Monthly Archives: April 2021

Teaching Kids to Love Art

Children’s minds are wide open, and introducing a new painting is on the same level as introducing a new toy: let’s try this out and see what we think. While adults may be intimidated by modern art, kids can be merely curious. A little nudge and some basic information may be all they need to develop a life of art appreciation. Here are a couple of new books to help create little art lovers.

Modern Art Explorer, by Alice Harman. Illustrated by Serge Bloch

In just under 100 pages, the author presents thirty of the greatest works of many of the movers and shakers of modern art. After a quick introduction, she allots two- or four-page spreads to each artist, with images of recognizable masterpieces tied together with Serge Bloch’s childlike drawings of the artist and creative kids. “Modern” art, explains Harman, is not actually everything after the late 1800s, but is rather a finite movement within art history— starting in the late nineteenth century and continuing until the 1960s— that seeks to express emotion or meaning, rather than representational images.

The artwork for this volume by Thames & Hudson, a British publishing company, is chosen from the Centre Pompidou, a modern art museum in Paris. Harman’s comments on the artists and their lives, with explanations of their craft and creativity, are aimed at upper elementary, middle, and early high school students. Occasionally, her attempts at coolness are cringeworthy. However, children will learn a great deal about this movement and will be able to appreciate and discuss Mondrian and Modigliano and to compare Basquiat to Picasso with comfort and confidence.

Harman includes copious backmatter, including a timeline, glossary, list of artworks, and an index. In the timeline, she fits the artists’ works into the larger global events of each year, which is very helpful for understanding thought movements, as well.

Modern Art Explorer is an excellent resource for teaching children about art. It can be read or taught from front to back or in chronological order, or it can be dipped into and browsed as interest dictates. Perfect for preparing for a trip to the art museum.

Just Being Dali, by Amy Guglielmo. Illustrated by Brett Helquist.

Salvador Dali was a fanciful and curious boy. He was interested in everything, but not for long. He wove flowers into his hair—and later, into his long mustache—and wore costumes to school. His classmates made fun of him, and his father didn’t know what to do with him. His life changed when he became ill and was sent to live with the artist, Ramon Pichot. Once Pichot taught him to paint, Salvador realized that an artist can be whatever he wishes.

Dali went on to attend art school, wearing long hair and elegant clothes. His fellow students began to admire him when they saw the excellence of his work. Still, his professors tired of him, and he was expelled. He joined a new art movement called the Surrealists, who wanted people to think about the art that they were viewing, but Dali went further than they were willing, and he was expelled. Eventually, he met his future wife, Gala, who supported his art unreservedly and never grew tired of him at all.

Brett Helquist, an accomplished artist himself, illustrates this picture book biography with whimsical, swooping drawings, featuring elongated limbs and big, shining eyes. He recreates Dali’s masterpieces as part of the scenery, and kids will be able to use the list in the back of the book to turn again to the pages and seek them out by name.

One reason that the art world rejected Dali is that he frequently staged what we would call “media events,” rather than sticking to formal works of art. One shudders to think of what his artwork would have been if he had had Instagram and TikTok at his disposal, although whether he would have stood out as a genius or been considered just another drop in an ocean of exhibitionists is up for debate. We were glad for his public art when we were in Paris in 2019 and saw this clock that he created outside of his favorite drinking establishment.

I have always been a fan of Salvador Dali’s work, but much of his life is, shall we say, more complex than this story relates, and is not at all suitable for children. However, one of the themes of this picture book is the importance of being true to oneself and having the courage to use your gifts, even if it means departing from the herd. All children need to hear that message. Furthermore, many of Dali’s works of art are fun and lighthearted, and kids will enjoy laughing at melting clocks and lobster telephones.

A thoroughly charming introduction to an original thinker.

Disclaimer: I read library copies of both of these books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson

For thousands of years, India has maintained a caste system, and even though it has been abolished legally, still it lives on, deeply ingrained in the psyche of the nation. The Brahmin caste, it is believed, had sprung directly from the gods, and so it was irrefutable that they were to be honored. The lower castes had surnames that described their occupations and their place in society, and the very lowest caste, the Dalit, were “untouchable.” Nothing they could ever do would change their fate or that of their children.

Isabel Wilkerson believes that all of humanity will organize itself into some sort of caste system in order to maintain structure in society. She has met Dalit Indian immigrants in the United States who cannot look other Indian Americans in the eye if they would have occupied a higher caste in India. She also traveled to Germany, where the mid-twentieth century produced a caste system based on religion and other factors that allowed those in power to blame everything on a scapegoat, a necessary feature of every caste system.

In the United States, caste is largely based on race. For a century and a half before the Declaration of Independence, the economy of at least the southern portion of the country was dependent on slavery. Wilkerson does not hold back on the descriptions of the cruelty of slaveholders and the ruthless ways that the white people in power kept hold of the reins of hierarchy. Furthermore, she shows— through scholarly research, news stories, and personal accounts— that it is easier to change laws than to change human hearts.

Wilkerson is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her previous book, The Warmth of Other Suns. This new work, subtitled The Origins of Our Discontent, is certainly the most scholarly and well-researched of the many anti-racist titles I’ve read in the past year. The author goes beyond the current headlines to delve into the human condition and discover the causes of such evil. Her research and presentation are thorough, yet readable, and her conclusions are convincing. Even in the smallest human groups—your office, your church, and your homeowner’s association, for example—we see people sorting into hierarchies. Some are helpful, while others are toxic. Those at the top will ruthlessly use their power to keep themselves on top. Those in the middle have a vested interest in maintaining the lowest caste, congratulating themselves that at least they are better than those beneath them on the ladder, while those on the very bottom, like crabs in a bucket, keep pulling each other back down so that they won’t be alone in despair.

Other titles that I have reviewed may have been more practical about steps that readers can take to heal past hurts, but this book will help many people to understand the concept of “systemic” racism. Wilkerson does have a pointedly partisan take on current politics, and some readers may be offended. However, it is important that we explore the origins of our unrest in a serious and unflinching manner. It’s not about the laws we pass or even the century or country we live in. Caste is a compulsion we all have as one of the darker sides of our human nature.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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