I was in a school staff room briefly this morning and noticed a postcard pinned to a noticeboard depicting a painting with which I am familiar from the Tate Britain Gallery in London. As I was looking at the picture one of the teachers commented that it had been sent to the staff by a colleague who had recently retired, and that when it had arrived several of the teaching staff thought that the picture was of a painting done by a child. The picture “L’Ane vert” (The Green Donkey) was in fact painted by Marc Chagall the Russian artist who spent much of his life in France, where he died in 1985. Looking at the card I could see how someone may describe the picture with its somewhat naïve depiction of people, flowers and centre stage a sea green donkey, as somewhat childlike. However, I am sure that anyone looking closely at the original would have to agree, that it has been superbly crafted and composed and that it would take a child with real genius to produce work of this quality. Perhaps this creative genius is less easily seen on a postcard reproduction.
The conversation with this teacher was on my mind this evening and I found myself pondering a number of questions. Not least, about what it means to produce work that in its apparent simplicity achieves a childlike quality. I use the term childlike, as opposed to childish, because as I said, I cannot imagine “L’Ane vert” being produced by a child. One of the beauties of work such as this, is that children can often relate to the simple meaning of the picture and appreciate the way in which the artist has imagined and portrayed his subject.
When thinking about this encounter in the school this morning, I was reminded of a recent visit to the New Walk Museum and Gallery in Leicester with our good friends Tina and Philip. The museum houses a magnificent collection of ceramics produced by Pablo Picasso and donated to the gallery by Lord Richard Attenborough the actor and film director who won an Oscar for his direction of Gandhi. From 1954 Richard Attenborough along with his wife Sheila, became regular visitors to the Madoura pottery in Vallauris Southern France, where Picasso was based and worked for a number of years. Gradually over the years they built a collection of Picasso’s pottery and in 2007 as a memorial to their daughter and granddaughter tragically killed in the Tsunami of December 2004, they donated the collection to Leicester, the city in which Richard Attenborough was brought up as a child. The exhibition features plates, figures and jugs made by Picasso many of which feature simple designs depicting fish, birds or animals, or childlike human faces. As with Chagall’s painting, there is a directness and simplicity about many of these works, a playfulness that could be described as childlike.
This view of Picasso’s pottery was reinforced by a small collection of letters and drawings sent to the Leicester museum and gallery, from children who had recently visited as part of a school excursion. Amongst them was a simple crayon drawing on paper produced by a child under the heading “This is what I found out about their work.” Presumably the children had been asked to look at the work of various artists in the gallery and write something about these. This particular child’s work provided a charming representation of one of the Picasso plates “The pipe player.” Beneath the drawing the child had written:-
“I thought that Pablo Picasso painting was filled with different colours and it was like a little child had made the picture.”
This young artist had clearly related to Picasso’s “picture on a plate” and could see in its simplicity something to which he could relate as a creative force that is innate in most children. Far from being overawed by the undoubted genius of Picasso, the child viewed this masterpiece as familiar and well within his own compass.
Perhaps what we should take from artists like Chagall and Picasso is the recognition that expression and creativity can, even in the most apparently simple forms communicate to a broad audience. Picasso’s face on a plate had clearly impressed this child, and I suspect many others. Maybe this effect was different from that which the same work had upon myself and any one of the tens of thousands of other visitors who have seen this work of art in Leicester. Maybe that is one of the important contributions that art can make to our lives in reaching out to all of us in different ways and on different levels.
That Picasso and Chagall and many other artists retained a playful childlike quality in some of their work is perhaps an indication of the importance of play and the contribution it could make to all of our lives. Just as art does not need to be solemn and austere, (though at times it can and perhaps should be), neither should the lives of children be wholly controlled by formality and regulation. Those of us working in education would do well to remember this if we hope to see more Chagalls and Picassos in the future.
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