When High Art Finds its Inner Child

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
June 8 2011 3:57 PM

When High Art Finds its Inner Child

Gertrude Stein is famous for her difficult, if playful, modernist writing, ranging from descriptive essays on Picasso and Matisse to the sprawling novelThe Making of Americans. But in addition to the challenging books she wrote for adults, Stein also wrote—somewhat less famously—for kids.

Her first foray into children's literature was the novellaThe World is Round, published in 1939, about a little girl named Rose who's trying to discover who she is while exploring the world. Stein had been commissioned to write the story by William R. Scott, a publisher who bet that her signature style of sound-focused wordplay and unorthodox syntax might appeal more to kids than to adults. The book's success bore out that theory, and so, the following year, Stein penned another, To Do: A Book of Birthdays and Names. This time, though, publishers deemed the book too difficult for actual kids. Yale University Press eventually released the text in 1957, but without any pictures, as Stein had always intended there to be.

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Last week, Yale finally released an illustrated To Do with whimsical images by the prolific children's illustrator and New Yorker cartoonist Giselle Potter. Stein's plot-less prose poem strings together a series of lyrical, often nonsensical riffs on each letter of the alphabet. While narrative is not its strong suit, To Do 's attention to the raw sensuousness of language will delight children and adults alike—and how many modernist books can you say that about?

Looking to turn your offspring into aesthetes? Here are five other famous "adult" artists who created quality stuff for kids:

 

Oscar Wilde, Fairy Tales

The dandy master of wit and aphorism is best loved for his campy play The Importance of Being Earnest and seductive novel The Picture of Dorian Gray; however, Wilde also created a collection offairy tales that are less known but equally delightful. In "The Happy Prince," for instance, the one-liners may not be as biting (though they will certainly elicit a chuckle or two from adult readers), but Wilde's tale of a swallow who falls in love with a reed and a golden statue of a prince with a broken heart have the same charm and grace of the author's adult work.  Originally published in two volumes—The Happy Prince and A House of Pomegranates—Wilde said that thepieces were written "partly for children, and partly for those who have kept the childlike faculties of wonder and joy."

Benjamin Britten, The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

Britten dedicated this buoyant 1946 piece to the children of Jean Maude, a concert pianist, for their "edification and entertainment." The music is a set of variations on an old theme originally composed by Henry Purcell in 1695, meant to demonstrate the sounds of each section of the symphony orchestra. After each group (strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion) has had a turn playing the tune, the work concludes with a dramatic fugue in which all the instruments merge together. Young Person's Guide has long been a favorite of music educators, but general audiences enjoy it as well, both for the experience of hearing all the tone colors of the orchestra as well as for the rousing, triumphant finale of the fugue section.

Keith Haring, Nina's Book of Little Things 

Nina Clemete was the daughter of a friend of Keith Haring's, and the pop artist created this scrapbook as a gift on the occasion of her 7 th birthday, in 1988. The artist instructs the child to interact with each page of the book, leading her through such activities as list-making, doodling, and story writing. One page is only to be used for writing or drawing when it is raining; according to the directions, "Drizzling and snow don't count! Rain only!" Haring's simple, signature figures (dogs and people), which populate the margins of the book, already look like childish doodles themselves—thus, they invite kids to collaborate with Haring, rather than be taught by him.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Children's Album

In 1878, Tchaikovsky set out to write a little collection of miniatures—relatively easy pieces lasting about one minute each—for young pianists. He dedicated the music to his nephew, Vladimir Davydov; the composer's fondness for little "Bobik" can be seen in a December 1878 letter to the boy's father.

Tell Bobik that the music has been printed with pictures, that the music was composed by Uncle Petia, and that on it is written Dedicated to Volodia Davydov. The silly little fellow will not understand what dedicated means...Even so, Bobik is an inimitably delightful figure when he's playing, and he might look at the notes, and think that a whole symphony is dedicated to him.

Each of the pieces focuses on a child-friendly theme, such as "Playing Hobby-Horses" (No. 3) and "The New Doll" (No. 9). Folk tunes from the Italian, Russian and German traditions also provide material for a few of the pieces, and many musical ideas from the Children's Album can be heard in Tchaikovsky's other works, such as the basic theme from the Neapolitan Song (No. 18) that had previously been elaborated on in Swan Lake. While the miniatures are relatively simple to play—they're a favorite of young people's piano festivals—this does not mean they are musically simplistic; as always, Tchaikovsky's cool, elegant musical sensibility and gift for melody shines through.

Andy Warhol, "Paintings for Children"

Commissioned by Warhol's European manager, Bruno Bischofberger, the "Paintings for Children" were first exhibited in Zurich in 1984. The display consisted of 100 small pictures of various childhood-related objects, like animals, fruit, and international toys, which were arranged in the gallery at kids'-eye -height and presented in the bold, stylized colors typical of Warhol's work. When a New York Times reporter asked why he turned to kids stuff, Warhol responded, in characteristically aloof fashion, "Lots of international toys are included because a lot of them are the cutest I've ever seen." While this doesn't exactly answer the question, art historians see the pieces as an extension of Warhol's well-established focus on everyday objects.