Father Cocagnac: the psychedelic publisher priest

By Cécile Boulaire

“Certain illustrators have a spontaneity, a freshness and a freedom of invention that go hand in hand with a total mastery of their craft. These are the artists we should turn to when we seek to enlighten children’s minds through images.”

Cocagnac A.-M. « L’esprit d’enfance ». In: Enfance, tome 21, n°5, 1968. pp. 409-414.

Even before the events of 1968, a handful of publishers in France were committed to reinvigorating picture books produced for children. Some were art publishers, often in the avant-garde, such as the photography publisher Delpire. Occasionally, other innovators were to be found in more unusual places.


The publishing house Les éditions du Cerf was founded in 1929 by the Dominican order. In the early 1960s, Father Cocagnac, a painter, musician, writer and traveller, who had entered the Dominican order after being in the Resistance, set up a publisher’s series for Cerf devoted to sacred art.  He soon turned his attention to children’s books with a series of catechisms, entitled « Les Albums de l’Arc-en-ciel » [Rainbow picture books] (1963-1968), for which he called upon the talents of two great artists, Alain Le Foll and Jacques Le Scanff. For the erudite Cocagnac, only the finest artists were good enough for children, and for the word of God. Speaking of le Foll and Le Scanff, he praised “their depiction of characters, their expression of movement, and the way they situate biblical life in a specific time and place which is not idealised, nor schematised nor hieratic, and is instead full of life.” The picture books of these artists prefigured the audacity that would subsequently be adopted more systematically by explicitly provocative, avant-garde publishers.

Jacques Le Scanff’s characters from the Bible have a troubling humanity, and his biblical scenes use striking imagery that speaks to children’s imaginations.

Saint Paul rencontre Jésus [Saint Paul meets Jesus], text by A.M.Cocagnac, images by Jacques Le Scanff, 1964 (n°12)

Jonas [Jonah], text by A.M.Cocagnac, images by Jacques Le Scanff, 1963 (n°5)

Le Baptême de Jésus [the baptism of Jesus], text by A.M.Cocagnac, images by Jacques Le Scanff, 1964 (n°11)

Alain Le Foll drew upon a large palette of styles, from the very austere to the psychedelic.

Jésus au bord du lac [Jesus by the lake], text by A.M. Cocagnac, images by Alain Le Foll, 1963 (n°6)

Moïse [Moses], text by A.M. Cocagnac, images by Alain Le Foll, 1967 (n°23)

From 1969 onwards Cerf began to publish picture books that were not directly concerned with the catechism. In his series « La Rivière enchantée » [the enchanted river], Father Cocagnac introduced French children to the wonderful talents of Japanese artists such as Ken Wakayama, Chihiro Iwasaki, and Kota Taniuchi.

Ken Wakayama, Tout est blanc, pas pour longtemps, images by the author, French text by A. M. Cocagnac, 1971 (n°5)

Chihiro Iwasaki, Mon oiseau est revenu, images by the author, French text by A. M. Cocagnac, 1972 (n°9)

Kota Taniuchi, Qui m’appelle ?, images by the author, French text by A. M. Cocagnac, 1971 (n°4)

Then in the series « Les Contes du hibou – collection jaune » [the owl’s tales – yellow series], father Cocagnac gave free rein to his inspiration as traveller and musician (he had recorded biblical songs with the folksinger Graeme Allwright) in a collection of picture books that celebrated the figure of the solitary traveller, a pacifist and an artist, who has a gift for speaking to children.

A.M. Cocagnac, La Flûte de Totito [Totito’s flute], images by the author, 1970 (n°4)

L’Opéra de Jonas [Jonah’s opera], words and images by A.M. Cocagnac, 1970 (n°4)

L’Opéra de Jonas [Jonah’s opera], text and images by A.M. Cocagnac, 1970 (n°4)

Many of his images echo those produced by Alain Le Foll for C’est le bouquet in the same period, in their denunciation of encroaching urbanisation, and their imagined liberation of children through giant psychedelic flowers taking over cities….

A.M. Cocagnac, La ville aux mille tours [The city of a thousand towers], images by the author, 1969 (n°3)

C’est le bouquet, text by Claude Roy. Illustrations by Alain Le Foll, Paris : Delpire, 1964.

C’est le bouquet, text by Claude Roy. Illustrations by Alain Le Foll, Paris : Delpire, 1964.

L’Opéra de Jonas [Jonah’s opera], text and images by A.M. Cocagnac, 1970 (n°4)

 

 


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