Talk Art! The Artistic Tradition of the Gingerbread House
Comparing the Variety of Gingerbread House Illustrations in The Exquisite Corpse Adventure
by Mary Brigid Barrett
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In their illustrations for Episodes Fifteen, Sixteen, and Seventeen, illustrators Calef Brown, Timothy Basil Ering, and Chris Van Dusen have all executed their own unique styles in illustrating the gingerbread house featured in The Exquisite Corpse Adventure. Taking advantage of the opportunity to compare and contrast their work, I have created one Talk Art! section that takes a look at the representation of the gingerbread house in not only The Exquisite Corpse Adventure, but also other works of children’s literature.
Click on a category or scroll down to read a discussion of gingerbread houses in art and literature and review two related art activities.
The Gingerbread House in Literature and Illustration
“The tradition of baking the sweetly decorated houses began in Germany after the Brothers Grimm published their collection of German fairy tales in the early 1800s. Among the tales was the story of Hansel and Gretel, children left to starve in the forest, who came upon a house made of bread and sugar decorations. The hungry children feasted on its sweet shingles. After the fairy tale was published, German bakers began baking houses of lebkuchen—spicy cakes often containing ginger—and employed artists and craftsmen to decorate them. The houses became particularly popular during Christmas, a tradition that crossed the ocean with German immigrants. Pennsylvania, where many settled, remains a stronghold for the tradition.”
— From “Holiday Tradition With Spicy History,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 9, 2001, METRO, Pg.N-9.
In the original Grimm’s fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel,” the house the abandoned duo stumbles upon in the woods is not made of gingerbread and candy, but of bread with sugar decorations. But by the late 1800s when composer Engelbert Humperdink wrote his opera Hansel and Gretel, the house of bread had evolved into a house of gingerbread festooned with icing and candy.
Read the traditional Brothers Grimm version of “Hansel and Gretel” to your kids. Check out a copy from your local library, or read it from the Project Gutenberg website. And be sure to share these traditional illustrations of “the gingerbread house” (below) with them.
You may also want to show them a wonderful old animation film, Hansel and Gretel, made by legendary animator Lotte Reiniger (1899–1991) in 1955. Ms. Reiniger was a master of the arts of silhouette and Shadow Theater and her short films still hold magic for children.
You can view her Hansel and Gretel, and many of her other films, on YouTube here. And you may want to read more about silhouette art and shadow theater in “Talk Art! The Art Form of Silhouettes,” which is featured in the Episode 7 resource page.
Ask your kids to think about “the gingerbread house” not only as a visual image, but as visual symbol. Symbols have meanings. What would the gingerbread house as symbol have meant to a child, and a society, in earlier centuries when hunger and famine were daily challenges for a large number of people? What does the symbol of a gingerbread house mean to your kids today; what could it mean as a cultural symbol?
Art Activity: Compare and Contrast Gingerbread Houses in Children’s Literature
Share two contemporary interpretations of “Hansel and Gretel” with your kids (below)—James Marshall’s humorous take on the story and Paul O. Zelinsky’s more classic version—and compare, contrast, and discuss their illustration styles.
Have your kids take a good look at the three illustrations of the gingerbread house created by Calef Brown for Episode Fifteen, Timothy Basil Ering for Episode Sixteen, and Chris Van Dusen for Episode Seventeen of The Exquisite Corpse Adventure.
How have these three illustrators depicted the Exquisite Corpse Adventure gingerbread house? Did they take a traditional approach? Did they play with and tease the generic vision of a gingerbread house that we all carry around in our heads? Do they build on the version of a gingerbread house made iconic in the fairy tale of “Hansel and Gretel?” Are they using “the gingerbread house” as a symbol? Are their images funny? Scary? Beautiful? Enticing? Do they make you hungry? (Remember, the Exquisite Corpse Adventure artists did not get to see their colleagues’ illustrations before they executed their own illustration!)
Art Activity: Design, Bake, and Build a Gingerbread House
There are numerous gingerbread recipes—and instructions on how to build gingerbread houses—on the Internet and in cookbooks. Your local library is a great cookbook resource. Have your kids sketch a traditional gingerbread house, and together mix and bake flat blocks of gingerbread that you can all cut, assemble, and decorate to match their gingerbread house designs.
Talk with your kids about the symbolism of food in our culture—the many reasons why we eat. Do we eat simply to survive? Or do we eat to celebrate and commemorate? Do we eat out of pleasure—or guilt? To reward ourselves, or to punish ourselves? Do we eat sometimes because we are anxious or bored? Do we share our food or horde it? Ask your kids to design gingerbread houses as symbols representing our many feelings about food.
Introduce your kids to intriguing architects and their work. Just for fun, have them design and sketch gingerbread houses inspired by their favorite architect. They can do a little research themselves to discover interesting historic and contemporary architects. Here are photos of the works of a few architects that may inspire them:
© 2010 Mary Brigid Barrett