Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Children as Artists: Katherine Mansfield's 'Innocent Eye'

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Children as Artists: Katherine Mansfield's 'Innocent Eye'

Article excerpt

In 'Prelude', one of Katherine Mansfield's most famous New Zealand stories, she places Kezia Burnell, a privileged child, in front of a coloured dining room window. The window serves as a prismatic switch for the imagination: it has two squares of coloured glass at each corner, one blue and the other one yellow. The little girl, looking through the two saturated views no longer ordinary, is immediately transported to a new creative space, a momentary vortex in reality. She then departs from her known world, the 'ordinary window', and is invited to other imaginative possibilities, until an intruder-'a little Chinese Lottie'-comes into the yellow view, '[dusting] the tables and chairs with a corner of her pinafore'.1 A question occurs, 'Is it really Lottie?'2 Kezia is not quite certain until she pulls herself out of the de-familiarised world triggered by two prime colours, and re-focuses her vision through the ordinary window-the eye of reason, of normative order and cognition of colour, a window devoid of imagination.

This episode, brief as it is, is laden with meaning. Kezia's seeing process seems to engage both the transforming and the restorative faculties of 'the innocent eye'.3 As the exemplary child in Mansfield's New Zealand stories, Kezia represents childhood, memory, and creativity-all elements crucial to Mansfield's art. This coloured window episode is a marvellous aligning of Kezia's, Mansfield's, and our vision. It is through this vision, and these alternating squares of coloured glass that we truly see the world of Katherine Mansfield.

Seeing through 'The Innocent Eye'

Mansfield's fascination with children permeates some of her best writings. Not only are some of her most memorable characters children, but also her ingenious encapsulation of these characters reflects the writer's own affinity with the idea of childhood seeing. Virginia Woolf once noticed that '[Mansfield] has a kind of childlikeness somewhere which has been much disfigured, but still exists.'4 It is also worth noting that some of these Mansfield child characters embody her idea of art and the artist. I would like to use the concept of 'the innocent eye' to closely examine Mansfield's modelling of her child artists, and their relationship with seeing and representation, and stake my argument that there is more than a simple 'childlikeness' in these characters, but a serious thought process on art and the artist. I will also apply the Fauvist ideas of art and artist to Mansfield's portrayal of her child artists, given that Mansfield was closely associated with the Rhythm group when the stories in discussion came out, and the strongly Fauve expressiveness in these artists' works may have had an enduring influence in her works, especially when crafting images of children, and seeing via their innocent eye.

Although not a novel concept to artists and literary critics, John Ruskin was the first to put it into a more concrete term-'the innocence of the eye', which he defines as 'a sort of childish perception of these flat stains of colour, merely as such, without consciousness of what they signify,-as a blind man would see them if suddenly gifted with sight.'5 Ruskin's definition indicates the faculty of the innocent eye as having a kind of freshness, and abandonment of all previously taught means of perception. He further illustrates this concept by saying how grass can appear 'a peculiar and somewhat dusty-looking yellow' when strong sunlight shines from a certain direction, and had we been born blind, at the moment we regained eyesight we would perceive the light and shade of the grass as 'bluish green barred with gold'.6 Ruskin's illustration recalls a description in Mansfield's 'At the Bay'-'The grass was blue.'7 There is no direct reference in Mansfield's works indicating her knowledge of Ruskin's 'eye of innocence', yet this sentence (together with other examples I will explore in this paper) highlights her intuitive application of the concept. …

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