Artists and Wunderkids

Why is child art so important in 20th-century Australian art? From the turn of the century there was a European upsurge of interest in the art of children manifested in surveys of large samples of their work (Corrado Ricci, Georg Kerschensteiner and James Sully, for example),[1] the collecting of children’s art by artists (including Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Gontcharova, Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter) and exhibitions of child art in many major cities. These events resulted in the publication of several important texts that were read by Australian artists, especially Viktor Lowenfeld’s The Nature of Creative Activity,[2] and the occurrence of several exhibitions of child art in Australia. 1938 was the key year for the adoption of child art styles in Australia. Around that time, artists were able to see child art in the context of the European avant-garde through the influence of the visiting Russian Ballet.

Child art, Art Brut and tribal art have several similarities. The artists, for the most part, do not pay great consideration to their audience on grounds of popularity or sales. Generally, children and Art Brut artists have not been extensively trained in artistic techniques and are ignorant of accepted artistic norms. They are not motivated by the need for social recognition and all, to the modern Western eye, produce work that is challenging in style, technique, colour, iconography and intention.[3] Most of all, characteristics of children’s art have induced artists who were jaundiced with the prevailing Zeitgeist to adopt some of its features in their own work. They admired the freshness, simplicity and virility, the lack of inhibition and the direct expression of emotion that they perceived in child art.[4]

To describe a work of art as childish may be a pejorative judgement. It was frequently used by opponents of modern art and was used by the Nazis to justify persecution of artists whom they judged to be proponents of “degenerate art”. In Degenerate Art exhibitions from the 1930s, child art and works of the mentally ill were included together with those of contemporary artists and used by the Nazis in anti-modernistic propaganda. Herbert Read organised a counter exhibition of refugee artists in England and France, and introduced Peter Thoene’s book Modern German Art, 1938. This book was in the library of Sunday and John Reed, patrons of Sidney Nolan and other artists. Many visitors to the library who read and discussed Lowenfeld’s book may also have read Thoene on Klee: “The complicated mechanism of psycho-analysis and of our knowledge of bygone ages is needed to rediscover the directness of the child and the naïve aspects of form which have arisen out of fear and totemism.”[5]

Around the time Read was organising the refugee artists’ exhibition and Frances Derham, in Melbourne, was organising the first Australian child art exhibitions, Colonel de Basil’s Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo made three tours to Australia between 1936 and 1940. Most of the artists who designed sets and costumes for the Ballet were considered “degenerate” by Nazi standards. Goncharova and Larionov designed the most spectacular and child-like of the costumes and sets. They were amongst the first in the world to collect and show folk and child art in contemporary art exhibitions at the beginning of the 20th century (e.g. Moscow Salon Group, 1911). Art teachers were aware of their importance as pioneers of the ideology of child art and modernism. Rah Fizelle in 1942, Marianne Seeman in 1940 and Marion Richardson in 1948 all illustrated Russian Ballet drawings by children. Fizelle illustrated a scene from The Fire Bird, a ballet designed by Goncharova, and Marion Richardson showed a scene from Larionov’s Minuit de Soleil.[6]

Marion Richardson in England and Franz Cižek in Austria were teachers of the visual arts who exerted an important international pedagogical influence, including a direct influence in Australia. In Vienna, Cižek conducted weekend classes for children aged mostly between five and 14 years, from 1897 until 1938. These classes were free, and he encouraged children to draw what they saw and felt rather than copy or imitate the works of others. Cizek’s methods were adopted by many art teachers in Australia, some of whom had been taught by him or worked with him in Vienna, such as Marianne Seeman, Bettina McDuff and Edith Emery.[7] As well, May Marsden, Ruth Peck and Frances Derham knew of his work through British art educators like Marion Richardson.

Although familiar with Cižek’s method, Marion Richardson from 1912 adapted the method of her teacher, R. C. Catterson Smith, for training visual memory and exercising creativity. Rather than showing lantern slides, she described objects or events to her Dudley High School students and asked them to visualise the description and then reproduce it from their imagination. Impressed by their freshness and lack of inhibitions, Roger Fry chose to exhibit the works of her students together with those of children of established artists at the Omega Workshops in London in 1917, and again with the work of Larionov in 1919.[8]

In Australia, Frances Derham became a major collector of children’s art from the mid 1930s. Like Cižek, she was both an artist and a teacher.[9] Her teaching method included some of the techniques of Cižek and Richardson and soon became well-known to psychologists, artists and teachers. She campaigned vigorously for the appreciation and importance of child art throughout her life and collected over 10,000 children’s drawings and paintings that are now in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. In 1938 Derham’s large national touring exhibition, Child Art from Many Countries, was a sensation and a revelation. It included art by Indigenous and Euro-Australian children, work sent from England by Marion Richardson and work sent from Spain by Vance and Nettie Palmer’s daughter. George Bell wrote: “The whole effect of the show is stimulating and is a lesson on the encouragement of natural expression in art to all teachers and, indeed, to all artists who are not mentally sterile.”[10]

In another exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, 1947, the works of students of Rah Fizelle, Isabel McKenzie and Ludwig Hirschfield Mack were included together with those of students from the progressive schools Preshill and Koornung, and from other private schools in Melbourne. Professor Browne, Professor of Education at the University of Melbourne, opened the exhibition and lent works from his collection of Japanese pupils’ art. At the exhibition Professor Oeser, who had translated Lowenfeld’s The Nature of Creative Activity in 1939 and by 1947 was the first Professor of Psychology at the University of Melbourne, gave talks supporting the ideas of Read and Fry that children should be permitted free artistic expression.

Over three generations, Australian artists have used child art forms as a means of liberating their art from the past. The intended meaning of this practice changed over generations with Sidney Nolan, Danila Vassilieff and Margaret Preston as examples of the first generation, Tony Tuckson and John Olsen as examples of the second, and Robert MacPherson, Jenny Watson, Gordon Bennett and Robert Rooney as examples of the third.

Sidney Nolan’s first commission was from Colonel de Basil’s Company to design the sets and costumes of the ballet Icare for the 1939–40 tour. This was the period when Nolan was intrigued by the illustrations of child art in Lowenfeld’s book. He was later inspired by those in Read’s Education Through Art. Nolan’s preparedness to use flat bold patterns, striking colour schemes and conflicting perspectives within the picture – all child art features – were evident from 1939 when he first formed a close association with the Reeds at Heide, their property outside Melbourne. In Moon Boy (1940), Nolan shows a disc on a neck with three strands of hair on either side and a plume on top – a simplified doll-like form of a head from a back view said to be painted in a spontaneous moment after seeing John Sinclair’s head outlined against a St Kilda moon. Nolan’s Moon Boy may be seen as a provocative adoption of child-like mannerisms designed to ridicule a stultified academic tradition and perhaps to protest against Nazi persecution of modernist artists.

Nolan also painted child-like figures in Dream of the Latrine Sitter for the 1943 Anti-Fascist Exhibition. He emphasised the multiple station points, incongruous scale and distorted perspective that Lowenfeld found characteristic of the haptic child: that is, as primarily expressive and emotional rather than visual and representational. While Nolan did not collect child art, he had an excellent eidetic facility and hence very good memories of his own childhood that he used in his art.[11] Usherwood comments that in the St Kilda Giggle Palace series from 1945 Nolan derived visual ideas from children’s and 20th-century primitive/naïve art that were instrumental in the development of his laconic and informal style.[12]

Danila Vassilieff, especially when teaching at Koornung school, had great influence on his peers in this area of child art. Nolan was amongst many artists who visited Koornung and he gave talks on creativity to the students. Vassilieff had already had contact with Russian Ballet members in London prior to their Melbourne tours. He also probably saw the 1947 Ballet Rambert production of Peter and the Wolf and made 200 illustrations of this Russian fable intended for a book that was never published. Some of them, selected by Vassilieff as the best, were later published by the Australian National Gallery, 1982. These colourful, whimsical and dramatic watercolours and gouaches, full of action and vigour, reflect the influence of the artists of the Russian Ballet such as Goncharova and Larionov. Vassilieff used strong primary colours and stripped-down forms and he showed a lack of concern for realistic visual representation. From 1951 Vassilieff also developed an interest in sculpture and his watercolours had an even greater emphasis on expressionism. He made reference to several pictures reproduced in the books by Read and Lowenfeld.[13]

Margaret Preston’s adoption of Aboriginal motifs in her work has been well recognised but her adoption of child-like motifs has not. From 1938 her art became more expressive and intuitive.[14] Her interest in teaching art to children was longstanding and in 1929 she made a linocut from a drawing made by the six-year-old Dorothy Ure Smith.[15] By 1938 Preston was quoting Clive Bell (quoting Sully) on child art: “First I think, then I draw around my think.”[16] The Road – Bimbowrie, S.A., (a monotype sometimes referred to as Bimbowrie Landscape) reflects Preston’s Aboriginal and child-like vocabulary. Preston writes that she visited rock shelter paintings on Bimbowrie Station in the Olary district of South Australia, north of Adelaide near the Broken Hill railway. She discusses how she has interpreted this rock art in a way that is consistent with that of a trained artist.[17]

As well as Preston’s coloured monotype, we are fortunate to have two other independent representations of the same cave paintings, the first using the technique of making outline drawings from projected photographs, the second from site drawings and photographs. The 1926 drawing was completed by the geologist and explorer Mawson (Sir Douglas) and Hossfield,[18] and the 2000 drawing by archaeologist Margaret Nobbs.[19] Nobbs’ drawing shows how the paintings are spread out and records all of them, but Mawson and Hossfield show only a portion. The paintings have seemingly faded dramatically in recent years. In Nobbs’ drawing the trees (or ferns) are individuated and purposeful, with asymmetrical “leaves” varying in highly deliberated shapes by different hands. Preston selected some trees (those that are in the 1926 drawing), thickened their forms and exaggerated their grouping. She also increased the number of human footprints which she places in her sky and reduced the number of animal footprints. While her monotype is more similar in form to the 1926 than to the 2000 drawing, it is at the same time (because it is made more simple than the 1926 drawing) remarkably similar to the lobate forms of trees drawn by young children illustrated in Helga Eng’s The Psychology of Children’s Drawing.

The child-like construction of Preston’s monotype was noted also by the art critic for The Bulletin: “The crudely symbolic trees of Bimbowrie Landscape … might have been drawn by a child with its thumb.”[20] The monotype’s original owner, James Cook, wrote of Preston’s art in 1948: “The comment ‘It looks as if a child could draw it’ would probably convince the artist that she had succeeded.”[21] The monotype also resembles Design Drawn from the Letter S by Betty, aged eight, in R. H. Tomlinson’s book, Children as Artists (1944). Preston’s road turns like the outline ribbon shapes in Betty’s design, and both share infill dots. Although Preston writes in the Monotypes that child art and Aboriginal art are different and distinct in their outline forms, inspection of The Road – Bimbowrie, S.A. shows that she did not make this distinction in her own art. From 1938 onwards Eng-like forms may be found in her work, such as Brown Pot (1938). These comparisons suggest that her lexicon includes both children’s and Indigenous influences. Both influences are identifiable, integrated and synthesised in the Bimbowrie Landscape.

Margaret Preston and Tony Tuckson are instances of Australian artists who worked directly with children: Tuckson, with his son Michael; and Margaret Preston with Dorothy Ure Smith. Tuckson demonstrated his interest in child art in his chapter in Australian Aboriginal Art,[22] where he displays his knowledge of Lowenfeld’s work on the nature of children’s creativity. His own linear style, simplified and symbolic forms, and lack of concern with spatial perspective are child-like in character as in Three Reclining Nudes (1952–56) which echo variations on human figures made by children at different ages. Primary colours and patterns that surround the borders of the picture are also familiar child mannerisms. Dubuffet was of compelling interest to Tuckson and an important influence on his work,[23] as unlike pre-war European artists, he was attracted to the aggressive and compulsive qualities of child art and Art Brut.

When John Olsen was in Paris in 1958 he met the Dutch painter Corneille and other members of the CoBra group, who stimulated his interest in archetypal images and symbols and lead to a concern with child art.[24] CoBra was founded in Paris by a group of artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam who regarded child art as fresh and uncontaminated. Their art was raw, their child art forms violently exaggerated and wildly coloured. Child art and tribal art imagery intrigued Olsen, who was attracted to the absurd and the irrational in both.[25] Olsen travelled to Spain on the back of Corneille’s motorbike and out of this trip he painted Majorca (1958). Here, tadpoles and toasting forks take centre stage. The tadpole figure (l'homme têtard in France and Kopffuesler in Germany), where the arms and legs extend from the head, is commonly the child’s first attempt to represent the human form; likewise, the hands like toasting forks. Olsen profiles the tadpole figure with arms, legs and hands melding with the fences and tracks in the landscape. “One of the central thrusts of Olsen’s art has clearly been the attempt to simulate the freedom of children and their imaginative waywardness, and the means by which he does this is a line ever-delighting in its physical energy and optimistic buoyance.”[26]

Ross Crothall and Ian Burn are key transitional figures between early and later artists’ affinities with children’s art. Rather than contributing to the idealisation of child art as a pure expression of emotion and subjectivity like Nolan and Vassilieff, or to the more sophisticated and intellectual adoption of child art forms like Olsen and Tuckson, they self-consciously re-use these forms as a means of rebelling against the old-time rebels. Their aggressive art signals that child art forms had grown formulaic. Crothall’s irreverent Expecting to Conceive from the 1962 Annandale Imitation Realists’ exhibition and Ian Burn’s The Idiot Figure (1963), take childish pleasure in grimacing child art figures, which were by now seen as worn-out metaphors.

The modernist form of child art styles is used more coolly and ironically by Robert MacPherson to liberate himself from the formal process of the fact of painting or of making art itself. He adopts the personality of a child, Robert Pené, “by constructing stories … through the partly imagined, partly recollected viewpoint of one small boy in Nambour, 1947.”[27] MacPherson uses forms and subjects of interest to children such as a series of heads that resemble Dubuffet’s collection of commissioned children’s drawings of adult’s heads.[28] Robert Pené’s 184th Boss Drover drawing Looking Glass Joe Dowling (1996) is completed by a nine year-old boy. MacPherson has no compunction in also assuming the persona of Robert’s little brother, adding a messy tadpole figure typical of a four-year-old, commenting on it with childish misspellings. A deliberate contrast is drawn between the more complex representation of a human face by the nine-year-old of the Boss Drover and the earliest representation of the human figure.

In Alice on a Good Day (1987), Jenny Watson also used the cliché of the stick figure drawing of the young child, the kind favoured by Tuckson and Olsen. Like MacPherson, memories from childhood are depicted ironically in child-like forms. A stick Cheshire cat is used to comment on the Alice in Wonderland figure, who is herself a parody on the 1950s Alice series by Charles Blackman, an artist who earlier adopted stick figure graffiti. Other child-like aspects of Alice on a Good Day are the unskilled lettering that surrounds but never overlays the forms in the image, the messiness of the drawing and the conflicting perspectives within it. The artist precariously negotiates between expectations of a woman and an artist, between childhood and maturity – the words spell out a message drummed into the child: “Talent is something that is god-given.” Alice is jammed inside a room where she can’t, like talent, “escape out the window”. Alice peers into Pandora’s box, depicted as an old-fashioned hope chest, the traditional storage for a girl’s marriage trousseau. Is Alice releasing the overwhelming obligations of adulthood – earning money? “You can't buy it (talent).” If talent goes, does hope remain? An artist resembles the child who does not control creativity or environment – and this is on a good day!

The biographical sources of MacPherson and Watson are also crucial to Gordon Bennett, as demonstrated in Notes to Basquiat: Double vision (2000). Bennett’s Notes on Perception series illustrates his long-standing interest in perception and the function of mirrors in interpreting the self. In Notes to Basquiat: Double Vision, although the faces look very similar in outline form, their difference is not confined to colour and orientation. Bennett is implying that, just as different images projected to each eye cannot be fused stereoscopically and result in double vision, so the two heads in his image are irrevocably separate and distinct. This interpretation is emphasised by the contrasting features of mirrors listed near the image and the exhortation that mirrors would do well to reflect more. Graffiti above each head indicates a judge (scales) and an innocent prisoner (tadpole figure). The child’s drawing in the centre is a copy of a drawing by the artist’s daughter, Caitlin. It is perhaps indicative of innocence – young children do not have disparate visions of black and white. The drawing is seemingly by a child too young to have learnt to write. In his paintings and writings Bennett makes reference to the work of Basquiat and looks for ways “to undo the pervasive effects of language structures”[29] which institutionalise racism. He wishes to question romantic notions of a “black other” that demand a fossilised uncontaminated “primitive”.

The early rebels such as Nolan and Vassilieff take opposing approaches to childhood experience to that of contemporary artist Robert Rooney. Whereas the former celebrate the unbridled spontaneity of childhood by joyous abandon in technique, Rooney’s technique is much more calculated. On the immaculate surface of Strange Fruit and Stranger (2000), Rooney combines with graphic precision the contributions of children of different ages. The threatening: “Jungian archetype” stranger on the right was drawn by a four-year-old and the happy scene on the left, by a seven year-old.[30] This scene includes a young child’s mandala sun and an Eng-type fruit tree in feather formula, but inverted. Robert Rooney’s habitual practice is to use found images – in this instance, illustrations of the drawings of Agnes and Dorathea Kovalevsky, published in The Exciting Family by M. D. Hillyard (probably early 1940s) from which he has selected drawings and refigured them into dazzling, colour saturated paintings. The artist is not, like Nolan and Vassilieff, attempting to re-experience direct emotional responses of childhood in his paintings. Nor is his aim to comment ironically on child art like Watson and MacPherson. Robert Rooney’s earlier series, A Paris Pair, and his Kovalevsky paintings contain a compressed history of 20th-century modernism's experiments with child art and an entrée into “the golden age of childhood”.[31] The former series is analogous to Froebel’s geometrics for children and early Cubism, and the latter to early Expressionism.

The role of child art has changed over the generations of Australian artists considered here. Initially, adoption of its characteristics served as a protest against academic conservatism. It allowed a boisterous colourful indulgence in the unselfconscious expression of emotion and subjectivity, and a celebration of childhood innocence. A little later this turned into a cool and intellectual means of forcing consideration of the irrational side of childhood. Childhood is not so innocent and there is a tendency towards the compulsive and the grotesque. For contemporary artists a detached and self-reflexive child art style is one of many means used to refer to the modernist story.


  1. ^ Corrado Ricci, L’arte dei bambini, 1887; Georg Kerschensteiner, Development of the Drawing Talent, 1905; James Sully, Studies of Childhood, 1895. 
  2. ^ Viktor Lowenfeld, The Nature of Creative Activity: Experimental and Comparative Studies of Visual and Non-visual Sources, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1939; H. Read, Education Through Art, Faber and Faber, London, 1943. See also H. Read, “Children’s drawings: Are they really good?”, Picture Post, 1 April 1944, pp. 16–18.
  3. ^ Lucienne Piery, Art Brut: A Story of Diamonds and Flaws in Outsider Art from major European Collections, exhibition catalogue, Ivan Dougherty Gallery, 1999, p. 2. 
  4. ^ Kandinsky, Klee, Matisse, Picasso, Larionov, Goncharova, for example, made comments of this kind. Tuckson, Nolan, George Bell and Rah Fizelle are Australian examples of this view.
  5. ^ P. Thoene, pseudonym [Oto-Bihalji-Merin], Modern German Art, Penguin, London, 1968, p. 71. 
  6. ^ Art and Australia, May, 1940, p. 25; Art and Australia, March, 1942, p. 53; M. Richardson, Art and the Child, London, 1948. About fifty children’s paintings of the Russian Ballet are in the Marion Richardson Archives and at least seventeen of these are based on Richardson’s word pictures of Larionov’s Soleil de nuit. See A. Parton, Michael Larionov and the Russian Avant-garde, Princeton University Press, 1993, p. 176. 
  7. ^ For Seeman, McDuff, Emery. See K. Bittman, Strauss to Matilda: Viennese in Australia 1939–1988, The Book Printer, Maryborough, Victoria, 1988.
  8. ^ Roger Fry, “Children’s Drawings,” Burlington Magazine, 30 June 1917, pp. 225–31.
  9. ^ See Barbara Piscetelli, “The life of Frances Derham,” PhD Thesis, James Cook University, 1994. 
  10. ^ The Sun News Pictorial, 27 November 1938, p. 20.
  11. ^ Noel Barber, Conversations with Painters, Collins, London, 1964, p. 98.
  12. ^ Nicholas Usherwood, Nolan’s Nolan: A Reputation Reassessed, exhibition catalogue, Agnews, London, 1997. 
  13. ^ Felicity St. John Moore, Vassilieff and his Art, MUP, Melbourne, 1982.
  14. ^ Humphrey McQueen, The Black Swan of Trespass, Alternative Publishing Coop, Sydney, 1979.
  15. ^ Ian North, The Art of Margaret Preston, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of South Australia, 1980. Preston owned the catalogue for the British Council Touring Exhibition of Child Art, 1941. Personal communication, Stephen Miller, Archivist and Librarian, Art Gallery of New South Wales.
  16. ^ McQueen, op. cit., p. 145, n. 3, typescript for 1938 Carnegie Foundation Lectures.  
  17. ^ Margaret Preston, Monotypes, Ure Smith, 1949, p. 16.
  18. ^ D. Mawson and P. Hossfield, “Relics of Aboriginal occupation in the Olary district, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, 1926, pp. 17–21. 
  19. ^ Margaret Nobbs, Aboriginal painters of the Olary district: An ethnographical study of the Lake Frome plains and the adjoining uplands, with particular reference to the painting sites, Private Printing, April, 2000. 
  20. ^ NGV Press Cuttings Book, 1949, p. 10.
  21. ^ Ibid.
  22. ^ Ronald M. Berndt (ed.), Australian Aboriginal Art, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1964.
  23. ^ See, for example, Jean Dubuffet, Essayeuse de chapeau, 1943, oil. In Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet, fascicule 1, Marionettes de la ville et de la campagne, 1966, fig. 208, p. 114.
  24. ^ Janda Gooding, John Olsen: Selected Graphics, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of Western Australia, 1983, p. 3. 
  25. ^ Douglas Dorward, Wild Australia: A View of Birds and Men, Collins, Sydney, 1977.
  26. ^ Gary Catalano, The Years of Hope: Australian Art and Criticism 1959–86, OUP, Melbourne, 1981, p. 56. 
  27. ^ Ingrid Perez, Traces, Tracks: Robert Macpherson, Murranji, exhibition catalogue, Artspace, Sydney, 1998. 
  28. ^ Jonathan Fineberg, The Innocent Eye: Children’s Art and the Modern Artist, illustration 7.2–17.26, Princeton, 1997.
  29. ^ Ian McLean, Gordon Bennett, exhibition catalogue, Sherman Galleries, Sydney, 1999. 
  30. ^ Robert Adam, Strange Variations on a Theme, Robert Rooney: The Kovalevsky Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, 2001. 
  31. ^ Ibid.