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The Modern Child
(Images of Children in Twentieth-Century Art)

September 14, 1999 to November 06, 1999

Ever since the concept of childhood as a distinct developmental stage was introduced by Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, children have served as lightening rods for volatile forces coursing through the culture at large. Idealized as primal innocents and simultaneously exploited for their labor, children in nineteenth-century art and literature became both projections of society's fondest desires and evidence of its most dire failings. Today, in a climate permeated by random violence, this dichotomy is amplified in the contrasting scenarios represented by the shootings at the North Valley Jewish Community Center outside of Los Angeles and at Columbine High School near Denver: in the former, children are merely hapless victims; in the latter, they are also branded as monstrous killers. The questions raised by these incidents--do children require the protection of society or does society require protection from children?--are only the latest manifestations of a centuries-long obsession with childhood. And since most art works portraying children are made by and for adults, it is not surprising that these works reflect the adult fixations prevalent at the time they were conceived.

In Enlightenment philosophy and the early nineteenth-century Romantic stereotypes that devolved from it, the child was kin to the "noble savage." Each ostensibly existed in a pure state of nature, removed from the taint of civilization. This viewpoint was codified in Victorian-era genre paintings that fixed children within a happy sphere apart from adult concerns and knowledge. In the first half of the twentieth century, similar sentiments recur frequently in representational American art. The paintings of Earl Henry Brewster and C. K. Chatterton, for example, depict children gamboling in a bucolic idyll (checklist nos. 5 and 7). Charles Demuth, Louis Eilshemius and Bernard Karfiol add water to the pastoral setting (nos. 16, 18 and 36). And Achsah Barlow Brewster gives us a little girl surrounded by doves, her spiritual siblings (no. 4). In all these pictures, children and the natural environment are paired in a manner whereby each reinforces the inherent goodness of the other.

Anne Higonnet, an art historian who has written extensively on childhood, notes that modernism from the outset cast itself in opposition to the sentimentalizing tendencies that characterize most traditional depictions of children. Whereas domestic genre painting was tainted by its popular appeal and by its association with the feminine (both because women were integral to the domestic environment and because many female artists ended up painting such subjects), modernism purported to be more "honest," anti-commercial and masculine. Although the modernists did not altogether eschew portrayals of children, the formalist bent of styles such as Cubism and Expressionism tended to subordinate the emotional context of these images to issues like color and form (checklist nos. 20, 21 and 54).

If modernists for the most part tried to cleanse their work of sentimentality, they did not altogether reject the Romantic ideal of childhood. Far from it. In their opposition to bourgeois values, avant-garde artists held up childhood as an ideal to be emulated, just as they lionized tribal art and other creations beyond the reach of Western culture. Not only did many modernists admire and collect the art of children, but they also believed that a child's innate spirit of creativity might be preserved in artists who, for whatever reason, had been denied academic training. As Wassily Kandinsky famously noted, those who went to art school learned to master "the practical-purposeful" at the expense of "the ability to hear the inner resonance." For this reason, European modernists singled out self-taught-painters such as Henri Rousseau, and their American colleagues followed suit with artists such as John Kane (checklist nos. 34 and 35) and Grandma Moses (no. 52). These artists were dubbed "naive" because they were thought to possess the mental purity of children.

Of course, any artist with a modicum of social awareness had to recognize that the pristine innocence of a Romantic childhood was the prerogative solely of the upper classes. The privations of Weimar-era Germany were visited with special brutality upon poor children. Käthe Kollwitz was particularly adept at using society's weakest (and cutest) victims to critique prevailing social injustices (checklist nos. 42, 43, 44 and 45). The grating, jarring style employed by other German artists in the 1920s to depict children was in itself a veiled reproach (nos. 2, 64 and 71). Such gangly, ill nourished youths were bound to evoke yearnings for the cherubs of yore. Similarly, the tough, working-class kids seen in the work of American Depression-era social realists such as Ben Shahn had seemingly been robbed of their childhoods by poverty (no. 63). These disparate chroniclers of hard times did not relinquish the ideal of the Romantic childhood; they rather proclaimed it as the birthright of all children, regardless of social station or economic class.

If some left-wing artists used images of children to provoke guilt, the right in times of duress frequently invoked the mantra of "family values." Therefore, not all artists embraced childhood with unqualified enthusiasm. George Grosz, for example, could be scathing in his denunciations of the bourgeois family (checklist nos. 25 and 26), an institution officially enshrined in the Weimar constitution. Some ten years later, under Hitler, Lea Grundig would confront a far more frightening sequel: not only the rigid enforcement of domesticity, but the proliferation of little Nazis (nos. 27 and 28). Even in happier times, at the dawn of the present century, the artist Paula Modersohn-Becker experienced feelings of intense ambivalence toward the idea of childbearing. (She would ultimately relinquish her artistic independence to pregnancy and die following childbirth.) Much as Modersohn-Becker wanted to believe in the myth of the fecund, nurturing earth-mother (no. 50), the children painted by her are often distant, inscrutable creatures (nos. 49 and 51). Not entirely unlike Grundig's young Nazis, Modersohn-Becker's children are somehow outside the reach of adult comprehension.

One of the artists most successful in penetrating the inner psyches of children was Egon Schiele. Himself scarcely past adolescence when he executed his first mature works in 1910, he had a natural affinity for youngsters. It is well known that this affinity led Schiele astray, causing him to be briefly imprisoned on morals charges, but the fact is that almost none of the artist's numerous drawings and watercolors of children are in any sense risqué. His children, on the whole, are a rarity within the genre: real people, with distinctive personalities and preoccupations (checklist no. 59). Where Schiele trod shakier ground was in his depictions of subjects who, though clearly beyond the age of puberty, appear to occupy a nebulous realm somewhere just shy of full-fledged adulthood. However, it must be remembered that child prostitution flourished in Schiele's Vienna, and that the age of consent was fourteen. Schiele himself was very forthright about the matter. "Have adults forgotten how ... aroused by the sex impulse they were as children?" he asked. "Have they forgotten how the frightful passion burned and tortured them while they were still children? I have not forgotten, for I suffered terribly under it."

It was Schiele's contemporary, Sigmund Freud, who truly opened the Pandora's Box of childhood sexuality and dealt a mortal blow to the myth of the Romantic child. For the concept of youthful innocence required, first and foremost, ignorance of all things sexual. From the perspective of a modern viewer, as Higonnet has pointed out, the very suppression of overt sexuality in conventional depictions of children can be subliminally seductive; extreme chastity indirectly suggests its opposite. Today we recognize that the bare-bottomed Coppertone girl and her many pop culture siblings of the 1940s and '50s were subtly imbued with erotic tension. When the self-taught artist Henry Darger "nuded" [his term] comic-strip and coloring-book children in his mural-sized drawings, he was only exposing what was already there (checklist nos. 14 and 15). However, when looking at potentially sexual images of children, whether the period photographs of Peter Altenberg (no. 1) or the current work of Sally Mann (no. 47), one can never be certain how much the child really "knows" and how much is a projection on the part of the artist and/or the viewer. The suspicion that the erotic frisson may be largely in the eye of the beholder accounts for the edgy responses these works frequently elicit.

The notion that children are beset by a host of unruly instincts (sexual and otherwise) that must be tamed by civilization is the direct antithesis of the "noble savage" concept. Accordingly, unsocialized children are not "noble" at all, but frankly dangerous. Animated by recent news events, this view finds expression in the move to criminalize children and in the erosion of the protected status formerly granted youthful offenders. In 1993, the artist Sue Coe returned to her native England to document a case that at the time prompted as much outrage there as "school violence" has here in the United States: the abduction and murder, by two ten-year old boys, of the toddler James Bulger (checklist nos. 8-11). Coe was, however, careful to avoid demonizing the children, and she accompanied her drawings of the young perpetrators with a detailed examination of the oppressive social and economic circumstances under which they lived. Reared in an environment of poverty and abuse, children may grow up to be violent, not because they are intrinsically bad, but because they are given no alternative.

As a woman speaking out on behalf of marginalized members of society, Coe uses sentiment in the traditional manner of nineteenth-century genre painters, to pinpoint injustice and spur reform. Other contemporary artists, more influenced by so-called post-modern trends, seldom tell didactic stories, and portraits of children, as such, are considerably rarer today than in prior eras. Childhood, on the other hand, is a favorite subject among baby-boom artists, who frequently manifest a narcissistic absorption in their own gaping childhood wounds or a more benign, escapist desire to return to a world populated by Barbie dolls and G. I. Joes. If the Enlightenment gave us the concept of childhood as a separate developmental stage, the late twentieth century may have succeeded in eradicating the concept of adulthood. Thanks to modern medicine and plastic surgery, people believe they need never grow old, and many refuse as well to grow up. Whereas in Puritan times, children were dressed like miniature adults, today tee-shirts and jeans are the uniform of toddlers and grannies alike. Perhaps this is the real reason our children are in trouble: because some adults literally do not see them any more, except as extensions of themselves.