Modernism and Childhood: Violence and Renovation

By Higonnet, Margaret R. | The Comparatist, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Modernism and Childhood: Violence and Renovation


Higonnet, Margaret R., The Comparatist


To each truly new configuration of nature--and at bottom, technology is just such a configuration--there correspond new "images." Every childhood discovers these new images in order to incorporate them into the image stock of humanity. Walter Benjamin, Arcades Project (390)

The innocent child is an emblem of the future and, therefore, of modernity. For Modernists, the child offered an aesthetic metaphor, an artistic model, and an ideal audience. The Modernist concern for the child has attracted art historians, who have noted connections drawn between the child and primitivism, in which the cult of the "new" is paradoxically fused with the cult of the old ("the image stock of humanity"). Thus children's imaginative role-play is sometimes associated with the stylized African masks that inspired Picasso, Vlaminck, Kirchner and others; their fondness for dolls and puppets may also have fed the Dada construction of marionettes and stylized performances costumed as Hopi dolls. (1) This paper explores the duality of the Modernists' symbolic child: not only an image of origins, nature, and archaic expressiveness, but also an image of an increasingly technological and mechanically innovative future, equipped with toy trains, cars, and Meccano sets. The metaphoric understanding of the "new" through the child, along with the models some artists found in children's art and books, provides the context for the brilliantly experimental design of three Modernist books addressed to children by El Lissitzky, Kurt Schwitters, and Mary Liddell.

The child metaphor marks Modernism from the outset. F. T. Marinetti and his fellow Futurists claimed that the revolutionary present and future belonged to the "young." The 1910 "Manifesto of Futurist Painters" that the group addressed "To the Young Artists of Italy!" closes by demanding, "Make room for youth, for violence, for daring!" (Boccioni, et al). The "triumphant progress of science," the manifesto suggests, cuts an abyss between the slaves of tradition and "us free moderns, who are confident in the radiant splendor of our future." For the Futurists, preservation of the past is a "criminal" assault on youth and life: "We rebel against that spineless worshipping of old canvases, old statues and old bric-a-brac, against everything which is filthy and worm-ridden and corroded by time. We consider the habitual contempt for everything which is young, new and burning with life to be unjust and even criminal" (Boccioni). A young Futurist is a pleonasm. Moreover, those who "burn" with life are prepared to burn the old.

Russian Futurists had their own cult of childhood, but one more closely connected to the actual study of children's creativity, turning the child from metaphor into model. After Marinetti's visit to Russia, a confluence of interests in futurism, in children's language and drawings, and in reviving folk art as a resource for a national aesthetic led Russian avant-garde artists to project an image of themselves as "youth" or children (Bowlt). Sara Pankenier argues in her study of Neo-primitivist art and Cubo-futurist poetry that the Russians developed an "infantilist aesthetic": Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov (who organized the "Union of Youth" in 1912) drew inspiration and theoretical models from children's drawings and poems (Pankenier 91-159). Going further, the writer Aleksei Kruchenykh collaborated with child authors and artists such as "Tania' and "Tania Gour" (see Pankenier 160-213; Leveque 186-87). "The Russian avant-garde found the preverbal child to be an ideal creative source for the artistic renewal they were seeking" (Pankenier 25).

Responding to the models of spontaneity, sincerity, and stylization they found in children's drawings, artists in assorted European movements elaborated "infantilist" strategies of innovation. Not surprisingly, many artists in this period collected drawings by their own children or others. Natalya Goncharova, Wassily Kandinsky, Alexei Jawlensky, and Mikhail Larionov gathered such drawings, as did the Germans Lionel Feininger, Paul Klee, and Gabriele Munter (see Fineberg, Innocent Eye and Pankenier 91-160 passim). …

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