T h e C h i l d i n A r t
by Ric Kasini Kadour
published in a catalog accompanying July 2011 exhibition at West Branch Gallery and Sculpture Park
Childhood: the period of human life intermediate between the idiocy of infancy and the folly of
The child is one subject that throughout history artists forgot, and when they did get around to it, they stuck to the basics: baby Jesus, Madonna and child, portrait of young noble girl,and so on. Artists portrayed children as small adults because society thought of them as small adults. The face of the baby Jesus in Netherlandish painter Dierick Bouts' Virgin and Child (1455-66), for example, is that of an old wrinkly-faced man.
youth - two removes from the sin of manhood and three from the remorse of age.
-Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, 1911
There is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colors are brighter, the air softer,
and the morning more fragrant than ever again.
What we remember from childhood we remember forever - permanent ghosts, stamped, inked,
imprinted, eternally seen.
Sometimes a duck is just a duck.
Then came the 18th century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who noticed that when trying to educate children, it is helpful to adjust one's lesson to the age of the child. All of a sudden, children were seen as different from adults and, like any sort of "other", became immediately
subject to a host of mythology, romanticization, and morality. Artists jumped right into the frayand the portrayal of a child became a loaded social commentary. In John Sargent's Carnation Lily, Lily Rose (1886), the two girls hanging lanterns are not simply figures holding light, but icons of
the magical wonder of children. Edvard Munch's Puberty (1894 - 1895) captures the pre-supposed anguish of a girl on the edge of maturity. This creative discourse on childhood ramps up in the 20th century with artists falling into two camps: those like Norman Rockwell who insist on painting
children with so much silly nostalgia that they become caricatures, distorted extensions of society's hopes and aspirations for children; and those like Lucien Freud who project a harsh and taxing psychology on children such as those rendered in his painting Large Interior W.11 (1981-1983).
Artists were quick to realize that they could use the portrayal of children to comment on adulthood by presenting images of children engaging in adult behavior, usually vaguely erotic poses as in the work of Marlene Dumas, or to address new behaviors as they became socially taboo, as in the case of Mary Ellen Mark's Violent Children-Amanda and her cousin Amy, Valdese, North Carolina, 1990
(1990) that shows two girls in an inflatable pool, one of them smoking. A 19th century viewer would see a child smoking as adorable for its precociousness, but a 21st century viewer sees a child smoking as an anti-social, disenfranchised youth who is doomed to a host of social woes.
The history of the child in art has led to the moment where the portrayal of children is instantly an act of profound social commentary riddled with a complex tension between the artist's chosen portrayal of children and the viewer's changing attitudes towards childhood, be it their own actual
childhood, their romanticized memory of their childhood, or their desire to create a particular type of childhood for their own children.
The charged backdrop of the child in art is what makes the work of Rebecca Kinkead so remarkable. Kinkead is able to step away from the tumultuous art history and present a body of work about children that is free of social commentary, loaded moral sentiment, or artificial nostalgia.
The child subjects of her paintings are not adult stand-ins, nor are they aliens. They are not icons of magical wonder or innocence. They are simply figures at the beach, in motion, or holding a chicken.
Kinkead achieves this effect through restraint. The figures in her paintings have no faces, no expressions, and yet she is still able to convey emotionality. Bikini No. 5 shows two girls at the beach. One is holding a blue and white ball. The other stands awkwardly with her hands behind her back and her shoulders pulled back. Most viewers will have met these two girls at some point in their lives. They are a little shy but polite, attentive and possibly curious. When you are done speaking to them, they are going to go about their business, playing on the beach. They are presented with a matter-of-fact-ness that is difficult to argue. Hula No. 5 shows a girl in motion with a hula hoop. It does not show the undulating hormonal imbalance of adolescence. In Rope Swing No. 7, two boys swing from a rope. It's not an essay on pre-teen masculinity; it's about the joy of jumping off a small cliff, swaying in the air, and falling into water.
Kinkead strips away any detail that could trip up a viewer or lead them down a path other than the simple one she wants the viewer to take. It is the vagueness of these paintings that make them honest and universal. Kinkead's children are not mirrors of us, not our memories, not our hopes and
fears. Kinkead's children are simply our past and our future-who we were and who our children will become.