Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 3, 2010
Hide & Seek: Picturing Childhood
Exhibition schedule: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, September 26, 2009–February 21, 2010
Large
Lewis Carroll. Alexandra Kitchin (ca. 1868). Albumen print. 5 1/4 x 6 1/8 in. Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2008.41.8.

Childhood often conjures images of an idyllic time of innocence and bliss. Although captivating to the popular imagination, such visions are by no means timeless or universal, and perhaps nothing more than nostalgic conceit. This is where the curators of Hide & Seek: Picturing Childhood, April Watson and Jane Aspinwall, intervened by assembling a variety of photographic images of children, dating from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. Of the forty-four photographers represented, most were American, save for Brits Lewis Carroll and Cecil Beaton, the German photographer August Sander, the Italian-born Frederick Sommer and Jocelyn Lee, and the Japanese artist Yasuhiro Ishimoto. The photographs were arranged with consideration for both aesthetic and thematic implications in order to create a lively visual and intellectual conversation that undermined any staid conceptions of childhood, whether fond, frightening, or somewhere in between.

An excerpt from the Lewis Carroll poem “Solitude” (1853) introduced the visitor to Hide & Seek: “I’d give all wealth that years have piled, / The slow result of Life’s decay, / To be once more a little child / For one bright summer day.” It has been suggested that Carroll’s intense interest in children verged on the pathological, since his poems, novels, and photographs often focused on young girls. One such portrait, Alexandra Kitchin (ca. 1868), was prominently featured at the entrance to the exhibition. This image features a barefoot young girl in a white frock, reclining against a pillow in a pose not dissimilar to that of the protagonist in Manet’s Olympia (1863), painted five years earlier. The shallow space of the interior, the drapery on the right-hand side of the composition, and the fact that the girl makes direct eye contact with the viewer support such comparison. Further, recumbent poses had long been associated with paintings of Venus and other eroticized female figures.

Today, spectators cannot help but regard Carroll’s images of children with a measure of suspicion. As the wall label next to Alexandra Kitchin explained: “Carroll was uncomfortable with adults, preferring instead the company of young children—girls in particular. With a genuine understanding of a child’s imagination, Carroll immediately put his subjects at ease. The resulting photographs suggest—in sometimes unsettling ways for modern viewers—the intense seriousness of a child’s inner life without sentimental overlay. . . .” The curators did not flesh out the issue of whether Carroll actually avoided contact with adults, which is a matter of controversy among scholars. Defenders of Carroll, such as Hughes Lebailly, have found that excerpts from Carroll’s journals and letters were suppressed by his well-meaning family after his death in order to cover up scandalous love affairs with married women. As a result, scholars were unable to find evidence of Carroll’s interest in adult women for some time. Also, Lebailly argues that Carroll’s photographs of young girls in various states of undress would not have been viewed as erotic in the context of the “Victorian Child-Cult.” Nude photographs of children were acceptable, common, and emblematic of innocence (“C. L. Dodgson and the Victorian Cult of the Child,” The Carrollian: The Lewis Carroll Journal 4 [Autumn 1999]: 3–31).

One thing that was difficult to gain from such a broadly conceived show was a sense of the historical and cultural context of any one image. Tracing the theme of “hide and seek” through the course of more than one hundred years ran the risk of inviting viewers to see all of the images through the lens of the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, this type of survey afforded the opportunity to compare and contrast what are often wildly divergent images and ideas. Regardless of Carroll’s intentions, which can never be known for sure, Alexandra Kitchin confronts the viewer with the gaze of a girl who appears to have thoughts and feelings that are as complex as those of any adult. This image, and the questions it raises regarding purity and virtue, set the tone for the entire show.

The photographs were arranged according to several themes, identified by the curators in large text near the entrance to the exhibition: “romantic childhood and childhood’s harsher social realities; the significance of education, play, and imagination; the relationship between adults and children; and the place of children in the adult world.” These broad thematic categories enhanced the viewer’s intellectual engagement with the images, but did not interfere with the aesthetic beauty of the photographs. The romantic camp was represented by Gertrude Käsebier’s soft-focus, Pictorialist vision of children at play, Happy Days (1903). Conversely, Lewis W. Hine’s Spinner and Foreman in Georgia Cotton Mill (1908) presented the unpleasant truth of the less comfortable lives and idyllic childhoods of the working classes at the same historical moment. The exhibition pamphlet pointed out that these two approaches are inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s belief in the inherent innocence of children, “Though working with distinctly different purposes, both Käsebier and Hine operated from the same belief: the moral necessity of protecting children from the corrupting influences of the adult world.” In Käsebier’s Happy Days, children interact only with each other and nature; in contrast, Hine’s Spinner and Foreman in Georgia Cotton Mill depicts a very small child dwarfed by the supervising adult and the massive machinery with which she works.

The exhibition contained many such images that complicate the boundaries between the world of children and the experience of adults. Harry Rubincam’s seemingly innocent image of a boy tinkering with toy soldiers, Untitled (Boy with Toy Soldiers) (ca. 1905), and Sid Grossman’s depiction of young boys pretending to shoot each other with toy guns, New York (1947), feature children at play but also foreshadow the adult horrors of war. Sally Mann’s Gorjus (1989) documents her young daughters mimicking the adult world by playing with make-up. Hairbrushes, mirrors, compacts, and lipstick tubes are strewn on the ground before them and placed on the bumper of a dilapidated pickup truck to their left (which bears a license plate that says “GORJUS”). This large, black-and-white gelatin silver print is characteristic of Mann’s work, which was controversial in the 1990s for depicting her own children, at times experiencing unpleasant or complex emotions, and often photographed in the nude.

There were many other photographs in the show that depicted children in unsettling, almost adult, ways. For example, a Dorothea Lange photograph of a girl and her classmates with their hands over their hearts, entitled Pledge of Allegiance at Rafael Weill Elementary School, San Francisco (1942), seems like a straightforward depiction of a routine aspect of elementary school education. However, upon reading the information on the wall label and finding out that this photograph was taken in San Francisco’s Japantown just before Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps during World War II, the image had more impact. The girl’s facial expression simultaneously embodies unquestioning patriotism and inquisitive doubt, demonstrating both a child-like innocence and an adult sense of worry. As one would expect from a Lange subject, the girl’s countenance reveals her own emotional state, while also signaling broader social and political issues.

Some of the more recent photographs in Hide & Seek dealt with children confronted with mature problems. For example, Gloria Baker Feinstein’s visually dynamic image, Boy with Ball, Kajjansi, Uganda (2007), shows a young male in mid leap, reaching joyfully for a ball as bed sheets wave on the clothesline behind him. This creates a sense of weightlessness and bliss that seems to defy the tragedy of the ongoing AIDS crisis that Baker Feinstein witnesses and records. The boy is able to utilize play as an escape from the sadness surrounding him, retaining some of the positive attributes of childhood, even in the face of grown-up concerns. On the other hand, Sage Sohier documents the experience of childhood in the contemporary American atmosphere of planned activities and pushy “stage parents.” Sohier’s Girl Being Prepared for a Horse Show, Sandwich, NH (2004) is an arresting portrait of a small girl, dressed as a mini-adult, with a strikingly serious facial expression. Julie Blackmon’s Birds at Home (2007) is a more whimsical image of unsupervised children engaged in play, possibly as a welcome relief from their litany of adult-directed activities. The Starbucks cup on the dining-room table is the only indication of an older presence—albeit somewhere on the periphery. Eggshells litter the table and floor, while five children read, interact with pets, are lost in thought, and play with toys. The large scale and rich colors of the photograph enhance its playful and chaotic mood.

The title Hide & Seek refers to a popular children’s game, but when the words “hide” and “seek” are taken more literally, they connote the pursuit or analysis of something elusive. This title seems fitting, given that the curators constructed a complicated portrait of childhood, presenting it as romantic and protected, as harsh and troubled, and as everything in between. Selected works from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s permanent collection of more than seven thousand photographs in combination with new acquisitions resulted in a show that was visually stunning and thematically provocative, encouraging the viewer to reconsider the unfixed and malleable boundaries between childhood and adult experience.

Paula Rose
Instructor, Department of Art History, Kansas City Art Institute

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.