plummets downward. It is a scary picture that demands and rewards a second and third look.

It also gave a partial answer to an obvious question about Santore's work. The original illustrations for Alice in Wonderland by John Tenniel are a masterpiece, though by most accounts, Lewis Carroll didn't like them. Creating a new set of illustrations for the work seems unnecessary, sort of like getting Elton John to write new music for Aida.

Detail from Charles Santore's "Down, down, down, would the fall ever come to an end?" (2017),
watercolor on paper, illustration for "Alice in Wonderland."

Still, Tenniel did not produce a drawing like this one, which gives us a sense of the bookish culture from which the story emerged, along with the fear of a venture into the unknown. Santore's illustrations for Alice are mostly based on Tenniel's. Some show the same scene. Tenniel's caterpillar is better than Santore's, but when Alice upsets and shows her mastery over the Red Queen and other playing cards, Santore wins.

The important thing Santore does not take from Tenniel is the character of Alice herself. He says in the show's online catalog that other versions of Alice show her as a bystander to whom things happen, rather than as a participant in her story. Actually, the issue with Tenniel's Alice is that while the grotesque and comic characters he drew are ageless, his Alice looks stuck in the 19th century.

Making Alice feistier, more modern, and less English is the right commercial move. And it is a decision that will ultimately make Santore's work look archaic and ready for a reboot.