Through Childlike Eyes: What Modern Artists Learned from Children’s Art

December 6, 2010

Drawing by Keira Bucher, age 5

The exuberance of a child exploring her world is a pleasure to watch. Children convey an unbridled truth and inventiveness in their observations of the people and objects around them.  Most importantly, they believe in the absoluteness of their place at the center of the universe and the fantastic possibilities of everything within their reach. The magic of children’s art lies in their ability to engage the imagined world, unencumbered by rules of physics or probability, ascribing unique shape and color to everything they see around them.  We were all part of that world at one time in our lives.  We once all intuited the secrets to unbridled creativity. At one time, we were each artists in our own right. Only a small fraction of us, however, have attempted to find the way back.
The idea that modern art looks like something that can be done by a child is a cliché. Yet, most artists understand that to paint in an abstract style is more difficult than representational art by an order of magnitude. The logical breakdown is two-fold: first, to assume that the child is intending to create an abstract work of art. They are, in fact, using untrained muscles and a set of drawing skills not yet impacted by the rules of perspective, relational size and color guidelines that impede the rest of us. They are working hard to create a realistic drawing and, for them, their effort, no matter how quaint or ‘primitive’ in our view, is usually a success from theirs; the second is to assume that the professional artist is not capable of creating a refined rendering of their subject. Suspending the formal rules of rendering or mark-making in art, in the interest of a desired effect or impact on the viewer, is only possible once you understand what those rules are. Their finished product may look accidental or erroneous, but the intention is most often deliberate and calculated.

Wassily Kandinsky, Little Pleasures (1913) includes references to drawings of his childhood village in Russia

To what end, you may ask?


In order to understand the apparent visual link between children’s art and its possible influence on the ‘childlike’ features of certain modernist works, it is important to highlight the research of Jonathan Fineberg and his publication, The Innocent Eye (1997). Years of exhaustive research on the topic resulted in his curating a 1995 exhibition, “The Innocent Eye-Children’s Art and the Modern Artist”, at two European museums. Feinberg noted that, “the roots of child art lie in the Romantic movement and their notion of ‘genius’ in the form of childlike innocence. Accordingly: they believed that children have more direct access to artistic inspiration; the ability to see things objectively, what Ruskin, in 1850, called, ‘without consciousness of what they signify’; the ability to see beyond the appearance to the ‘truth’ of things and fourth; a privileged view of the mysteries of life.”

Fineberg then goes on to say that, “As realism and then Impressionism placed unprecedented priority on objective, unfettered vision, the notion of what Ruskin had termed, ‘the innocence of the eye’ was transformed into an active aesthetic principle.” So, as the turn of the 20th century ushered in a whole new way of looking at and thinking about the world, led by advances in science, industry and technology, artistic pursuits had to go in search of appropriate inspiration. One result was the re-birth of the naïveté of simpler times. It took the form of the Arts and Craft Movement in the U.S. and the introduction of African and other remote tribal cultural influences in artistic expression, drawn from worlds far-removed from Western society. This so-called ‘Primitivism’ was an increasingly important influence in the work of major European artists of that time. There was erroneously thought to be a bridge between these far-flung examples of crudely-executed figurative sculpture and drawings and the creative output of children. Although misguided in their view, misogyny and ethnocentrism nevertheless prevailed, as newly-explored parts of the world opened to the scrutiny of the Anglo-European intellectual community.

Pablo Picasso, Paloma en Bleu (1952)

As a result of this assumed link, the experimental, even politically-radical climate within artistic movements in Europe, surrounding the World War I period, would begin to make allowances for the inclusion of children’s art. As more traditional sources of inspiration and old-school methods of making art were being challenged, new, more ‘modern’ approaches dominated the scene. Again, Fineberg notes that Andre Derain commented, in 1902, “I like to study the drawings of kids. That’s where the truth is, without a doubt.” August Macke, in The Blue Rider Almanac commented, “Are not children more creative in drawing directly from the secret of their sensations than the imitator of Greek forms?” And he observes that, for the Dadaists, childhood served as a symbol of their strategic retreat from social norms in search of spontaneity. For the Russian Symbolist painter, Leon Bakst, “what delights and moves us [in children’s’ pictures] is candor/sincerity, movement and clear, clean color.”


Artists like Henri Matisse noted the importance of children’s art, but did not eagerly embrace it as an influence in his work; Wassily Kandinsky collected children’s work and actively included imagery from some of these drawings in his paintings, particularly in his earlier pre-war landscapes; Picasso was known to say that, “when [he] was a child, [he] could draw like Raphael. It took [him] years to learn to draw like a child.” While he never actively embraced children’s motifs in his work, it is to certain aspects of Picasso’s oeuvre that the attribution of ‘childlike’ is most frequently applied. This is clearly unwarranted, as the complexity of his imagery is often veiled in the appearance of simplicity, even crudeness. These characteristics of seeming spontaneity and simplicity of line took him, as for most artists choosing to work in this style, years to perfect.

Jean Dubuffet, Poiro Zanzibar (1962), Private Collection
Joan Miro and Paul Klee are often seen to work in a ‘childlike’ style of simple geometric forms and scattered, gravity-defying figuration. For Klee, as Fineberg points out, “the discovery of a set of his own childhood drawings set him on a path of cataloguing ‘these primitive beginnings of art’… and to have them serve, in part, as coordinates for his own mature artistic journey.” For Miro, on the other hand, the author notes that his fascination with the drawing of his own daughter, born in 1930, held him spellbound. Unlike his own childhood drawing, which lacked spontaneity and exuberance, Miro spent his lifetime trying to recapture the direct connection to the subject that he believed characterized children’s art. As he told the French art critic, Dora Vallier, “The older I get and the more I master the medium, the more I return to my earliest experiences. I think that at the end of my life I will recover all the forces of my childhood.”

It can certainly be said that, as the 20th century progressed and the post-World War II period ushered in the Abstract Expressionists like Pollack and de Kooning and Rothko, the art of throwing, dripping, splashing and troweling paint onto canvas in gestures befitting the most aggressive child reached a high point. The expressive immediacy of deliberately ‘bad art’ can be seen in later works by Jean-Michael Basquiat, Karel Apel and Jean Dubuffet. The point of their work is not to flaunt the rules learned as a result of years of art training, but to apply those skills in emulating the experiential directness and unfiltered sensations of a child’s perception of the world.

Their bold attempts at the mastery of naïveté could only be approximations of the truth, as seen through the eyes of a child. Over the generations of the modern and post-modern period, artists have embraced the knowledge that their work can only be a simulation of the vivid reality and unfiltered consciousness of childhood. And every artist has understood that there is no returning.

By Richard Friswell, Publisher and Executive Editor

Reference: Jonathan Fineberg, The Innocent Eye, Princeton University Press, 1997.

In the World of Fine Art, Can We Say, “Primitive”?

November 9, 2010

Prehistoric Altamira cave paintings, France

In the 1990s, I recall watching Sister Wendy Beckett, the reluctant celebrity spokesperson for a popular PBS series on art appreciation. This sequestered nun, who for decades had lived under a vow of silence, had gained notoriety for her views on famous works of art and now stood in her nun’s habit waxing vociferously before the prehistoric Altamira cave paintings. Self-taught and passionate about the history of art, she gestured at the figures of stampeding bison and elk behind her and said, “These images are 15,000 years old. In the millennia that followed, art didn’t get any better than this, just different.”

In a few words, she summed up the argument for why we should not apply the word, ‘primitive’ to any artistic or material object from cultures far removed from our own tastes and values, simply because we do not understand them.

Early 20th C. Yombe maternity figure, Rep. of Congo

On this, All Saints’ Day (November 1st), cultures throughout the world travel to cemeteries to celebrate the lives of deceased loved ones and ancestors, long-dead. It is a joyous event, with food shared and offered up and tender care given to the graves of the deceased. As hard as this may be to understand, are these rituals anymore primitive or morbid than our pagan celebration of Halloween the day before?

So, as we seek to understand the art and cultures of other peoples, especially in this period of inclusivity in our own history, where does the word ‘primitive’ fit in our lexicon—or does it at all?

Nineteenth century adventurism and usurpation of far-flung lands led to many abuses.

Mid-18th C. graven image, Wakefield, Massachusetts

Western cultural ethnocentrism and misogyny, combined with common practices of tomb raiding, careless and heavy-handed archeological ‘digs’, amounting to blatant theft of cultural artifacts, led to the unregulated and unquestioning sale of untold priceless artifacts to countless private collectors and newly-founded museums in many western countries.

These illicit activities had the effect of bringing to public attention new categories of art and artifacts that defied aesthetic understanding and categorization, under conventional Western terms. The word, ‘primitive’ was often used to describe objects of great inherent beauty and value, but, as it happened, just not to those currently in possession of them! It became a term that was applied to cultural artifacts that people were seeing, but not understanding. The rich symbolism, iconographic significance and ritualistic import of these art forms were left behind, as surely as the societies from which they had been taken.
Only with the increased awareness that the emerging field of cultural anthropology brought to the table in the mid-twentieth century, did questions begin to be raised about the possible inherent beauty and significance of these plundered treasures, culled from worlds so far apart and unfamiliar from our own.

H.W. Janson’s well-know 1962 text, ‘History of Art’, devotes nine full pages to a discussion of ‘primitive art’. Featuring mostly African, Inuit, Pacific islands and native American sculpture, Janson’s narrative is a compelling and useful read—because it offers what I believe is a helpful definition of what ‘primitive’ is and how it can be independently and respectfully applied to cultures, separate from their art forms, in various parts of the world.

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, Mus. Modern Art, NYC

Thus, Janson defines ‘primitive’ in a social/cultural context as; “societies remote, isolated and set apart physically from the rest of the world; using Stone Age or ancient tool methods; rural and self-sufficient; tribal, not city-states; without written records, thus, ahistorical; static, not dynamic or progressively expansive; defensive toward outsiders and favoring ancestral worship.”

This behavioral definition, while largely outmoded in today’s world of global interconnectivity, sheds light on a useful distinction between a cluster of societal postures that make for a collective identity, on the one hand, and the art and artifacts produced by those same societies, on the other.

Karl Schmidt-Ruttloff, Maidchen aus Kowno, 1918

Though socially isolated, this particular definition does not detract from the fact that these ‘primitive’ communities may be capable of creating objects with all the inherent qualities of beauty, form and balance that rival objects more familiar to our Western eyes. Thus, primitive is a term reserved for the chosen lifestyle of selected cultures or peoples, not necessarily for their material output.

By the early 21st century, many art history texts had relegated any discussion of ‘primitive’ to the Primitivist movement of the early modern period. Then, artists like Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Henri Rousseau sought to capture the simplicity of form and composition seen in works from Africa, Columbian America and the pacific islands, as well as in children’s art, folk and naïve art (now called ‘outsider art’) and even in that of the mentally ill! Like other artists of that time (including Picasso), there was a shared assumption about the primal authenticity and purity of form that elevated these foreign objects to the realm of the mysterious and iconic—yet another likely disservice to their practical and functional indigenous origins.

So, elegant art and artifacts can emanate from so-called primitive cultures, although fewer such societies functioning in isolation from the rest of the world exist today. It is important to note however, that their art is not, by definition, primitive. Our view of it may be affected by our own ignorance or misinformation, but not necessarily by any limitation in their vision or ability to convey symbolic meaning through the objects they, themselves, value and revere.
By Richard Friswell, Publisher and Executive Editor

Robbed or Deprived of Fine Art and Historical Artifacts, We All Die a Little

October 22, 2010

Lioness Attacking a Nubian, Ivory, (8th c. BC). One of thousands of artifacts still missing since the looting of the National Museum of Iraq , a masterpieces from museum's collection.

An article in the New York Times came to my attention recently. It noted that the looting of Iraq’s ancient ruins is rampant again.  With the withdrawal of U.S. troops, many sites known to contain priceless artifacts are being looted by thieves and opportunists who see profit, rather than cultural treasure buried in the sands surrounding Bagdad.  Ironically, former officials and employees of the Iraqi, State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, may be the very ones taking advantage of the vacuum in enforcement left by the coalition withdrawal, since they are most familiar with where opportunity lies, so to speak. The newly-installed government was to have a staff of 5000 protecting the artifacts of their national heritage, but, unfortunately, there are currently only 106 on the job; barely enough to guard the Ottoman-era mansion in their capital city, let alone keeping a watchful eye over a country the size of California.

Most of you recall the looting of Iraqi National Museum in the days following the American invasion in 2003, when thousands of objects, including many recognized world-wide for their beauty and historical relevance, disappeared into the alleyways and backrooms of collectors and black market traders.  Closing the barn door after the horse had run out, American authorities explained this atrocity as an oversight, based on the other priorities that occupied their attention at the time.  That may be a rational assessment, but it nevertheless, reflected poor planning, operational control and a misread on the deeply enduring cultural significance of this country, in spite of the corruption that had persisted there for generations.

The destruction and desecration of treasured artifacts is not new.  In fact, it has a long and illustrious history. Invading countries destroy and pillage one another’s precious possessions for two reasons: subjugation and profit.  Biblical records report the destruction of the Solomon’s Temple in Judea in 422 B.C. , before the Babylonians marched the Jews off to several hundred years of bondage in a foreign land. The Second Temple was subsequently destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. to drive home the point that they were in control of the Holy Land (the remaining foundation of that structure is now the Wailing Wall, a centerpiece of the Jewish faith).  But, from those early incidents, including the burning of libraries by Alexander the Great, to the pillaging of treasures by the troops on behalf of the royal sponsors of crusading Soldiers of the Cross during the medieval Holy Wars, to the bombing of churches and museums by both sides in the 20th century’s two world wars, or the razing of historic properties to make way for condominiums, destruction of historically-relevant symbols of our past has been a form of mind control that rivals any action a terrorist might dare in the heart of a large city today.

Alfred Sisley, The lane of Poplars at Moret (1890). Recently stolen from a French muesum

Theft of fine art continues to make headlines, even today. The removal of art and artifacts from their indigenous surroundings, or from the museums and homes that display them, is more a matter of greed and ego, than of spite and revenge.  With international data banks and global alert systems now in place, it would seem impossible that any notable work of art or object could successfully find a market.  Many of these works, though, find their way into the very private collections of wealthy, but obsessive megalomaniacs, or lie rolled up in foreign vault for decades, until finally discovered and being returned to their rightful owners.  It is common knowledge that if certain desirable Chinese Eastern Zhou or Tang artifacts, removed and packed up from freshly raided tombs in the countryside, can make their way to Shanghai or Hong Kong, they are safe from the intervention of local and regional authorities and can be expediently dispatched by the container-load to Western markets.  While Chinese nationals on that side of the Pacific and Native American activists here have both effectively curtailed certain kinds of vandalism and abuse of grave sites and other symbolically-rich cultural materials, and ultimately repatriated these objects, it is only a fairly recent phenomenon.

Through Western eyes, the destruction of Afghanistan’s, 1500-year old, 30-story tall carving of two Buddhas in the region of Bamiyan, north of Kabul, by the Taliban in 2001 was considered a travesty.  The rationale of the ruling mulahs: that there were no Buddhists left in the country and, in the eyes of the Islamic faith, any representation of the human form was considered idolatrous.  The world stood by helpless as these cliff-side figures were first fired at with artillery shells and eventually dynamited into oblivion.  In this case, should we respect the cultural values of the Afghanis or consider it an abuse of cultural stewardship?

Destruction of the 6th c. Bhuddas by the Taliban at Bamiyan, Afghanistan, 2001

And this was only one example of the obliteration of treasures which, by virtue of their longevity and high public profile, truly belong to the world.  Such destruction (while more public than most) occurs somewhere in the world every day.  In the name of corporate development, urban expansion, demands for water and oil and a seemingly insatiable desire to acquire-for-acquisition’s-sake, the jewels of our historical and cultural crowns are being traded away to the highest bidder or are falling prey to political and theological ambitions.

We must find the means to value and protect the legacy of our past…those ‘things’ that have been handed down, entrusted to us for safe-keeping.  These are not primitive objects or crude renderings of faces long departed. Often elegantly and skillfully rendered, these pieces serve as a collective consciousness for civilization as a whole.  Whether we parse the globe ethnically, socially, by religious or political preference, by gender, geographical latitude, heritage or family history, careful examination of the relics and artifacts of our past reveals a common theme:  humanity is bound together by a slender thread of shared and remarkably similar emotions and memories.  We must never relinquish these bonds to our history, even under the greatest objections; and with the knowledge that, once we turn our attention away from our heritage, it will imperil us all in ways we cannot possibly foresee.

By Richard Friswell, Publisher and Executive Editor

A World Without Borders: Cultural Diplomacy in a Global Environment

October 12, 2010

Our Best Hope

“Our best hope lies in our nascent arts. For if we are to be remembered merely as the people who lived, loved, made war and died; then it is for our arts that we must be remembered.  Captains and kings vanish. Great fortunes dissipate leaving hardly a trace.  Inherited morals, like inherited wealth disappear so rapidly, the multitudes flock away like locusts.  Walls and the records tumble and the leaders, too. The leaders too, are soon forgotten unless they have the wisdom and foresight to surround themselves with doers, poets—artifices of things of the mind and the heart.” -Maxwell Anderson (c. 1935)

Andy Warhol's, Marilyn, on display in Abu Dhabi

The words of this American dramatist and man-of-letters were penned more than a half-century ago and yet, they still resonate today.

Political divisions, economic challenges and regional conflicts are felt more acutely now than ever before, given our emerging presence as members of a global community.  In a recent symposium on cultural diplomacy, sponsored by the Aspen Institute, of Colorado, the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. and the John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress, the theme of human values, finding common ground between and among cultures and cultivating a richer understanding of the human condition were explored.

Changing thought processes and attitudes is not an easy task.  The common language that binds all of humanity can be found in our modes of creative expression, however.  The task is to decide how best to deliver that message, as Americans, and how to shape the effort so it is not perceived as self-serving, but rather, invites an enthusiastic and equally well-intended reciprocal response from other countries.  The best and least politically-charged approach to this task, the conference presenters agreed, was through the private sector, where governmental influences are effectively removed, or at least distanced from the core message.

Author, Azar Nafisi. Photo by S.J. Staniski

American cultural diplomacy depends more on the arts than ever before. Consider the following facts: The U.S. military is the largest and most prominent instrument for outreach to the world; the Defense Department budget for U.S military bands is larger than the State Department budget for diplomatic initiatives, worldwide; the budget for the National Endowments for the Arts (NEA) and the humanities (NEH) is a mere 1% of the defense budget and shrinking in terms of real dollars every year; the book, Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson is required reading for all officers serving in Afghanistan, making the point that winning the hearts and minds of the people is the only real way to win a war with a thousand-year history of tribal rule and ethnic clashes.

Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), offers a refreshing perspective, as an Iranian-born woman who is now a U.S. citizen.   She suggests that memory is the basis for individual identity and collectively, for any culture or nation.  National memory spans generations and is not displaced by political or military repression.  The physical manifestation of those collective memories lies in its cultural artifacts: its art, architecture, literature and poetry.  Cultural memory is often ‘stored’ in repositories, called museums. But, in many countries, it can be a ubiquitous part of the national landscape.

Balanese Dancers

Nafisi suggests that a Culture of Imagination transcends borders; knows no gender, race, or religious bias.  Literature, for her, can serve as a universal language that offers a culture of recognition.  We discover ourselves in the reported lives of other people. Our struggles and dreams, desires and hopes are the same. Any government or established political institution cannot possibly reflect the complexity of its people and their beliefs. For example, she points out that the use of the phrase ‘the Muslim World’ is an empty term. The expression attempts to encapsulate geography of thousands of miles and dozens of countries, lumping countless sects and local religious communities into one meaningless, but emotionally-charged image for most Westerners.

So, for cultural diplomacy to serve as an effective alternative to bureaucratic interventions , non-governmental organizations must be prepared to reach out to other countries and cultures as equals, understanding that information flow is a two-way street; a sense of history (collective memory) and knowledge of the intellectual and artistic contributions of those nations is essential and that the world is increasingly ‘borderless’, with technology and economics becoming the great levelers of the playing field and equalizers when it comes to understanding the shift in U.S. supremacy on the world stage. Cultural outreach, including the arts, literature, music and theater becomes a key ingredient to assure ourselves as a nation that our lifestyle and values are represented in a way that neither threatens nor overwhelms, but that we meet our global neighbors and build bridges of understanding on equal and respectful terms. – Richard Friswell


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