THE illustrations in children's books are among the best ways of helping a child to enjoy art, but usually these illustrations, brilliant though they often are, serve the story and are not the primary purpose of the book. Among publishers of children's books, however, there is one notable exception to this rule: a house called Bohem Press, based in Zurich.
The story of Bohem Press and its founder, Otakar Bozejovsky von Rawennoff, reads like a modern fairy tale - fraught with perils along the way, but with a very happy ending. The origins of Bohem Press can be traced back to the 19th century and northeastward from Bohemia (from which it takes its name) to the Moscow of the czars.
The von Rawennoff family had long been prominent art collectors in Russia and were among the primary sponsors of the famed Tretyakov Gallery, which even today remains a major repository of paintings in the Soviet Union. With the coming of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the family emigrated, leaving its priceless art collection behind. The von Rawennoffs settled in Prague, the capital of ancient Bohemia, where they began to collect paintings once again. Unfortunately for the von Rawennoffs and their second art collection, their house was one of only three in Prague destroyed by bombs during World War II.
Otakar von Rawennoff was recently in New York to discuss possible publication of his books in the United States. Looking like a taller, slimmer version of Peter Ustinov, with a cavernous deep voice and pale green eyes, he spoke alternatively in German, English, and Italian about the prevailing passion of his life.
''When I was growing up in postwar Prague,'' Mr. von Rawennoff explained, ''I dreamed of becoming an art dealer like my father and grandfather. But the political and economic restrictions prevailing in Czechoslovakia make this too problematic to be feasible. I turned to my second love, music, and while still in my teens I toured many parts of the world as a double-bass player with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.
''When Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in the spring of 1968, many young Czechs saw the destruction of their hopes for any greater political, economic, or creative freedoms. Many made the decision to leave their homeland, knowing they might never be able to return.''
Otakar von Rawennoff settled in Zurich and realized that there he could at last pursue his childhood dream of working with artists. He learned of a number of Eastern European painters who had emigrated to the West, and he felt a strong desire to help nurture and preserve the particular qualities of these exiled artists' work.
''My idea originally had been to continue the family tradition by opening an art gallery,'' he went on. ''But I had made friends with another expatriate Czech, a painter by the name of Stepan Zavrel, who advised me differently. Zavrel felt that artists could reach a wider audience and find more outlets for their work if there were a publishing house of children's books which featured full-color reproductions of their paintings. So, in 1973, with a modest publication of two books, Bohem Press was born.''
It soon became clear that there was indeed an international market for such books. In their first 10 years, the books of Bohem Press have been published in 22 countries and translated into 20 languages. Bohem Press is the only publisher ever to be awarded the coveted Owl Prize for Popularity in Japan on two separate occasions and to receive the prestigious Premio Grafico of the International Book Fair in Bologna, Italy, three times. It has been awarded the Best Book prize in France and selected for the Best List of the German Youth Book prize. Bohem's co-publishers in many countries have received first prizes for their editions of the books.
The stories in Bohem Press books are often traditional, based on folk tales. You will not find the likes of Mickey Mouse, the Muppets, or Darth Vader. They may have humor, whimsy, or a sense of wonder and mystery, but they often include , as well, a moral - a gentle lesson on human relations or a social theme such as aging or the environment. And in every case the conviction is evident that children can respond to fine art, that the appreciation of color, form, and design is a happy and enriching experience which all children can delight in whether they look on as the books are read aloud, or read the books for themselves.
Although the artists published by Bohem Press include a number of outstanding painters from Western Europe, such as Marie-Jose Sacre, Allison Reed, and Fiona Moodie, artists from Eastern Europe are particularly well represented, in keeping with Otakar von Rawennoff's initial desire to nurture and promote their work in the West.
Stepan Zavrel has been art director at Bohem Press since its beginnings. He has written the texts of books as well as creating the paintings for their illustrations. Zavrel was born in Prague in 1932 and studied film animation at the celebrated Czech Film Academy. (Animation is a field in which many Eastern Europeans have traditionally excelled.) On emigrating to the West, Zavrel obtained a degree in theatrical set design from the Munich Academy of Fine Art. The glowing colors and swirling, floating, jewel-like forms of his style are reminiscent of the Russian painter Marc Chagall. There is always an exuberance of movement in his work, as well as a translucent quality similar to that achieved by the batik method of dyeing fabrics.
The Bulgarian Ivan Gantschev emigrated to West Germany in 1966, having graduated from Bulgaria's National Academy of Art. He has since become known throughout Europe as an unsurpassed master of watercolor technique, working exclusively in that medium. Gantschev continues to look to his Eastern origins for inspiration, especially to the religious icons of his homeland. Their influence can be seen in the straightforward composition of his work. In his own words, Gantschev strives to make each painting ''a meditation.'' There is a subtlety, a lyrical quality of gentleness and harmony, to his work, enhanced no doubt by the muted, watery tones of his colors. If Zavrel's books evoke extravagant flights of fancy, Gantschev's are dreamlike and still, like a wintry scene glimpsed through a frost-covered windowpane.
Jozef Wilkon was born near Kracow, Poland, and his work enjoys the rare distinction of being acclaimed on both sides of the Iron Curtain. His books have received prizes in international contests from Paris to Moscow, and he is particularly loved for the humor and individuality evident in his paintings of animals. Wilkon's work has a spontaneity and a sophistication that give great liveliness to the creatures in his books. There is a similarity in his style to that of the Lithuanian-born artist Ben Shahn.
Although Czech-born Jindra Capek is one of the youngest of Bohem's artists, his art is perhaps the most influenced by traditional styles. Inspired by medieval and Renaissance painting, his work is more overtly representational than that of his colleagues, yet its delicacy and clarity lend it a mystical quality that is both compelling and serene.
The awards and critical acclaim heaped on all of these artists for gallery and museum exhibitions, as well as for their children's books, have firmly established their positions with art-lovers in many countries. In the autumn of 1984 an exhibit of Bohem Press artists will take place at the august Prado Museum in Madrid. But their work is as yet little known in the United States.
One leading US authority, Selma Lanes, author of ''The Art of Maurice Sendak'' and director of the New York art gallery Schiller-Waper, has evaluated their work as follows: ''It's very different from American illustration; it's far more painterly, far more elaborate, sometimes almost like a stage setting. These books are more interested in getting a child caught up with the painting, even if it doesn't give forward movement to the story. They are also less childlike than many American books: more sophisticated.''
The art of Bohem Press has been exhibited at the children's bookshop at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and Little, Brown recently published Jindra Capek's ''The Most Beautiful Song'' and will bring out Ivan Gantschev's ''The Christmas Train'' next fall. But with few other exceptions, the artists of Bohem Press remain to be discovered by Americans.
The high level of art clearly appeals to the adults who buy Bohem Press books for their children. But children are no less enthusiastic. Beth Puffer, manager of Eeyore's Books for Children in New York, which has stocked a few of Bohem's titles, had this to say: ''The reason they sell is that they have a very classic style of illustration, with an old-fashioned charm that can still be appreciated by children today.''
Although children's perceptions and tastes are obviously quite different from adults', one cannot help agreeing with Jozef Wilkon's remarks about his own work , which can stand as well for an explanation of the philosophy behind the founding of Bohem Press: ''I would like to show children a new world. I paint for children from an artist's point of view, so that when they grow up they will understand and respond to modern art.''