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