How Have Artists Been Inspired By Childhood?
An exhibition I'd love to see (but can't)
Today I want to talk about To Begin Again: Artists and Childhood, an exhibition that has intrigued me and I'd love to see but I can't because it's on at the ICA in Boston in America, and here I am in Bristol in the UK.
It's an exhibition about the influence of children and the experience of childhood on artists; how children and childhood has inspired artists and how their work reflects and challenges perceptions of childhood.
It features a range of artists from the early 20th century to today, and the list is quite impressive. It includes the Bauhaus abstract artist Paul Klee, the contemporary American artist Glenn Ligon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was huge on the New York art scene in the early 80s, and loads more big names.
There are lots of aspects of this exhibition that I think are really interesting. Firstly just the fact that it addresses an area of art history that has been undervalued or certainly not regarded with the importance that I think it should have.
One of the things that the show looks at is the significance of the experience of childhood and teenage years on the development of artists. Whenever I have talked to artists about their journey to where they are now, if I dig enough into their personal stories - which of course I do because that's what I'm interested in - there's always something about how important art was to them growing up. So it's there, embedded in pretty much every artist's history.
Some artists like Faith Ringgold make work about their childhood. Ringgold's Tar Beach #2 (1990), which was one of her quilted artworks, depicts her memories of going to sleep in the hot summers on the rooftop of the apartment building she lived in in New York as a child in the 1930s, whilst her parents chatted and played cards with their friends. It was too hot to sleep anywhere except outside under the stars. And that memory has stayed strong with her throughout her life.
Other artists like Mary Kelly explore the relationship between parent and child. One of Kelly's most famous conceptual artworks was called Post-Partum Document (1973-79), first shown at the ICA in London in 1976. It was one of those artworks that was quite controversial at the time.
It’s a documentation of the 6-year relationship between herself and her son from the moment that he was born. And you can hear the emotion in her written words, the exhaustion, the struggle, the psychological to-and-fro-ing between mother and child.
This artwork was on display for a long time in one of the galleries at Tate Modern so some of you might have seen it before. If you're not familiar with it though here's a clip of one of my favourite art historians, Dr James Fox, talking about his response to it.
And then other artists like Francis Alÿs, whose work again I've mentioned before, is all about perceptions of childhood. His work focuses on how children play, the games they play, the universal experiences and languages they speak through play.
For me one of his most moving works is a short film called Reel/Unreel, shot in Kabul in 2011. The cameras follow a reel of film as it unrolls through the old part of the city—pushed by two children up and down the hills. I find it mesmerising, and very poignant given all that has happened in the past couple of years in Afghanistan.
But I also was completely captivated by this film Alÿs made more recently, in 2021, shot in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It follows a child playing with a tyre, and honestly I challenge you not to be completely bowled over by this little man:
All three of these artists feature in the ICA Boston exhibition. I'm sharing here the museum's intro video, which talks about the themes of the exhibition. It features some of the artists in the show talking about children and the experience of childhood in their work, as well as the curator talking about the thinking behind it. It's 5 minutes long and I found it really interesting.
Of course I'd love to know your thoughts on any of this.
I would love to see this exhibition too (but can't). It's a shame so many great exhibitions are out of reach. That artist (name I've forgotten) in the promo video was really moving when he talked about the escape he had from bullying by creating his imaginary superhero. Just goes to show how important art can be for kids, a way to process and deal with things they struggle with.
OMG that boy in the Francis Alys film. I love the ending to that film. I started watching it then wondered what where it was going, like something should be happening. But actually it all just builds up to that ending. Made me smile so much. Thanks for that!