Anne Hamlyn visits an exhibition ‘ which investigates the portrayal of children in British art.
Recently there has been a frenzied preoccupation with the subject of childhood in the media. Instances
1 of exploitation and abuse as well as juvenile crime —
in which the child is no longer always the victim - have undermined the popular image of childhood as a time of care-free innocence. and challenged our ability to defend that ideal. It is appropriate that. in this atmosphere of questioning. a major touring exhibition on the theme of childhood should be showing at Kelvingrove. Innocence and Experience looks at the ways childhood has been depicted in British an and challenges the notion that the image of childhood is fixed and undebatable.
The exhibition hopes to make its audience aware of the. ‘social context constructing images. rather than celebrating the images themselves‘, says Andrew Patrizio of Glasgow Museums. Thus the 60 or so works. taken from a 400-year period. have been arranged thematically rather than chronologically and selected. not according to their quality. but their relevance to the chosen themes: ‘The Family", ‘A Sense of ldentity', ‘Work and Play’. and ‘The End of Innocence. As a result. works by well known artists have been placed alongside more obscure ones. This fairly radical approach is intended to provide an educational as well as enjoyable experience.
The earliest work. Paul Van Somer‘s Child with a Rattle ( lol I) is a baby portrait of the second Earl of Arundel. In this period children under five were not differentiated sexually and. to our eyes. he is dressed like a girl. In spite of his baby costume he is every bit the aristocrat. purposefully holding his rattle as if it were a sword. standing upright and fixing the viewer with a confident gaze. Dennis Cresslield's Anxious Baby ( 1983) seems far closer to reality. In our post- Freudian age we see a baby as a defenceless being ruled by simple emotions. rather than the link in a hereditary system.
These images are obviously adult-orientated. made by artists from an adult perspective. for an audience assumed also to be adult. Unlike other ‘minority groups'. such as women. children are unable to create sophisticated images of what it is like to be a child — and soon they turn into adults themselves. So childhood tends to be seen as a transient and fragile state to be cherished — strange if you recall what it felt like to be suffering the often painful and frustrating process of ‘growing up’.
This irony is clearly illustrated by the juxtaposition of two images of adolescent girls: Katherine Ensall's Girls in Line at the Swimming Bath (I988) and James Cowie‘s Falling Leaves (I934). The former shows the sense of physical discomfort and exposure of pubeny; the latter is a bitter-sweet reverie on loss of innocence and potential voluptuousness, with falling leaves and a statue of Venus to illustrate the point.
‘The End of Innocence‘ further investigates the dewy-eyed idea of childhood as something ﬂeeting. a paradoxical reminder of the inevitability of death. poignantly illustrated by Allan Ramsay‘s Sketch ofa
! Dead Child. Gilbert and George‘s idealised child— , image. BerrvBoy ( 1984) is the icon of a prepubescent
boy. His halo of coloured berries indicates his purity and naturalness but also suggests that he is ‘ripe for
- picking’. As an object of reverence he has also ? become an object of desire. a desire potentially
unsavoury in its expression.
Childhood tends to be seen as a fragile state to be cherished — strange if you recall what it felt like to be suffering the often painful and frustrating process of ‘growing up’.
The 1672 betrothal portrait of an eight—year-old girl, Lady Charlotte Fitzroy. by Sir Peter Lely. again uses fruit to indicate her desirability. The child is presented as a commodity. used by adults in a system of baner and exchange. The point that such a system still exists is emphasised by Peter Blake‘s Daimler. in which sylph-like girls share a dream landscape with one of capitalism‘s most powerful symbols of desire. the luxury car.
Not all the images in the show have such disturbing
Gilbert and George: Berryhoy - ‘the icon
of a prebuscent hoy’
connotations and many. like Winifred Nicholson‘s
Starry Eyed emphasise the pleasure and fulfilment a child can bring to adult experience. The organisers
; dis.niss the suggestion that there is a specific political
message in the show. An attempt has been made to encourage people of all ages and interests. especially
’ children. to interpret and enjoy it at their own level.
There will be children‘s tours and storytelling in the gallery and so, while wandering around. you may well encounter the lively reality which the images attempt to illustrate. This will add an unusual dimension to the experience.
‘I think.‘ says Andrew Patrizio. ‘that if people go to
the exhibition thinking that they will see pretty ' images ofchildren and go away thinking. “wait a
minute there's something more to representing kids than I thought" then the exhibition will have achieved its aim‘. Clearly the issues the exhibition aims to address are contentious and. in trying to be accessible as well as critical. it has set itself an enormous challenge. However, with such a compelling and varied set of images it cannot fail to be successful.
Innocence and [Experience is at the Art Gallery and
: Musetun. Kelvingmve. until 25 Apr. Contact stafffor
details of related events.
54 The List l2 —25 March I993