Gift Guide

How to Talk to Children About Modern Art


This is a children's art book for grown-ups. In everyday language it shows how to explain to children what to look for and how to enjoy works from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

How to Talk to Children about Modern Art examines 30 fascinating works by modern and contemporary artists, from Gustav Klimt's Kiss of 1907 to Tim Noble and Sue Webster's British Wildlife of 2000, in galleries around the world. The book gives examples of the kinds of observations and questions...

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This is a children's art book for grown-ups. In everyday language it shows how to explain to children what to look for and how to enjoy works from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

How to Talk to Children about Modern Art examines 30 fascinating works by modern and contemporary artists, from Gustav Klimt's Kiss of 1907 to Tim Noble and Sue Webster's British Wildlife of 2000, in galleries around the world. The book gives examples of the kinds of observations and questions a child might ask about the works, and provides straightforward answers. 'The sculptor forgot to give her ears!' 'That can't have taken long to make!' 'Why wrap up a building?' 'Why make a painting look like an old wall?' The book demystifies art appreciation and reveals that the simplest questions can be among the most pertinent. There is plenty that will stimulate children's interest in art and enlighten grown-ups too.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"I can almost hear it go splash! That's exactly what this painting is about — the movement and above all the noise that goes with it. It is a splash! . . . The only person there is under the water. They've already dived in . . . We got there too late to see them, or we were looking the other way and missed it."
— from the book
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780711232891
  • Publisher: Lincoln, Frances Limited
  • Publication date: 6/12/2012
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 689,555
  • Product dimensions: 5.62 (w) x 8.37 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Francoise Barbe-Gall studied history of art at the Sorbonne and also at the Ecole du Louvre, where she now teaches. She also directs an association called CORETA (Comment Regarder un Tableau), for whom she gives many lectures. She is regularly called upon to participate in management workshops, where her experience of analysing images in relation to publicity and marketing is called upon. Editions de l'Agenda de L'Empresa have published a collection of her articles, and she is the author of several articles on the work of the sculptor Tom Carr. She is the author of How to Talk to Children about Art and How to Understand a Painting, both published in English by Frances Lincoln.

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Read an Excerpt

16. A Bigger Splash.
David Hockney, born 1937
Acrylic on canvas
2m 34cm x 2m 44cm Tate Gallery, London
5-7 YEAR OLDS I can almost hear it go splash!
That's exactly what this painting is about - the movement and above all the noise that goes with it. It is a splash!
There isn't anyone in the painting.
The only person there is under the water. They've already dived in … and the water is still mid-splash. We got there too late to see them, or we were looking the other way and missed it.
You can't see anything in the water.
Even if you look into the water you can't see anything. It's too soon as everything is still hidden by the splash. The pool must be very deep. You realise also that the painter didn't want to show the water as transparent or reflective, but preferred to show it as completely opaque.
It's a very big swimming pool.
It looks all the bigger because we can't see the edges in the painting. It seems as though the pool is limitless, even if you know that's not possible. You get the feeling of being in a huge open space, which is much nicer than somewhere where you are crammed up close to the neighbours. David Hockney liked painting pleasant images that make the viewer feel relaxed.
It's well drawn.
Hockney worked with a lot of precision, using a roller so that the surfaces of his paintings are lovely and smooth. He even used strips of tape to make sure the edges where two colours meet each other are sharply defined. The lack of distracting details also helps the scene to feel very calm.

8-10 YEAR OLDS You can see other buildings in the reflection in the background.
This detail proves that David Hockney was perfectly capable of painting reflections even though he didn't paint any in the pool. Here, he used them to suggest the surrounding villas, like the one in the painting. The buildings must belong to quite rich people. The large windows of the house let you imagine the amazing views they must have, but they don't give anything away about the interior of the house. This is a world protected from prying eyes.
Somebody's put a chair by the pool.
If the chair wasn't there, we might think that the diver was an intruder. But the chair lets us know that the house is lived in. It's a folding 'director's chair' which might suggest that the artist is directing his painting like a director does a film. So Hockney is letting us know that there is an element of fantasy here - that's it's 'make-believe'.
Where is it?
There's a blue sky, palm trees and a swimming pool - so it's somewhere that's sunny all year round… The scene immediately suggests California in the USA. Maybe it's southern California, not far from Hollywood, where the big film studios are. Hockney had discovered Los Angeles four years earlier and he liked it so much there that he returned there every year.
Why didn't he include any people?
The painting welcomes us in and we immediately feel at home because there is no-one else around. It's like going into a hotel room. Even the invisible diver seems to invite us to follow them into the water. In fact, the viewer is the real character in this picture.
It all looks brand new.
The lack of any surface texture conveys the sense of a clean, brand new place. The picture doesn't have any trace of the past about it - no memories. It's a bit like in cartoons. Hockney is showing us a world where everything is in its right place and nothing grows old. It's an image of an ultramodern paradise.
It looks like an advert.
Yes. In actual fact Hockney was inspired by the photo in a swimming pool advertisement, which explains why the image is so impersonal - because the advert needed to appeal to the broadest possible audience. The clear composition is easy to grasp even if you don't have lots of time and you get the impression of somewhere where life is simple. That in itself is enough to suggest the idea of holidays - in fact, this picture is rather like a holiday advert.
11-13 YEAR OLDS Swimming pools are Hockney's favourite subject.
Not at all! He only did about 10 swimming pool paintings, whereas he painted many more landscapes and portraits. But his swimming pools - starting from 1964 - were so successful that they are the ones that have been reproduced the most often. People have ended up thinking that's all he ever painted which is a vast oversimplification of his work. They sum up a certain life-style so well that they have become a kind of cliché. Even though the world they depict may be flat and sterile, they also convey how seductive contemporary life can be: the promise of hygiene, efficiency and daily troubles that can be washed away just like water would wash away Hockney's acrylic paint.
A splash isn't an everyday subject.
In choosing this subject David Hockney joins an ancient tradition dating back to the Italian Renaissance. Artists back then were very interested in painting the impossible - things that were too quick, blinding or intangible to paint - like thunder and lightning. By painting storms, blazes and fireworks, Giorgione in the 16th century and Turner or Whistler in the 19th century rose to the challenge that had already been lain down in ancient texts. This splash is a worthy successor to all of these natural phenomena by which the old masters measured their painting skill. Hockney was inspired by the artistry and technique of his predecessors and said he also loved the idea that he'd taken two weeks to paint something that only lasted two seconds…
The splash contrasts with the rest of the painting.
It's the only part of the painting to show any motion; the exception in an otherwise untroubled surface and texture. The year before A Bigger Splash Hockney had painted The Little Splash and The Splash. At the time he was neighbours with another painter, Ron Davis. Davis painted in abstract geometric style and he and Hockney would often discuss their respective visions whilst playing draughts together. This picture could represent their shared pastimes with the checkerboard symbolising the space of the canvas. First of all Davis seems to be in control of the game - his arguments seem to be winning through and the composition of the painting following a strict and austere geometry. But then Hockney takes the upper hand and finishes with humour - suggesting the chance of an intrusion on the strictly controlled reality; he adds the dive! Hockney's splash is in some ways a kind of theoretical statement, accompanied by a laugh.

25. Odessa Monument Christian Boltanski, born 1944
6 black and white photographs, 3 small biscuit tins, light bulbs and electric wires
2m 3cm x 1m 83cm: 1m 30cm x 50cm for the central photograph The Jewish Museum, New York
5-7 YEAR OLDS It's photos hung on the wall.
They are photos of children, close-ups on the faces looking out at us. There are four different sized photographs: one tall one in the centre, two large ones on either side of that and above each of those a smaller one. Plus there is a single, small-sized one at the top. They are displayed like family photos.
There are lights all around the pictures.
The light bulbs are part of the work. Placed at regular intervals above and beside the pictures they cast small circles of light onto the wall. The wires also play a role - of course they allow the light bulbs to be plugged in but they also suggest the idea of small, fine flower stems.
It's hard to see the faces.
Even though the light bulbs are switched on the faces seem dark. There are some truths which are hard to see or comprehend, no matter how hard you might try. Sometimes you have to wait until your eyes get used to the dark, so you need time and patience. Sometimes even that isn't enough, but at least then you get used to not being able to see very much.
Who are the children?
The work doesn't tell us. We don't know anything about them - not even their names - but that's not important. The important thing is that they existed. No matter how many details we may or may not know about them, nothing will change the fact that they existed. They were once as real as we are standing looking at them.
8-10 YEAR OLDS They are laid out symmetrically.
Yes the whole work is laid out in a very balanced, almost architectural style around a sort of central pillar. The light bulbs around the pictures create a pyramid shape… So the artist is saying that the photographs form a kind of structure to prevent the memories from being lost. They form a kind of house, a tomb or even a mausoleum of memory. As we look at the children's faces we step into that sacred place.
Do they always keep the light bulbs lit?
The light has to stay on constantly - if it were to fade or flicker we would no longer be able to see the faces and the work would disappear. The photographs could be lit from above but that would break the rhythm of the circles of light. It would also spoil the sense of the work, as it would no longer be self-contained. In synagogues and churches the light from candles or oil lamps has always symbolised the presence of God whose spirit lights up the darkness. Boltanski picks up on that symbolism replacing candles with light bulbs. His work is not religious in the traditional sense, but the permanence of the light is a symbol of life and hope.
What are the boxes for?
Boxes are made to put things in. That's why they appear in the 15th Century Flemish masters' paintings, where they were often shown beside saints at prayer, or placed on shelves, precisely so that it was impossible to see what was inside. They remind us that the world is full of mysteries. The three boxes here suggest that the work alone cannot reveal everything. Despite being small they also form the foundations of this structure. Archive boxes and biscuit tins, they might contain tiny finds, pretty souvenirs or sad secrets. But we will never know because they don't belong to us.
All the faces look similar.
They look similar because almost all of the poses are identical and because they have been blown up very large, so the features are rather unclear. The little girl in the middle was perhaps older than the others, some are smiling and others are more serious. But from a distance - or perhaps seen with the perspective of time - the details are less important. Seen face-on, these pictures are all that remain - like the image of Jesus on the Turin Shroud. They are the evidence that these children once existed. In its own way this work is saying that each of these faces is as sacred as life itself.
All those wires must be dangerous.
It's not dangerous but it is true that all those wires hanging down the wall do seem a bit homemade. Modern regulations mean that you rarely see this kind of set up in apartments even if they sometimes can be found in old houses. The way the artist has used the wires is significant because it makes the link to a past era - even though it's in the recent past - the past of the artist's childhood. It may also be a means of suggesting, if not danger, then the fragility of life which can 'hang by a thread'…
11-13 YEAR OLDS They look like lights around a bathroom mirror.
Some mirrors have lights set into the frames - in bathrooms and also in theatre dressing rooms so the actors can see clearly to put on their make-up. But this piece is very far from theatre. It shows Jewish children who can no longer play. They have no make-up and nowhere to hide. Sunken in dark circles, their eyes seem very large and tired. It's as though the children have been waiting for something for a very long time. These photos were taken in 1939 and found later by the artist who blew them up so much that they look like the faces of the dead. In fact we have no way of knowing what happened to these particular children, whether they survived the Second World War and the Holocaust or not, but their childhood has gone for ever.
It reminds me of a family tree.
These children may have belonged to the same generation but the work suggests something else. It creates a family of strangers linked by wires instead of tree branches. Depending on your perspective the wire could hold them prisoner but it could also hold them together as a group, stopping the pictures from getting muddled up and lost. Each is in its place, small or large, but each is equally important. Because this is a monument built around specific individuals, taking one away would be like removing a stone from a wall - the whole edifice might crumble. But like a family tree this work speaks of a past and also of a future. In the Bible, and particularly in the Old Testament, genealogy is very important because it creates a link back to ancestors and both back and eventually forward to God himself. Boltanski's work recreates something of that holy dimension.
Why 'Odessa'?
Christian Boltanski's grandfather came from Odessa in the Ukraine where there was a large Jewish population, very many of whom were murdered in the Holocaust. By referring to Odessa, Boltanski, who was born in France, links this work to his own origins. In Odessa candles are lit each year in memory of the dead (at Jahrzeit) and are never allowed to go out. Though these children are strangers, Boltanski celebrates their memory as if they were his own family. They are his family. And ours too.
Does Christian Boltanski always use subjects from the past?
Yes he does. You could say that he works with history itself. The objects themselves are just symbols and the stuff of the past. Photos, filing boxes, clothes, each item recalls a time not so long ago and never further back than half a century. So the viewer can always recognise something that reminds them of their childhood or their parents' childhood and younger viewers will recognise the kind of objects they see in flea markets. Boltanski's art reminds all of us that we are a part of history - not only the history of text books but the history you can smell and taste and touch when you rummage in an old drawer, the history that you wish you knew as you stare at the faces of people you never knew, yet seem to remember, in photographs.

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Table of Contents

The Kiss (1907-08) - Gustav Klimt The Piano (1909) - Frantisek Kupka The Conversation (1909-12) - Henri Matisse Sleeping Muse (1910) - Constantin Brancusi Nude Descending Stairs No. 2 (1912) - Marcel Duchamp The Crucifixion (1930) - Pablo Picasso The Human Condition (1933) - Rene Magritte (National Gallery, Washington DC)
Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening (1944) - Salvador Dali Parc des Princes (1952) - Nicholas de Staël Woman I (1950-2) - Willem de Kooning (MoMA, New York)
Pintura (Painting) (1955) - Antoni Tàpies The Whiteness of the Whale (1957) - Sam Francis (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo NY)
Pilgrim (1960) - Robert Rauschenberg Le Manteau (Coat )1962 - Étienne-Martin Bus Riders (1962) - George Segal (Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC)
A Bigger Splash (1967) - David Hockney (Tate, London)
Thira (1979-80) - Brice Marden Chapter (1981) - Robert Ryman Large Interior, W11 (after Watteau) (1981-3) - Lucien Freud Five Mountains Not to Climb On (1984) - Wolfgang Laïb Camouflage Joseph Beuys (1986) - Andy Warhol Rabbit (1986) - Jeff Koons (Sonnabend Gallery, New York)
Vanitas (1987) - Jana Sterbak Tour aux Figures (Tower of Figures) 1983-8 - Jean Dubuffet Odessa Monument (1989-2003) - Christian Boltanski Wrapped Reichstag (1995) - Christo and Jean-Claude
727 (1996) - Takashi Murakami (MoMA, New York)
Maman (Mother) 1999 (cast 2003) - Louise Borgeouis (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa)
Lui (Him) 2001 - Maurizio Cattelan British Wildlife (2000) - Tim Noble and Sue Webster
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