I cannot remember the first time I saw Susanne’s illustrations, but I do recall that the first book of hers I bought was Als die Welt noch Jung war (When the Earth Was Still Young), by Jürg Schubiger, published in Spanish by Anaya in 1997. I am sure I had already seen these drawings before, because I had noticed she signed with a very long name, Rotraut Susanne Berner, and tried to memorise it but failed. Until very recently I was unsure whether Rotraut was her first, middle, or last name.

I thought it was amusing that she used coloured pencils, and I especially liked the reds and greens of her palette. Although the term ‘palette’ may not be precise; I should say ‘of her pencil case’. I was fascinated by the popular atmosphere of her compositions, often without backgrounds, and with characters moving in the air. Ingenuous, one could say, but full of unsettling elements. Like the lion in the painting by Le Douanier Rousseau: respectful of the gypsy’s slumber, but perhaps not.

Where did this Rotraut Susanne Berner come from? On Berner’s side, I thought, she is an avant-garde artist; on Rotraut’s side, a Gothic painter of religious imagery (an era, by the way, rich in representations of animals); on Susanne’s side, an illustrator of almanacs and schoolbooks, shop signs, and those plates where children discover a family of penguins playing tennis only after they have finished the last spoonful of mush.

In 2005 I met Susanne in person and invited her to participate in the book My First 80,000 Words, an illustrated dictionary of favourite words. Each collaborator had to choose their favourite word and make an allusive illustration in a square format, using two colours. Susanne’s word was ‘frühstück’. The illustration: a radiant sun dipping a sleeping, dead, or resigned moon into a gigantic mug, with the intention of eating it. The naive element is the chequered tablecloth on the table, and also the shadow casted by the mug according to the sun’s position in the drawing (a scientific-naïve element). The unsettling element: the tongue with which the sun licks its lips and, especially, the knife it grips in its right hand.

To accompany her image in the dictionary, Susanne provided me with a proverb that says ‘Glück und Unglück ist alle Morgen jedermanns Frühstück’ (‘Happiness and misfortune is everyone's daily breakfast’). For a long time I thought about that phrase. Now I interpret it as follows: breakfast is an elation of life and signifies the triumph of day over night, yes, but it also implies the sacrifice of dreams, imagination, and fantasy. A medieval religious painter could have carved on stone or set in a stained glass window a scene such as this one. An avant-garde artist, having explored and analysed the symbols, would have taken this breakfast anecdote to undreamed limits. A commercial artist, anonymous, would have used the motif as a pattern for the printed wallpaper that, for years, would have brightened up children’s bedrooms.

Vicente Ferrer

Text published (in German) in the homage book to Rotraut Susanne Berner Alphabet & Zeichenstift. Die Bilderwelt von Rotraut Susanne Berner, published by Carl Hanser Verlag (Munich, 2008). Illustration: Frühstück, drawing by R.S.B. for the third edition of the dictionary My First 80,000 Words (Media Vaca, 2008).