In London, at the Royal Academy's exhibition Picasso and Paper
, it is impossible not to be amazed once again at the range of his artistic output, whether or not one is a fan of the artist. In particular, Picasso's fearless experimentation with materials – the variety of papers, chalks, pencils and crayons, even felt tips – gives some of the work a childlike quality, which I suppose is why one often hears a cynical adult saying: 'my child could have done that'. That's always a possibility, but for the sophisticated balance of line, colour and volume that Picasso so effortlessly achieves.
Adult viewers going to exhibitions that feature abstract art of any kind are often frightened that they will assume the wrong thing, fail to 'understand' or embarrass themselves through a failure of judgement. What is delightful about this exhibition is how it engages with children, and in this way encourages the doubtful adult to view some of the work through a child's eyes.
Children know how to play, as long as they are encouraged to do so and validated – rather than penalised – in this endeavour by the adults in their lives. The psychiatrist Erik Erikson put it this way: 'The theories of play which are advanced in our culture define play by the fact that it is not work, which is one of the many prejudices by which we exclude our children from an early sense of identity'.
In the Picasso exhibition, coupled with the signage identifying collages or cut outs, are additional questions for children which tell them how Picasso used paper, and suggest that they could try this themselves, using different colours and paste. The artist was only nine when he created a tiny dog and dove from torn pieces of paper. Shapes like children's wooden bricks make up the Nude with Raised Hands
from 1907; multiple perspectives echo the way children sometimes see things very differently from grown-ups; the cubist Violin
from 1912, utilises wallpaper and newspaper, among other materials, all of which could be found at school or at home, should a child be so lucky as to exist in an atmosphere of adventure in art.
It is encouraging, to say the very least, to read of the new venture between Sesame Workshop, the off shoot of the children's programme Sesame Street,
and the International Rescue Committee (IRC). A show has been created which introduces new Muppet characters and will go out in Arabic to refugee children, whether in clinics or schools or homes. This is an all-encompassing artistic and educational project on a large scale, aimed to help children in Middle Eastern countries where war has made a sense of childhood almost invisible: Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
The IRC programme director has said: 'Children who suffer the daily effects of violence and neglect are at high risk of disruption of neurological and biological processes… impairments that will follow them throughout their lives'. Just as Sesame Street
– which began in 1969 – reached a wide spectrum of children in the Western world with songs, stories and an educational element, so will Ahlan Simsim
('Welcome Sesame') focus on the sometimes overwhelming emotions that beset children who are bereft of a stable base.
Children do not have to be refugees, however, to be deprived of good early childhood education and the experience of play that ensures good emotional development. The Sure Start programme, begun in 1998 as a government initiative, has inexorably had the ground cut from underneath it in terms of funding. While the report presented to Parliament in 2017 is largely positive, it echoes Erikson's comment of how play is seen as 'not work', not profitable in itself: 'This report has shown that policies can potentially generate substantial monetary returns over and above the costs of delivery of the services'. Can it be a surprise that, when children are seen simply as cogs in a complicated cultural system, they become the youth who overwhelm the mental health services?
Picasso would have loved Sesame Street
, which would certainly have welcomed as guests the artist's characters from his surreal 'Ballet Parade': the costumes, the sheer madness of it. His art often references childhood, such as with the circus etchings of the early 20th century, every unhappy child's dream of escape from a family that somehow is the wrong one.
Television is an art form, with a wider reach, that has the power to enter into the homes of confused children and give them courage; television that is supported financially and free to follow inspirational and creative directors and producers. Public television. The BBC. Or, as the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
demonstrates, American Public Service Broadcasting.
Some adults retain a sense of their inner child throughout their life, and such was the case with Fred Rogers, whose television programme, Mr Rogers' Neighborhood
, flourished from its inception in 1962 until 2001 (with some breaks). Fred Rogers' appearance in 1969 at the US Senate Subcommittee on Communications, where he spoke so eloquently about the need for continued financing that even the chair of the committee became somewhat emotional, led to an increase in funding. One of the themes that Fred Rogers propounded was the need for children – for anyone – to have the time to pause, to be silent, to create in their own time. The erosion of this space, at schools, art colleges and other institutions, gives rise to an anxiety about trying to satisfy unattainable criteria.
Perhaps this is what sent Mr Dick, in David Copperfield
, over the edge. He is an example of an adult who has never quite made the transition from childhood to adulthood, which is captured so well by Hugh Laurie in the recent movie. There are hints that Mr Dick's own childhood was troubled. However, as children often can be, he is helpfully direct, and from this those around him gain insight. Picasso would also have understood Mr Dick, for it was the cutting and pasting, and the making of large paper kites, that gave Mr Dick peace of mind.
As David Copperfield himself says: 'I used to fancy that it lifted his mind out of its confusion and bore it into the skies'. The kite was a collage of anxieties. Everyone needs time to fly a kite.