Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Growing Up in the 20th Century ; MOMA Exhibition Asks: What Do Children Need to Flourish in Society?

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Growing Up in the 20th Century ; MOMA Exhibition Asks: What Do Children Need to Flourish in Society?

Article excerpt

A different image of childhood presides over each of the seven chronologically laid-out sections of the exhibition "Century of the Child" at the Museum of Modern Art.

Childhood, it is often said, is a recent invention. Children used to be treated as small adults to be put to work as soon as possible. Education meant discipline and punishment. Then came the 20th century and the idea that children are fundamentally different from adults and should be treated accordingly. The ideal child, a creature of terrific potential, became an inspiring symbol of futurity, and the care and education of actual children exercised the minds of great thinkers, including many from the fields of art and design.

"Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000," a big, wonderful show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, examines the intersection of Modernist design and modern thinking about children. It is loaded with intriguing things to look at -- about 500 items, including furniture, toys, games, posters, books and much more.

Juliet Kinchin, a curator in the museum's architecture and design department who organized the show with Aidan O'Connor, a curatorial assistant, observes in her catalog introduction that no period in human history was as invested in concern for children as the 20th century. Yet contradictions abound: "Elastic and powerful," Ms. Kinchin writes, "the symbolic figure of the child has masked paradoxical aspects of the human predicament in the modern world." How much freedom to allow and how much control to impose are questions not only about children but also about people everywhere in a time of declining traditional values and expanding possibilities for new ways of being and doing.

What do children need to flourish in society? How you answer this depends on what you think the essential nature of the child is. A different image of the child presides over each of the exhibition's seven sections.

At the start we meet what you might call the rational-creative child, who, given the right materials to play with and a few logical guidelines, will turn into a little architect. Here are kits for creating two- and three-dimensional designs developed by Friedrich Froebel, the founder of the kindergarten movement in the early 19th century. A teaching tool kit full of variously shaped nonrepresentational objects created by Maria Montessori is more colorful and inviting, but it, too, is based on the understanding that huge, complicated things are usually made from little things following simple rules.

Moving on to the post-World War I era, another vision of childhood comes into view under the heading "Avant-Garde Playtime." Here one of the most telling objects is a painting called "The Bad Child" (around 1924), a decorative panel for a child's bedroom by the illustrator and designer Antonio Rubino. In retro-Victorian style it pictures a boy in a comical rage surrounded by a menacing cast of fairy tale characters. The moral may be that the child bedeviled by hobgoblins of small minds becomes a monster himself. Being irrepressibly energetic and playful, children need room to express their impulses and imaginations, which do not always align with adult, bourgeois strictures of behavior.

This version of the child can be seen as a reflection of the avant-garde artists' desire to shed burdensome moral and aesthetic conventions, and to celebrate their own powers. This was a time when the idea of the child as a pure creative genius captivated artists like Klee, Miro and Picasso. …

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