Master's strokes prove too abstract for preschoolers
My four year-old daughter refers to Pablo Picasso as 'Pigasso'. It's not a problem with her enunciation because even I say Pigasso when I'm speaking to her. That's because her first exposure to the great artist came from a children's storybook, When Pigasso Met Mootisse, by Nina Laden. Laden illustrates the characters and their environment in the styles of Picasso and Matisse. Pigasso's friends have misshapen eyes and the apple tree in his yard has flat geometric facets. Mootisse's friends have bright red monochromatic bodies and his garden has rows of paper cut-outs of leaves.
In this storybook, Pigasso the pig and Mootisse the bull are famous painters who want to escape the demands of their growing fame, so they move to neighbouring houses in the countryside. They become friends but have a disagreement that 'escalates into a monumental modern art mess'. In the end, they realise the importance of their friendship when they accidentally create a masterpiece artwork together. The real life story of Picasso and Matisse's lifelong friendship is told at the end of the book in language aimed at young children.
For primary school children, Laurence Anholt's Picasso and the Girl with the Ponytail is another well-written and well-illustrated story about a little girl who was Picasso's neighbour. She overcame her shyness when she posed for him, and grew up to become an artist herself. This book is one of a series by Anholt. Each title showcases reproductions of an artist's work woven into a true story of that artist and a child in his life.
When Pigasso Met Mootisse was a wonderful way to introduce my daughter to Picasso before our visit to Sha Tin's Hong Kong Heritage Museum to view his work. I surmised, correctly, that the exhibition would not attract the attention of a pre-schooler, especially one who is enthralled by the wide variety of illustrations in quality children's picture books. In any event, it was an outing for myself as much as for my daughter.
In the eyes of an adult, a painting that evokes emotions, positive or negative, through its interpretive quality is a good painting. In the eyes of a child, a painting that evokes positive emotions through straightforward depiction is a good painting.
Picasso once said: 'I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.' So when viewing a painting from his Cubist period, my daughter could not grasp why an 'auntie' would be drawn with triangular eyes and a nose at her temples.
Perhaps the reason my daughter was less enthused by the exhibition than I was is that children have an undeveloped 'theory of mind'. Theory of mind is the ability to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one's own. The ability to appreciate abstract or conceptual art requires theory of mind.
I enjoyed the Picasso exhibition because I was able to see so many paintings and sculptures beyond his trademark Cubist style. There were Van Gogh-influenced portraits and still-life paintings, and proportional rotund nudes in a neo-classical style.
The one painting that captivated my daughter was a colour-dotted work in the style of Georges Seurat's pointillism. It seemed that every parent and child who visited the exhibition that day paused to study and discuss that painting. This technique of painting involves small dots of colour applied in patterns to form an image. It was fascinating for the children to have a close-up view of the coin-sized dots that filled the large canvas, then step back into the middle of the gallery to take in the whole image.
For my daughter, the highlight of the visit was playing at high speed and high volume in the museum's Children's Discovery Gallery. My younger daughter also joined in the fun and games.
The Picasso exhibition will be at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum until July 22.
Annie Ho is a board governor of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong (bringmeabook.org.hk), a non-profit organisation devoted to improving children's literacy through reading aloud to them and providing easy access to the best children's books for underserved communities across Hong Kong.