Editorial of April 15th 2005

Emmanuel Pernoud
From children's art to puerile art
the childhood of art : myth and demystification


Camille Saint-Jacques remarks of a painter on children's drawing

Seminar of April 15th 2005
Camille Saint-Jacques is a painter. He teaches French at the Claude Garamont High School in Colombes (Hautes-de-Seine), France. He edited the Journal des Expositions from 1991 until 1999, then the Post from 1999 until 2001. He is the author of Marc Devade, peintre et théoricien (Paris: Éditions des Lettres Modernes/Minard, 1986), Marc Devade, Écrits théoriques (Paris: Éditions des Lettres Modernes/Minard, 1988), Artiste, et après (Nîmes: Éditions Jacqueline Chambon, 1998), Arts contemporains 1950 - 2000 (Paris: Éditions Autrement, 2002), La Maladresse, une faute heureuse, ed. (Paris: Éditions Autrement, 2003), and Notre paresse (Paris: Éditions Autrement, 2005).

remarks of a painter on children's drawing


        The interest and the pleasure we take today in looking at children’s drawings and paintings constitute one of the rare meeting points between avant-garde art and everyday taste. The gulf between the boldest adventures in the plastic arts and the general public is so often mentioned that it seems to me to be important to underscore from the outset how much this shared way of looking at children’s art is rare and has been, until now, neglected. The great merit of Emmanuel Pernoud’s work is to have attempted a history of this shared experience at the very place where we did not until now see anything worth thinking about.
        In reading Pernoud’s book, I was amazed to observe that the association that until now seemed to me natural between childhood and drawing was the fruit of very recent changes in the domains of art and pedagogy. As is often the case, the “invention” of the concept created its own object. If hardly any children’s drawings remain for us from the period before the second half of the nineteenth century, that is no doubt because children were hardly allowed any time or means to make them. If by chance, this time and these means were brought together for the child, the drawing in question was immediately thrown out along with the other refuse from this early age of man, without being looked at. By considering such drawing in a new way, the artistic avant-garde certainly transformed its own aesthetic canons, but above all what it gave rise to was an ocean of drawings and paintings at the very place where, beforehand, there was nothing or almost nothing. This time, Robert Filliou’s formula—viz., that “art is what makes life more interesting than art”—seems to me to be entirely justified. Still one had to undertake this history to which Pernoud has applied himself. Now we can establish this singular connection.

Early Age

        Like many parents, I myself have noticed how the child’s entrance into the first year of elementary school has influenced his production of drawings and paintings. While starting to learn writing, arithmetic, and authority does not immediately dry up the huge flow of “works,” it alters their aesthetics.

        Before the age of five or six, the child uses models little or not at all. Among the young in nursery school, trees and faces can be fantastic forms. Right before Christmas, all schools yoke themselves to the traditional exercise of asking the children to paint fir trees that will then form—already—the matter for a major exhibition. The result is always magnificent for the inventiveness, accuracy, and efficacity of the means employed. Of the three basic tools of painting—drawing, color, and value—children retain only the first two. I do not know why, but value, the depiction of light and dark over the same tone, does not seem to correspond to the psychomotor structure of one’s early years. Colors are often laid down flat and—when allowed by the schoolteacher—it is mixtures or contrasts that suggest what we see as shadows or depths. This first peculiarity obviously was not able to escape the notice of the tenants of colored shadows, who saw therein the spontaneous application of the theories of Eugène Chevreul.
        Another characteristic is also blindingly obvious: this is the ease with which children pass from the abstract to the figurative. Here again, one can imagine how much this “easiness” must have stimulated the interest of early twentieth-century painters. Before language acquisition, it seems to me, children do not use models—that is to say, they do not enclose an object in a previously thought or learned typical form. They seem to react in an impulsive way to the stimulation the motif or the theme constitutes.

The Learner’s Curve [L”Apprenti sage]

        With the learning of writing and geometry comes a concern to conform to a model furnished by adults. Very rapidly, one witnesses the disappearance of the incredible accuracy and appropriateness of the child’s first drawings. The “works” smack of care, sometimes of hard effort, and any deviation from the model becomes a blunder [une maladresse]. Depending upon the pedagogical ability of adults, their aptitude for furnishing the child with varied and stimulating models, drawings and paintings may retain at this age a real interest in the view of adults. At this age, children have a very good perception of how artists play with models. The paintings on permanent display in the Children’s Workshop at the Pompidou Center in Paris are good examples of the complicity between artists and children at this moment in their development. For their part, the artists try to stay away from models that have weight for them (morphology, spatial representation, etc.) when the children are still at the age where it is not always easy to assimilate those models.

What Children’s Drawings Teach Me

        The two ages I have just distinguished here teach me different things.

        From the very young, I learn first of all not to “do too much,” not to emphasize the effect, not to stumble into repetition, style, formalism, that is to say, into a kind of composition that would become unmoored from the motif and turn in circles. A nursery-school drawing is always right. It may, to my taste, lack elegance or, on the contrary, I might find in it an amazing grace. But it is never chic, fabricated. It never smacks of the “artist’s mannequin,” as used to be said at the Fine Arts School, referring to the small wooden figures artists use as models.

        From this early age, I also learn about the incredible power of the plastic means available to a painter. Whoever has a young child in his company cannot despair “that it’s all been done.” One can certainly feel inhibited by the blank page, but the presence of a small child reminds you that the block always comes from you and not from these means that for several tens of thousands of years have allowed people to say everything.(1)

        Last but not least, it seems to me that what the very young show me is how to paint outside what I have previously called “models.” This is a delicate question, for of course, once one is an adult, no one—not even a madman, under the influence of drugs or alcohol—can truly claim to undo entirely what he has learned. Paul Klee wanted to include, in the catalogue of his work, his children’s drawings and to exclude his years of apprenticeship. His will to do so was more an act of faith than of realism. It is because children do not know what a tree or a face must be that they are so well disposed to catch an expression or grasp the force of germinating plant life. For my part, these drawings remind me that the important thing—that is, the depiction of an emotion, of the “sensation” of which Paul Cézanne spoke—depends not on my capacity to think the form, not on my technique.
        It seems to me that, with these drawings of young children, as well as, moreover, with those of the mentally ill, the works of early cultures, and so on, the twentieth century never ceased in its quest to go back to this initial state of emotion. Subsequent education incontestably enriches it, but at the price of a near-total erasure of this state of grace we suffer as the loss of a paradise lost. I do not know why present-day art has for so many years been in worship of origins and has thus bathed in a neoprimitive atmosphere. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that the explanation would interest me. Nevertheless, I feel this historical determinism strongly when it weighs on my tastes, and I believe that our interest in children’s works is tied thereto.
        From the second age of childhood, the one marked by the learning of models and by clumsiness, I retain especially the aesthetic value of clumsiness. Each time a child becomes bogged down trying, for example, to represent a table in perspective, he produces a gap [un écart] of which I can make use in order to free myself from the power of a typical representation that for me it is always a matter of criticizing and of trying to revitalize. It is thanks to the works of educators and artists that this impotence of the child before the model can now be read as a felix culpa.(2) Even when it is uninteresting from the plastic standpoint, it offers an endearing human value, even a poetic force.

Work in Regress(3)

        Although the history of the relationship between children’s drawing and twentieth-century art has barely been sketched out, the statements and references of artists who underscore the importance of children’s works in the development of their art are beyond count. It seems to me that, at this dawn of the twenty-first century, the glorification of youth and the privileging of innovation over experience are based in part on this frenzied quest for the original, for the primary, for the authentic, which is the guiding thread that weaves art and children’s art together. Pop art marks, for me, the moment when interest in childhood passed from the status of stimulus to that of gimmick. In a few decades’ time, the reference to childhood acquired a cultural legitimacy of its own. In most cases, I think, children’s approach to the plastic arts ceased to be the occasion for a reflection on means in order to serve simply as tools used to subvert the values of bourgeois high culture. The appearance of motifs borrowed from comic books, cartoons, and adolescent movies was made possible because, in the Sixties, the idea that youth could be a regenerating alternative value was making its way. Since then, we have started to act like children, as others made like madmen, idiots, primitives, and so on. After having been revolutionary in the first half of the nineteenth century, Bohemia has become regressive ! I did it in my time, and I don’t regret it. But I took the time to glimpse that these poses were limiting the range of my means and shrinking the horizon of the subjects likely to interest me. The passage through what has become a rhetoric of childhood henceforth has meaning only for its subversive value. But, here again, is it because with age one becomes blasé or else by weariness of the “subversion-subsidy” pair dear to Rainer Rochlitz that subversion now bores me if it does not enlarge my capacity to apprehend the world ?
        I wish to retain of children’s art only that which can enrich my means of plastic expression. I remain rather circumspect about neoprimitivism and its regressive tendencies. Having had the opportunity to be the father of young children, my interest in these types of works has been renewed outright, and the stakes are now doubled. It is a matter all at once of seeing, of understanding, and, upon occasion, of “stealing” what might be useful to me, but, especially, of reacting to it by transmitting at the right moment those models, those means, that will arouse ever greater desires to understand the beauty of the world. This is my role as a father, but it is also, I believe, the role of every painter, so much does it seem to me that, once past the early age of childhood, learning and transmitting are but one.
        Of course, children’s drawing is rich with lessons, but our marveling at such works should not lead us to abandon the duty to transmit this experience of drawing and painting. It is a precious, incredibly diverse, and not at all academic inheritance that is at stake here, the study of which is emancipatory and in many regards disinhibiting for the child or for the inquisitive adult who wishes to see and to communicate. The idea that today children’s drawing might become an authorization to regress toward graphical and pictural monomanias therefore upsets me a bit.


1. I very much like the following phrase Antoine Coypel spoke when talking about painting: “Everything is within its province, be it on the earth, on the water, or in the air.” I often remind myself of this statement when I am experiencing doubts. The phrase may be found in his Discours sur la peinture (1721), in Les Conférences de l’Académie Royale de peinture et de sculpture au XVIIIe siècle, ed. Alain Mérot (Paris: École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, 2003), p. 417.
2. See, on this topic, the article by Emmanuel Pernoud, “Zigzag: l’arabesque ratée,” in the volume I edited that is entitled La maladresse, une faute heureuse (Paris: Éditions Autrement, 2003), pp. 44-57.
3. This formula comes from Werner Hoffmann, quoted by Emmanuel Pernoud in L’invention du dessin d’enfant, p. 91.