Sun, Moon and Owl – The Many Faces of Celestino Piatti
The graphic artist, painter, poster and book designer Celestino Piatti (1922-2007) repeatedly featured timeless motifs such as suns and owls in his work. The Zentralbibliothek Zürich holds items such items in its collection as posters for the referendum on the library extension. However, some lesser-known aspects of his work are still waiting to be discovered.
A first competition entry
In a Swiss school calendar, you’ll find one of the Zurich-born artist’s earliest creative expressions: in 1938, when he was just sixteen years old, Piatti offered us a first sample of his artistic skill when he took part in a drawing competition associated with the Pestalozzi calendar and won a prize.
His picture shows a group of mourners by the beloved calendar’s graveside. The linocut skilfully makes use of what this medium has to offer: the adults’ faces are furrowed with worry and grief, while the children wipe tears from their eyes with angular movements of their arms. In the background, the gnarled branches of a bare tree reach into the sky, but offer no succour.
From calendar to calendar
Many years later, Piatti would, once again, contribute his art to a Swiss school calendar, this time as a renowned graphic artist: from 1964 to 1974, readers of the cover of the ‘My Friend’ youth calendar were treated to a Piatti sun.
The profile of the moon is set into the face of the sun. This creates a ‘Janus-like’ impression, as Andreas Platthaus described it in the anniversary publication. In this way, Piatti gives these heavenly bodies a pensive aspect, indirectly recalling his picture books, which combine humour and deeper meaning in equal measure.
The sun and moon are key motifs in Piatti’s work, alongside perhaps his best-known subject: the owl. He didn’t just commit this to paper – he even cast it in metal.
A red owl in the Graphic Collection
That’s how an iron owl made its way into the Zentralbibliothek Zürich’s Graphic Collection. Painted bright red, and a little larger than life, this majestic bird is full of grace and grandeur. It entered the collection following the exhibition curated by Bruno Weber, ‘Celestino Piatti. Thirty years of book design’, which was held in the ZB’s Predigerchor chancel in 1986/87 and was accompanied by the publication ‘Meister des graphischen Sinnbilds’ [‘Master of the graphic symbol’].
As captured by German photographer Thilo Beu, the bird also invites you to experience the world through an owl’s eyes, as the artist himself demonstrated. In a reversal of his many images of owls, here he turns a friendly yet penetrating gaze from their perspective on us.
Votes for owl
After 1986, Celestino Piatti created three posters for the Zentralbibliothek. One for the referendum on the ZB Zürich extension, in different versions for the cantonal and city referenda, respectively. ‘Die ZB ist für alle da’ (‘The ZB is there for everyone’) was the striking slogan used at the time by the Yes campaign for the building extension. It was ultimately approved.
The artist also created the exhibition poster for the ‘Celestino Piatti – thirty years of book design’ exhibition in the Zentralbibliothek. It fuses an owl’s head with a book. A third poster depicts the bird of wisdom in many colours. The slogan that runs around the poster, ‘Zürich has many good sides – most of them in the Zentralbibliothek’, was coined by Rainer Diederich, a former head of PR at ZB Zürich.
Write here, not in the book
Piatti made another mark on the ZB in 2001 – with a bookmark, issued by the Friends of the Zentralbibliothek. It provided space for people to make notes with a pencil, also designed by Piatti. ‘Write here, not in the book,’ the ZB urged its readers. This was an appealing way to remind them that the library is a space for all and care is a virtue when handling books.
In this way, Piatti left subtle but powerful traces in the ZB and Zurich as a whole. Celestino Piatti was born in January 1922. He died in December 2007. Here, the arc of time comes to an end, just like a book illustrated by this magnificent artist.
From The Happy Owls to the Holy Night – Celestino Piatti’s picture books
Celestino Piatti – Information
At the Zentralbibliothek Zürich, alongside Piatti’s illustrated books, you’ll also find exhibition catalogues, an anniversary publication and an anthology. Here is a selection:
- ‘Celestino Piatti – Alles was ich male, hat Augen’ [‘Celestino Piatti – Everything I paint has eyes’], edited by Claudio Miozzari and Barbara Piatti – the Celestino Piatti 100th anniversary book
- ‘Piatti für Kinder’ [‘Piatti for Children’], with text by Max Bolliger, Ursula Piatti and others – the seven picture books illustrated by Celestino Piatti in one collection
- ‘Celestino Piatti. Meister des graphischen Sinnbilds’ [‘Master of the Graphic Symbol’], edited by Bruno Weber
The SRF TV show Karussell dedicated an item to Celestino Piatti in January 1987. It features a selection of highlights from his works and an interview with the artist himself.
TV report on Celestino Piatti’s 65th birthday (video: SRF)
Dr. Anna Lehninger, art historian, Graphic Collection and Photo Archive project team member
Header image: The two famous owls on the cover of the picture book ‘The Happy Owls’ (© NordSüd Verlag)
The author created this post based on works referred to in the last section and Bettina Hürlimann’s ‘Die Welt im Bilderbuch. Moderne Kinderbilderbücher aus 24 Ländern’ [‘The World in a Picture Book. Modern Children’s Picture Books from 24 Countries’]. The direct quotations from this book can be found on pages 16 and 67. In ‘Celestino Piatti. Meister des graphischen Sinnbilds’, Hans te Doornkaat describes Piatti’s ‘church or stained-glass window’ style. In ‘Celestino Piatti – Alles was ich male, hat Augen’, the author largely draws on Andreas Platthaus’ contribution, ‘Celestino Piattis Augenblicke’ [‘Celestino Piatti’s Moments’]. He mentions the ‘Janus-like’ nature of the sun on the ‘My Friend’ calendar on page 21.