Saturday, June 09, 2007


Psychologists tell us that children's drawings exaggerate shapes in ways that reveal the child's inner feelings about their subject. For example, this drawing shows the importance of hands to a child reaching out to pick flowers.

In this and other ways, children's art reveals our first pure perceptions of a world unconstrained by logic or physical appearance.

This world is sealed off forever to adults. Mature brains process visual information and spatial relationships differently. Our neurological systems have learned to mediate between vision and perception, and it is hard to unlearn what we know.

Of course, artists still recognize that pictures can be more effective when feelings alter physical appearance. They ain't exactly picking flowers here, but Jack Kirby and Hokusai both show that they remember how to enhance a picture by exaggerating body parts:

But going beyond mere exaggeration, it's interesting that the artists who strain the hardest to return to the purity of childhood drawings-- the ones who try to capture that early, pre-rational essence in a meaningful way-- are often the most intellectual. Paul Klee, Saul Steinberg, Kandinsky and Dubuffet all worked with simplified child-like forms.

copyright The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

They were all highly cerebral artists renowned for writing long, erudite treatises on art theory. I find it especially interesting that when they abandoned rationality to delve into the simple world of the child, the visual result was often frightening.

copyright The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Scientists study embryonic stem cells because, unlike adult stem cells which have hardened into specific applications with limited adaptability, embryonic stem cells have unlimited potential to develop into any of the cell types of the human body, and to regenerate indefinitely. I think artists tend to return to early childhood drawings in the same spirit. They are looking for a place before our patterns of perception have hardened, to seek fundamental and powerful building blocks for new art.


Jack R said...

A lot of Picasso's art would fall under this category. One of the issues about child art that resonates for me is line quality. There is a 'crudeness' to it that is infuriatingly difficult to imitate. The art teachers I had pushed and pushed us to improve the quality of our line and the result was that you lost that (or at least I did) that ragged, bairly controlled line. Out of frustration some of us resorted to drawing with our non-dominate hands. As far as Kirby goes, I once heard his art described as "elemental" and I don't think a better label exists.

Anonymous said...

They go back to childhood because they aren't that creative to begin with. They steep themselves in theoretical concerns because they aren't that creative to begin with. What did cubism ever do but paint still lifes, nudes, and portraits? Hardly innovative. Hardly creative. If you want to see endless creativity, look a Leyendecker or Joseph Clement Coll, or any number of other truly great artists. They learned the skills and had hundreds or thousands of themes to apply them to, while so-called innovators just did the same old thing in a somewhat different way. Just because you can learn technique doesn't mean that you are creative. And just because you fiddle with it doesn't mean that you are creative either.

Anonymous said...

Hello Renegade David,

just a link for you this time:

I like this post :-)

David Apatoff said...

Jack R, I agree 100% about the line quality in a child's drawing. I have struggled to recapture it myself, but it is like trying to get back to Never Never Land after you are an adult.

As for Jack Kirby, I have deep respect for the power of his "elemental" style (good word). I once had a law professor who talked about "the virility of ethical non-cognitivism." I thought that was a good way to describe Kirby's drawings.

David Apatoff said...

Dear Savage Tania, I looked at your link, and I'll bet you don't have children. You think children's heads are filled with rainbows, which adult cork up? As St. Augustine once said, "the virtue of children lies not in their wills but in the weakness of their limbs." If those kids ever grew up unconstrained, they would teach you what "savage" really means!

Maybe that's why Steinberg, Klee and Picasso seem so brutal and primordial when emulating children.

(But I do like the cartoon, thanks for sending it.)

David Apatoff said...

Brian, much as I adore Leyendecker and Coll, I think you're being pretty tough on the artists who try to recapture a child's fresh perception of the world. It's not easy. I can think of few artists in the 20th century who are more creative and inventive than Steinberg.

Anonymous said...

"the stem cells of art"

what a brilliant title ... I bet the article nearly wrote itself with that sort of conceptual master stroke.

you're illuminating as always, David.
Many thanks for your blog.


David Apatoff said...

Bk, whoever you are, you are too kind but bless you anyway!

Mike Dutton said...

Dave, another great post. It touches a lot on where I've been wanting to go with my own work - not that I'm claiming to be exceptionally cerebral or anything.


Sometimes I wonder if you post only to play devil's advocate! As for your argument regarding Cubism, I'd suggest taking another (close) look at Chagall (who showed and credited Cubist influences in his work). He certainly went beyond the academic categories you've listed in subject matter, composition, symbolism, color theory, and on and on. Even Picasso's homage to Velazquez through his Cubist interpretation of Las Meninas is a creative twist on studying the masters.

You don't have to like Cubism, or Expressionism, or any other movement that seems to reflect an artist's "return to childhood." You certainly do not have to appreciate it. But to overgeneralize and dismiss, in one swell foop, all that these artists achieved in their life's work as lacking creativity... well, it's not only a bit harsh, but completely unfounded.

Strangely enough, I'd probably be arguing on your side even a year ago. I brushed a lot of those guys off as "hacks" or "quitters" because they lacked realism or academic finesse, or had seemingly poor draughtsmanship... In hindsight, I think I was bitter because I was spending thousands of dollars in art school to learn these very things, while seemingly childlike drawings were hanging in museums!

Maybe it's just an acquired taste. But honestly, it's actually quite enjoyable once you open up to it some.

Anonymous said...

Mike and David,

I'm not playing any role at all--I really think that. Why would anybody want to unlearn and regress? You know what, if I want to see an adult draw like a child, all I have to do is ask any random adult who stopped drawing in the 1st or 2nd grade to draw me a picture today. I guarantee you it will be childish (oops! child-like). There's a world full of 'em. Can we please get back to artists who are better than the random man on the street?

I'll make a comparison of artists to another group of creators--engineers. Does anybody see engineers chuckng their skills an producing cardboard airplanes that can't fly, ramshackle tree/clubhouses, etc? Of course not! They keep honing and learning new technical skills so they can create whatever they want to, which isn't childhood. Face it, the primitive movement is simply a ruse put on by people who have run out of ideas of their own. Its just another form of imitating someone else, only this time, its imitating someone who doesn't even have skills. See that's the genius of it--nobody ever thought to imitate someone who had no skills before. Put a little pseudo-intellectual verbal lipstick on that pig, and in today's art world, you're in business.

Anonymous said...

Reducing Steinberg's and Klee's work to a return to childhood is missing the point. That's just a part of their pursuit of a more free and intellectual kind of art. I see no contradiction in going back to the origins of creativity and their intellectuality. I see these artists as philisophers of the image, rebuilding and studying it from scratch, as a philosopher questions the basic principles of existence. The fact that it resembles children art is because they want to get back to the "stem cells" as David Said, not because they wanted to imitate a child. By the way, specially in Klee, you must be too unsensitive to think both are the same thing. Just take some time to look at it before dismissing. Concerning variety of subject, I suggest the same thing, look at Klee and Steinberg body of work and tell me. Comparing them to Cubism is unfair because the later was a reasonably quick art trend, with a lot of limitations but undeniably influencial (I like the work they influenced more them Cubism itself) and a legitimate struggle to make something new. All this "quitter" thing is nonsense, just because some people don't find realism as inspiring as you. That's just as stupid as dismissing realism as "cold", "not artistic".

kenboe said...

I don't believe that by using the visual elements of children's art we are regressing, copping out, or not being creative. What we are doing is a retroactive process imbuing a visual literacy into our image-making which is experiencial. Post-photography realsim is misguided and contractory in that it can't do this, as it imitates a still-photography idealsim of the world which is external and objectivist, where-as a real visual literacy can only be subjective, experiencial, and even experimental in an age of so many new materials, textures, experiences, and languages.