A Master Class in Art History (Without Leaving Your House)
June 16, 2014 § 2 Comments
I don’t know how the rest of you are planning to get through a hot and steamy summer, but I am counting on a lot of time at the craft table. Especially good news for today’s parents is that we don’t have to live next door to an art museum to teach our kids about the great artists and artistic movements of the past. Last June, I kicked off a “summer school” series with a post about some of my favorite picture book biographies for elementary-aged children, a rich and growing subset of children’s literature. Nowhere is the picture book format better utilized than in biographies of famous artists. These aren’t the books of our past, which reproduce notable paintings aside dry critical analysis; rather, they are true and entertaining stories about formative artists who, beginning as children, overcame struggles, searched for inspiration, and broke down conventional barriers to define their unique artistic styles. As your child sits before a blank piece of paper, wouldn’t you love for him or her to channel the stories of Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock, Henri Rousseau, and Vasily Kandinsky? (See my list of favorite books at the end.)
The latest of these gems, Barb Rosenstock’s The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art (Ages 6-12), strikes a particular chord with my family. At almost seven, JP loves to draw and paint, but while his peers are steering more and more towards realistic creations, JP still prefers abstraction. Some might call it scribbling, although to imply that it is rushed or without meaning would be misguided. JP (and now Emily, following in his footsteps) never stops talking—not for one second—while he draws. He narrates the action as it takes shape before him: comets blasting through the sky, submarines bursting into flames, houses pitched airborne towards a burning sun (the theme of explosion is strong with this one). I’m not exactly sure what he is working out on that paper—because there is clearly something cathartic going on—but when he is finished, his entire body is relaxed, his mind at peace.
Enter Vasily Kandinsky, Father of Abstract Art, creator of some of history’s most famous “scribbles.” Children will easily relate to the child Vasya in The Noisy Paint Box, who spent his Russian youth under constant pressure to be polite and disciplined: “He sat stiff and straight at dressed-up dinners while the grown-ups talked and talked, and talked.”
But everything changed the moment his aunt gave him his first paint box (a monumental moment in so many childhoods). Paint unleashed a peculiar sensation within Vasya: he imagined that he heard the colors hiss and sing, and, as he painted, he had the distinct feeling of putting music to canvas. For many years, his parents and teachers condemned his “scribbles,” enrolling him in classes to learn “to draw houses and flowers—just like everyone else.” But Vasya continued to believe that art was about making people—both the artist and the observer—feel things, and that this could take a more abstract form.
Rosenstock’s clear, beautifully worded story is every bit as wonderful as her previous picture books, most notably The Camping Trip That Changed America (another perfect historical selection for summer). In The Noisy Paint Box, though, it’s illustrator Mary Grandpre that truly celebrates the birth of Abstract Art, using acrylic paint and paper collage to contrast the formal world of Russian aristocracy in the 19th century with the freedom and movement of Kandinsky’s personal expression. Grandpre exquisitely blends the singing colors in Vasya’s head with his brushstrokes on canvas. Oftentimes, his “lines and blobs” (Kandinsky’s own words) jump and spill beyond the frame, reminding us that feelings are messy, misshapen things with no clear beginnings or endings. People paint to capture these feelings and to make others feel something, too. Now, if that isn’t poetic license to let your kids loose at the craft table this summer, then I don’t know what is!
Other Favorite Picture Book Biographies of Artists (while these are all great to read at home, they have also been some of my favorite acquisitions for our school’s library!):
The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau, by Michelle Markel & Amanda Hall (Ages 5-10)
Henri’s Scissors, by Jeanette Winter (Ages 5-9)
Colorful Dreamer: The Story of Artist Henri Matisse, by Marjorie Blain Parker & Holly Berry (Ages 5-10)
Through Georgia’s Eyes, by Rachel Victoria Rodriguez & Julie Paschkis (Ages 5-9)
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, by Jen Bryant & Melissa Sweet (Ages 6-12)
Sandy’s Circus: A Story About Alexander Calder, by Tanya Lee Stone & Boris Kulikov (Ages 6-12)
Action Jackson, by Jan Greenberg, Sandra Jordan, & Robert Andrew Parker (Ages 6-12)
Frida, by Jonah Winter (Ages 6-12)
Meeting Cezanne, by Michael Morpurgo & Francois Place (Ages 6-12)