Unreal Nature

February 24, 2011

The Nature of the Translation

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:59 am

… The child spontaneously accepts the image as an enlightening equivalent of the model, created within the conditions of a particular medium. The child understands the nature of the translation and has no trouble practicing it.

This is from the essay “Beginning with the Child” by Rudolf Arnheim in the collection of essays When We Were Young: New Perspectives on the Art of the Child edited by Jonathan Fineberg (2006):

… To break with a tradition that has run its course and to reinvent the world of imagery, artists tend to look around for models. The guidance and inspiration they derive from remote sources demonstrate that productive help can be obtained from communication that is at best partial. Just as European artists received a needed impulse from African carvings, about whose meaning and function they knew next to nothing, so they received a strong influence from children’s drawings that relied on precepts, interpretations, and connotations that had little to do with the states of mind producing those unassuming pictures. All that was needed were some of the formal properties for which artists were searching to resolve problems of their own.

Arnheim then takes a closer look at children’s art, starting with three-year-olds and working his way up. In the first segment below, we’re up to age five or six:

… Far from merely indicating a lack of skill, an inability to represent models more faithfully, the casting of live bodies into fundamental shapes represents a truly creative achievement. Equally significant is the capability of the young mind to accept without question a meaningful equation between the shapes of nature and their thoroughly different representation on paper. The child, although fully capable of seeing the difference between model and picture, operates on the basis of a relation between representation and reality that we are tempted to find much more sophisticated than our own notion of the one simply imitating the other. The child spontaneously accepts the image as an enlightening equivalent of the model, created within the conditions of a particular medium. The child understands the nature of the translation and has no trouble practicing it.

The endless variety of aspects which the objects of the world present to our eyes is obediently rendered by painters of the naturalistic tradition. The child, in a search for clarity, ignores the confusion of accidental appearances and reduces them to the alternatives of frontality and profile. The turtle in figure 33 [not shown in this blog post] is shown from what we would call “on top,” while the lady appears in profile. This reduction provides the most informative sight available for each object. It guarantees a finality of presence even to more complex scenes.

[ … ]

… Yet another elaboration of the basic style comes from the seductiveness of shape and color. In the artistic process, the visual patterns emerging in the medium itself are directly given to the maker’s eyes and handled by him. They are therefore closer to his attention than the subject matter of the outer world. In figure 39, a five-year-old girl has taken the likeness of a fountain pen from this outer world, but the pen’s shape and colors, once on paper, acquire an abstract life of their own, amplified by further shapes and arousing new expressive connotations: the aggressive pointedness of the pen inspires a picture of what the girl calls “an evil animal.” Carried to its extreme, the eloquence of pure form displaces the subject matter almost entirely and leads to abstract ornaments, as in figure 40, done by an eight-year-old Japanese girl.

Fig. 39 [top], Artist unknown (female, age 5), Fountain Pen
Fig. 40 [bottom] Artist unknown (female, age 8, Japan), Abstract Ornament

… the difference between the intentions of an artist and those of the child is most evident where the similarity is greatest. Joan Miró’s woodcut of a female figure could hardly have been conceived by someone who had never seen a child’s drawing. Both reduce the human form to its simplest frontal symmetry, but the similarity ends there. The difference between naïveté and sophistication begins with the use of the empty ground, which in the young child’s drawing would simply be the emptiness of uncultivated space, not yet included in the conception, which is limited to the exploration of single objects. Miró uses this same emptiness to express solitude. His woodcut is one of those he created to illustrate Paul Eluard’s book of poems A toute épreuve (1958). Our figure appears next to a poem complaining about loneliness.

Accordingly, the empty ground is not disregarded by the figure but interacts with it in a counterpoint between nonbeing and being. The head, controlled in its position by the sensitive hand of the adult artist, stops just short of taking its place on the neck. The hollows between the arms reach into the body like breasts, and the torso is squeezed into slimness with the help of the fireball,the embodiment of fullest expanse. The frontality of the figure stands for the lack of change of which the poet speaks, but its rigidity is relieved by the placement of three colors: the pairing of eyes and feet is offset by color difference, and the color red unites the ball, the left eye, and the right foot in a paradoxical triangle.



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