Exhibition review: Graeme Base – Animalia, Beinart Gallery

Beloved, prolific and bestselling children’s book author and artist is showcased in the latest artistic treat from Melbourne’s Beinart Gallery
Graeme Base, Animalia. Image is a detail from an underwater shipwreck and marine life illustration.

If you’ve had children anytime over the past 30 years, there’s a very high chance that there’s at least one Graeme Base book somewhere on your bookshelf. His enduring, cross-generational appeal can be seen from a quick trip to Readings Kids bookshop on Lygon Street, in the inner Melbourne suburb of Carlton, where you’ll currently find no less than six of his titles. Beinart Gallery’s new exhibition is a showcase of original artworks from four books in his extensive repertoire (well over 20 titles, including books as an illustrator).

For those unfamiliar with Base’s works, they are large-scale, visually spectacular journeys into lands that are often filled with animals from all over the world, often at the total exclusion of human characters. The animals are frequently anthropomorphic, as they go about very human-like activities as plot lines progress.

The books featured in Beinart’s exhibition are 1988’s The Eleventh Hour, 1992’s The Sign of the Seahorse, 1996’s The Discovery of Dragons and, of course, the name of the exhibition, Animalia from 1986, which has sold over four million copies globally, and inspired a TV series in Canada. Not bad for a graduate of Swinburne in Prahran. 

Beinart’s exhibition highlights two of Base’s strongest traits – first, storytelling so simple that it’s more of a functional motif than a narrative structure. For instance Animalia’s use of a simple A-Z format (he used 1-10 in a personal favourite of mine, 2001’s The Waterhole). And second, The Eleventh Hour is an example of Base being methodically clever, taking inspiration from Agatha Christie novels, creating a whodunit mystery which is, in the end, left up to the reader to solve.

As with all shows at Beinart, the quality of work, and their in-gallery presentation, is simply of a staggeringly high standard; the owner, Jon Beinart, is someone who knows and loves what he does. Also, as with all Beinart shows, seeing the originals of these artworks – some of which you may be very familiar with – is a wonderful experience. This rich showcase of works allows you to explore the minute, intricate details of pieces such as Down at the Wreck from Seahorse, and also see black and white rough sketches and works in progress, from all four featured titles.

If you’re unfamiliar with Base’s work, this exhibition will enchant and fascinate you; if you’re already a fan, this will be cloud nine.

As an interesting point of note, Base’s work has been adapted into many mediums in many places, such as the TV show in Canada mentioned above. Another adaptation was in 2001, when Melbourne’s illustrious Malthouse Theatre transformed Seahorse into an on-stage musical, which starred none other than Mad as Hells Shaun Micallef.

Read: Exhibition review: MATTERS, Villa Alba Museum

Base’s world is often lovingly reminiscent of Jim Henson’s work, circa The Dark Crystal (originally 1982, but with a Netflix jumpstart in 2019) or Labyrinth (1986), but his imagination and evident love for what he does makes his work all his own. Along with contemporary Shaun Tan – whose work also graces Beinart regularly – Base is one of the most recognisable and cherished Australian artists, and the quality of this exhibition helps explain why. 

Graeme Base – Animalia  
Beinart Gallery, Melbourne
The exhibition runs until 16 June 2024. 

Graeme Base will be signing his books in person at Beinart Gallery on Saturday 1 June 11am to 1pm. Books are available at the gallery. 

Ash Brom has been writing, editing and publishing books, stories, journals and articles for over 25 years. He is an English as an Additional Language teacher, photographer, actor and rather subjective poet.