The notion of
children’s art came into force in the twentieth century,
in particular among schools that were trying to promote the development
of the child’s personality. That was the case with the famous
Freinet Method, named after its founders, Elise and Célestin
Freinet, who—along with Maria Montessori, Ovide Decroly,
and others—promoted what was called the New School or the
People ended up
being persuaded that children are artists and even that the latter
would be the authentic possessors of a kind of “creativity”
(the word is indissociable from this aesthetics of spontaneity)
that regular artists would be seeking somehow or other to rekindle
in themselves. “Creativity” is nothing other than
artistic production as measured by the yardstick of a raw, native
form of expression of which childhood would be the canonical form,
the unsurpassable criterion. In order to lay down the bases for
a debate around the pregnancy of this myth of “creativity”
as the childhood of art—and of the reactions to which it
led, in particular among artists, the primary parties concerned—one
must recall the historical context in which the notion of children’s
art was able to arise, for such a notion is inseparable from the
various avant-gardes of the time. This reminder will lead us to
take up again here some of the conclusions of our work entitled
L’Invention du dessin d’enfant (The Invention
of children’s drawing).(1)
It must be recalled
that the very idea of “children’s art” would
have been inconceivable in the nineteenth century. It would have
then meant something else entirely : a disparaging judgment about
a work of art, lowered to the level of childishness, criticized
for its clumsiness [sa maladresse] and its puerility—pejorative
comparisons with children’s drawing would indeed remain
an enduring topos of art criticism. Nonetheless, we shall
not disregard this former sense which, by a historical twist—one
which we would like, as a matter of fact, to investigate here—was
going to resurface and regain some meaning, thanks to artists
themselves. The twentieth century glorified children’s art
as much under the form of a rediscovered childhood as under that
of a sought-after childishness. We shall endeavor to show how
the two very different meanings became part of the same history:
into the tendency toward voluntary infantilism, so frequently
found in contemporary art, there entered a certain element of
reaction against the myth of the childhood of art, which
had governed creative endeavors from Romanticism to the various
avant-garde movements. If “creativity = childhood,”
all that remained for artists to do was to provide a caricature
of their image as mentally retarded children which had been stuck
onto them in order to rid themselves of it.
Children’s Art: Benchmarks for the Genesis of a Myth
In the nineteenth
century, a whole current of thought inherited from Jean-Jacques
Rousseau and tied to Romanticism likened childhood to the age
of pure perceptions. It was art’s task to endeavor to rediscover
this age. “Genius is but childhood rediscovered at will,”(2)
wrote Charles Baudelaire. This childhood of perception is the
one Gustave Courbet showed us in his work entitled The Painter’s
Studio (1855), where it shared top billing with the artist’s
other muse, the female model. This idealism of pure childhood
is a sort of aesthetic adaptation of the immaculate childhood
found in Christianity: the child’s perception is unblemished,
as the child’s soul is without sin. In an aesthetics that
erected the laws of perception into new criteria for representation
that replace the ancient canons, the childhood gaze, that “ecstatic
curiosity of the child in the face of the new” (Baudelaire)(3),
was raised to the rank of a paradigm, alongside the blind man
who has recovered his sight.
Not far from the
contemplative child Courbet shows us a child drawing—thus,
a childhood that is no longer visual but now manual. What we glimpse
here is a wholly new role for childhood in the arts: with the
child’s hand, it is a production from childhood
that comes to fore, a rough draft of graphical activity, which
is coupled with a sketch of the human figure, since this rough
draft is a “little man” [bonhomme]. It happened
that, in the 1860s and 1870s, some personalities in the world
of art were starting to take an interest in children’s drawings.
These were art critics, such as Champfleury and Zacharie Astruc,
defenders of “modernity” in painting, the modernity
in question being Courbet’s first of all and then Edouard
Manet’s. Neither of them spoke of “children’s
art,” but they insisted upon reproducing children’s
drawings in their works (which thereby constituted a dawning recognition,
without prejudging the precise status to be attributed to the
pieces reproduced), and in the case of Astruc at least, he did
not hesitate to suggest that the child’s “funny figures”
[les “bonshommes” de l’enfant] contained
a power that was lost in more elaborate representations of the
human figure, such as those shown in Salon paintings. Artists
would do well to take a look at what kids produce if they want
to restore some vigor to their works: such was, in substance,
Astruc’s message in his 1859 Salon.(4)
This idea was
going to become a commonplace of the avant-gardes between 1905
and 1914, that is, between Fauvism and Expressionism. It was expressed
in a rudimentary and rather romantic form. Here is how August
Macke, for example, put it in the Almanach der Blaue Reiter
(1912) : “Are not children, who create directly on the basis
of the mystery of their feelings, more creative than the imitator
of Greek forms ? Are not savages artists, those who have their
own form that is as strong as thunder’s ? ” (5) It
was André Derain, ten years earlier, who wrote in a letter
to Maurice de Vlaminck, “I would like to study kid’s
drawings. The truth is no doubt there.”(6)
Here we witness
a falling back upon the old Christian theme of the childhood virginity
of children’s drawing. Children’s drawing would be
the redemption of painting, which has been spoiled by conventions,
corrupted by materialism, and sold out to “practicality.”
This was the argument being developed by Wassily Kandinsky in
1912 (7) : when adults reproach children for not respecting the
size of a chair or of a house in their drawings, they do so because
they are reducing the value of a house to his practical worth,
whereas the child perceives this house from a much more “spiritual”
angle that is to be found in his drawing. Primitivism gives new
life to the Christian inversion that puts the innocent in power,
the smallest on top, and children at the right hand of God :
“At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying,
Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven ? And Jesus called
a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them. And
said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted and become
as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child,
the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”(8)
call to “become as little children” was taken literally
by the primitivists who put on top the ignorant, or those whom
they thought of as such: children, the naive, the insane, and
those who were still being called savages. The Christian background
for this revolution is all the firmer as the edifice it was overturning
was the classical tradition inherited from the Greeks and Romans:
things went as if artists were “replaying” the fall
of Rome and of paganism in the name of a rediscovered spirituality.
With these avant-gardes,
children’s drawing well and truly attained the rank of art,
and the notion of “children’s art” then began
to make itself felt. So as not to remain on the level of intentions
and to make this a reality, the artists of the Blaue Reiter and
some Russian Futurists (such as Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Sergeevna
Goncharova) went ahead and exhibited children’s drawings
alongside their own works, collecting such drawings and copying
them as, previously, people had copied plaster casts and the paintings
of the masters (we are referring here to the pieces reproduced
in Jonathan Fineberg’s book and to his accompanying commentary).(9)
expressed themselves in an incantatory, messianic mode; they rarely
burdened themselves with nuances. Henri Matisse communed in the
cult of childhood, writing for example that “one must look
at all of life with children’s eyes.”(10) But he put
a damper on this primitivist fervor when, while stating that he
shared his peers’ lively interest in children’s drawing,
he also declared that “I do not think that a great deal
should be made of the drawings of children because they don’t
know what they are doing.”(11) The difference is clear :
for the Primitivists, it is really because they do not know what
they are doing that children are artists (under the same heading
as madmen, the naive, and all “innocents” of creation) ;
for Matisse, this is on the contrary an argument against describing
children’s drawing as artistic.
During these same
years, the burgeoning child psychology movement was going to get
involved in the debate. Such a scholarly discourse offered what
was lacking here: an analytical approach to the object in question,
children’s drawing. The experimental psychology of the time
was not content with generalities : it studied the child-illustrator
within the context of his activity (the family or school) ; it
indexed and classified what he drew ; and it tried to understand
to what precisely the need to draw was responding. Being careful
all the while not to formulate an aesthetic judgment—or
to make their own the polemical notion of “children’s
art”—the conclusions found in such works came to reinforce
the thesis of children’s drawing as the childhood of art.
For psychologists, there was no doubt that artistic activity derives
from a need or a drive [une pulsion], the first
manifestation of which is children’s drawing. Georges-Henri
Luquet (a student of Henri Bergson’s who in 1913 devoted
his thesis to the topic of children’s drawing)(12) wrote
that the principles of man’s artistic activity are to be
found at work already in the graphical activity of the child.
On the one hand, children’s drawing is without ulterior
motive ; it comes under the heading of a “game” and
not of “utility.” On the other hand, this game is
“serious” : it has rules of its own; it is organized
and elaborated in ways Luquet described point by point in his
analysis. Far from a chaos and far from the “approximations”
to which the prejudiced would have liked to reduce it, children’s
drawing appears to be dictated by a will to clarify and to abstract
the world, a will to translate reality into a symbolic and synthetic
language that makes of children’s drawing a system of signs.
A faithful follower of the author of Creative Evolution,
Luquet applied to the child’s “doodling” the
idea that chaos is but an order whose laws elude our grasp. Moreover,
the child’s graphical activity, said Luquet, responds to
an absolutely irrepressible need : he employs, in this regard,
the term automatism, which was quite in vogue in his
time to describe everything, within psychical activity, that eludes
the control of reason. This threefold feature of (1) lack of ulterior
motive, (2) elaboration, and (3) vital necessity made of children’s
drawing, if not an art (Luquet refused to speak of children’s
art), at least the direct source of man’s artistic activity.
A decade later,
the German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn was going to publish a
sensational book whose main thesis can be summarized as follows:
at the source of artistic activity is to be found a drive, the
Gestaltung (or drive to “shape,” to “put
into form”)(13). The art of artists is but a watered-down
version of this drive, diluted by academic or commercial compromises
and by the requirements of communication, whereas what the mentally
ill produce yields us this drive in its raw state, without the
least concession to external imperatives—mental illness
provoking a regression in the subject toward instinctual
states [états pulsionnels]. The more primitive
this shaping instinct, the more original it is : it was quite
natural then for Prinzhorn to have placed children’s drawing
alongside the drawing of the sick in its pure forms of expression
that spring from the very depths of the subject, unfiltered by
the codes of education, fashion, or the market. With Prinzhorn,
it was no longer a matter of knowing whether the work of children
and the insane was artistic: it is because such work is not
artistic that it is authentic; the term drive or expression
rises above that of art upon a scale of values that places individual
difference [l’écart individuel]
above norms and common language. Prinzhorn’s psychiatric
treatise came at the right time to confirm the expressive
aesthetics then prevalent in the various avant-garde movements.
of children’s drawing by the overlapping contributions of
an aesthetics and a psychology of expression would end up having
repercussions in the field of teaching : little by little, artistic
education was going to go from a learning of artistic codes
(perspective, relief, etc.: the laws of mimesis) to a development
of expression in which the child was asked, not to acquire
rules, but to give voice to his gifts, his innate sense of color
and form. This was a crucial stage : art teaches the childhood
of art ; teaching to children becomes a teaching of
childhood. This extension from the aesthetic to the didactic (the
Bauhaus playing a key role in this conversion) dramatically testifies
to the avant-garde’s takeover of institutions ; it sealed
the social coronation of avant-gardism, which attained the rank
of the vernacular. At this key moment, Picasso would be led to
say, “We are told that children must be left to be free.
In reality, they are forced to make children’s drawings.
They are taught to make them. They are even taught to make children’s
drawings that are abstract.”(14)
quest for the childhood of art and the pedagogical channeling
of children’s drawing enter into a complicit relationship
that can be summed up in three phases :
1. Artists champion
childhood in their quest for the basic, for spontaneity, and for
invoke artists in order to work out a vocabulary of forms that
are supposed to respond to the expectations of childhood.
3. Children copy the “children’s form” concocted
by artists’ and pedagogues’ official “childhood
of art.” This is nothing but a model, and children are here
nothing but executants, but since this model takes childhood as
its pretext, everything happens as if the spontaneity has remained
intact. While the models have taken on the appearance of childhood,
the modeling, for its part, has not given in an inch.(15)
Puerile Art, Childhood of Art
This process whereby the childhood of art gained hegemony and
became official had its dissidents, and they were there from the
start of the avant-garde movement. For these dissenters, this
great regressive illusion had to be demystified. Their strategy,
as well, was going to consist in tackling the problem of childhood,
but by reflecting an image of it that was completely at odds with
the ambient angelism ; they sought to desacralize childhood—so
as, perhaps, to rediscover its true salt.
The master among
these opponents of the childhood of art was Alfred Jarry. With
his bad doodlings, he was clearly seeking to destroy the model
child of painting already rife in his time with a Paul Gauguin
and an Émile Bernard who, as Vincent Van Gogh had reported,
claimed to be doing “children’s painting.”(16)
In the twentieth century, Jarry’s offspring formed a sort
of informal brotherhood. Therein one finds Pablo Picasso, Joan
Miró, Jean Arp, and Roberto Matta, leading up to more contemporary
figures like the Englishman Barry Flanagan—all artists who,
at one moment or another, have declared their loyalty to Jarry
and his undermining of the childhood of art via the puerility
of doodling. Puerility vs. childhood, childishness vs. children’s
drawing—these are the terms of the war these agnostics led
against the inveterate romanticism of the various avant-gardes
and against the incurable quest for innocence which became the
apostles of elementary form and color.
Where is the childhood
of art at now, at the beginning of this twenty-first century ?
It has changed. It is no longer the quest for innocence, which
fed the avant-gardes of the past century. It may be said, in a
way, that it has succeeded in preserving its aura of authenticity,
while at the same time stealing from its detractors—the
Jarryists—the subversive force of a demystified childhood.
One of the most official artists of our time, consecrated by a
Jack Lang who commissioned him to decorate the rooms of the French
Ministry of Culture when the latter took up his post in 1981,
is none other than Pierre Alechinsky, an artist who has been able
to procure from doodling and slapdash work a genuine stylistic
effect that makes explicit reference to the writing of dunces
and to the blotted pages of a schoolboy’s notebook. The
myth has been renewed by coopting its successive demystifications:
this is a classic phenomenon that is accompanied by a gradual
extension of this myth, departing from the spheres of art in order
to reach those of business and the media.
In a society that
claims to be “creative” on all levels (see the analyses
of Luc Boltanski and Eve Chapello in Le Nouvel Esprit du capitalisme),(17)
the child becomes the universal model for permanent and spontaneous
inventiveness. “Long live brats and hoodlums” is a
slogan that could be read on the walls of Paris in May 1968.(18)
This could be the motto of our “creative types” in
all areas of endeavor today, a bit hoodlums and very brattish,
unless the reverse would be the case. The artist, in the sense
the word has taken on in our time (designating pretty much everyone:
anyone who would henceforth be an artist in his line of work)
is a superchild, an adult who would have stolen from childhood
its faculties of creation and permanent invention.
The escalation of childishness recognizable on the artistic stage
today can be interpreted as one final spurt of the childhood of
art seeking its salvation in obscenity, vacuity, and insignificancy,
which would render it definitively beyond cooptation. The “idiocy”(19)
Jean-Yves Jouannais praises (and which he recognizes in such artists
as Pierrick Sorin, Alain Séchas, Mac Carthy) is perhaps
only the ultimate symptom of the nostalgia of art for the childhood
of art, which, to a final farewell, prefers instead a disenchanted,
worldly-wise, and aged childhood—in short, adolescence.
One can certainly
be understanding of the guerilla war contemporary art is leading
against media alienation and against the cretinization of minds
of which childhood has become the symbol : consumerist childhood,
that is, both a subject and an object of advertising par excellence.
Advertising makes use of children to sell us anything and everything,
but it is because it succeeds in selling us anything and everything
that we have become children, in this permanent Christmas of the
advertising spot. To sell an object from 7 to 77 years, as every
marketing firm dreams of doing (and often succeeds in doing) is
not to sell to “juniors” what is destined for “seniors,”
but always the reverse, thereby extending childhood to all ages.
This is a generalized infantilism, but one that rests, obviously,
upon a cliché : upon a childhood as vapid and distorted
as the pious images of the Baby Jesus in the age when Velázquez
knew how to paint childhood without putting any piety into it.
Perhaps we should henceforth ask ourselves about the reality of
childhood, rather than contrasting clichés with clichés,
countering the cheerful fair-haired boys of advertising with the
perverse nymphettes of mangas—our images of modern piety.
Childhood is a great topic, but curiously one about which, with
some exceptions (especially cinematographic ones—let us
think of Abbas Kiarostami—sometimes literary ones), the
world of art seems to have forgotten. The art of childhood, that
of showing childhood and testifying for it, is not to be summed
up in the childhood of art.
2. Charles Baudelaire, “Le peintre de la
vie moderne,” in Œuvres complètes,
vol. 3, ed. and intro. Claude Pichois (Paris: Gallimard/Bibliothèque
de la Pléiade, 1976), p. 690.
4. Zacharie Astruc, Les 14 stations du Salon,
1859, suivies d'un récit douloureux, preface by George
Sand (Paris: Poulet-Malassis et de Broise, 1859), pp. 110-112.
5. August Macke, “Les masques,” in
L’Almanach du Blaue Reiter, ed. Wassily Kandinsky
and Franz Marc, intro. et notes Klaus Lankheit (Paris: Klincksieck,
1987), p. 113.
6. André Derain, Lettres à
Vlaminck, suivies de la correspondance de guerre, ed. and
intro. Philippe Dagen (Paris: Flammarion, 1994), p. 89.
7. Wassily Kandinsky, “Sur la question
de la forme” (1912), in Regards sur le passé
et autres textes, 1912-1922, ed. and intro. Jean-Paul Bouillon
(Paris: Hermann, 1974).
8. Matthew 18:1-4 (King James Version).
9. Jonathan Fineberg, The Innocent Eye: Children’s
Art and the Modern Artist (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University
10. Henri Matisse, Écrits et propos
sur l’art, ed. Dominique Fourcade (Paris: Hermann,
1972), p. 321 (title of an interview conducted by Régine
Pernoud and published in Le Courrier de l’Unesco,
6:10 [octobre 1953]). This title borrows from a phrase employed
by Matisse during the interview: “All of life must be seen
as when one was a child.”
11. Interview conducted by Guillaume Apollinaire,
“Les arts – Dessins d’enfants,” Paris-Journal,
June 7, 1914, in Œuvres en prose complètes,
vol. 2, ed. and intro. Pierre Caizèrgues and Michel Décaudin
(Paris: Gallimard/Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1991),
12. Georges-Henri Luquet, Les Dessins d’un
enfant, étude psychologique, a work illustrated with
more than 600 reproductions (Paris: Alcan, 1913).
13. Hans Prinzhorn, Bildnerei der Geisteskranken:
ein Beitrag zur Psychologie und Psychopathologie der Gestaltung
(Berlin: J. Springer, 1922). The French translation of this volume
of insane asylum drawings, paintings, and sculptures was edited
and introduced by Marielène Weber, translated from the
German by Alain Brousse and Marielène Weber, with a preface
by Jean Starobinski (Paris: Gallimard/Bibliothèque de l’inconscient,
14. Pablo Picasso, Propos sur l’art,
Marie-Laure Bernadac and Androula Michael, eds. (Paris: Gallimard,,
1998), p. 149 (interview conducted by Hélène Parmelin
in Picasso dit… [Paris: Gonthier, 1966], p. 86).
15. Recent examples of this “modeling”
of modern and contemporary art may be found in Renaud d'Enfert
and Daniel Lagoutte’s Un Art pour tous, le dessin à
l'école de 1800 à nos jours (Rouen: INRP/Musée
National de l'Education, 2004). Kandinsky, Picasso, Chaissac and
so on are raised therein to the rank of school models.
16. Vincent Van Gogh, Correspondance générale
(Paris: Gallimard, 1990), vol. 3, p. 269.
17. Paris: Gallimard, 1999.
18.“Les murs ont la parole,”
journal mural, Mai 68, Sorbonne, Odéon, Nanterre etc.,
quotations collected by Julien Besançon (Paris: Tchou,
1968), p. 180.
19. Jean-Yves Jouannais, L'Idiotie : art,
vie, politique, méthode (Paris: Beaux-arts, 2003).
Ariès, Philippe. L’Enfant et
la vie familiale sous l’Ancien Régime. Paris:
Le Seuil, 1973.
Becchi, Egle and Dominique Julia,
eds. Histoire de l’enfance en occident. Vol. 2. Du XVIIIe
siècle à nos jours. Paris: Le Seuil, 1998.
Crubellier, Maurice. L’Enfance et la jeunesse dans la société
française (1800-1950). Paris: Armand Colin, 1979.
Boissel, Jessica. “Quand les enfants se
mirent à dessiner. 1880-1914, un fragment de l’histoire
des idées.” Les Cahiers du musée national
d’Art moderne, Spring 1990, pp.14-43.
Enfert, Renaud d', and Daniel Lagoutte.
Un Art pour tous, le dessin à l'école de 1800
à nos jours. Rouen: INRP/Musée National de
Fineberg, Jonathan. The Innocent Eye: Children’s
Art and the Modern Artist. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University
Higonnet, Anne. Pictures of Innocence: The
History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood. London: Thames and
Infancia y arte moderno (exhibition catalogue). Valencia,
Spain: Generalitat Valenciana, IVAM Centro Julio González,
1998. (Curator: Carlos Pérez.)
Jouannais, Jean-Yves. L'Idiotie: art, vie,
politique, méthode. Paris: Beaux-arts, 2003.
Luc, Jean-Noël. L'invention du jeune
enfant au XIXe siècle, de la salle d'asile à l'école
maternelle. Paris: Belin, 1997.
Luquet, Georges-Henri. Le Dessin enfantin.
Paris: F. Alcan, 1927. New ed. Neuchâtel-Paris: Delachaux
et Niestlé, 1967.
Matisse, Henri. Écrits et propos sur
l’art, texte. Ed. Dominique Fourcade. Paris: Hermann,
Pernoud, Emmanuel. L'Invention du dessin
d'enfant, en France, à l'aube des avant-gardes. Paris:
Picasso, Pablo. Picasso, propos sur l’art.
Marie-Laure Bernadac and Androula Michaël, eds. Paris: Gallimard,
Présumés innocents: l’art contemporain
et l’enfance (exhibition catalogue). Bordeaux: C.A.P.C.,
Musée d’Art contemporain and Paris: Réunion
des musées nationaux, 2000. (Curator: Marie-Laure Bernadac).
Prinzhorn, Hans. Bildnerei der Geisteskranken:
ein Beitrag zur Psychologie und Psychopathologie der Gestaltung.
Berlin: J. Springer, 1922.
1 Funny figure [bonhomme], frontal and profile views, in James
Sully, Études sur l'enfance (Paris: Alcan, 1898), pp.
470, 472, 479, 504.
2 "Development of a figure": seven drawings by Gayant
and one by Madame Gayant, in Georges-Henri Luquet, Les Dessins
d'un enfant (Paris: Alcan, 1913), plate CXII.
3 Alfred Jarry, cover for the score of the Chanson du décervelage,
Puppet Repertory, 1898, autography (no. 65).
4 Gabriele Münter (top), copy in oils on cardboard,
based on a children's drawing, 1914, and the original (below),
Munich: Gabriele Münter and Johannes Eichner Stiftung.
Photo D. R. © Adagp (Paris), 2003.
5 Illustration of the phrase "Mr. Flower is in his garden,"
schoolchild's drawing from Gaston Chaissac; elementary-school
course, Lecomte Elementary School, Paris (seventeenth arrondissement),
2002, mixed media (collage of newsprint, handwriting, and
painting), 58 * 38.5 centimeters, individual collection; from
Renaud d'Enfert and Daniel Lagoutte's Un Art pour tous, le
dessin à l'école de 1800 à nos jours
(Rouen: INRP/Musée National de l'Éducation,