Exhibition: Confronting Childhood
Many scholars consider childhood as we know it—a special period of human life to be nurtured, sheltered, and protected—to be a construct of eighteenth-century Europe, prior to which the family was as much an economic unit as an affective one. Works by European artists of the eighteenth century both reflected the changing values that accompanied the rise of the European Enlightenment—a time that recentered our focus on human reason—and helped to shape those changes by giving human form to new ways of thinking about childhood, family, gender, and domesticity. Gainsborough’s Family Album reveals one artist who was unusually committed to representing his own family, particularly his children. The remarkable record that Thomas Gainsborough left of his daughters as they grew up inspired the Museum to consider how artists—including those who regularly looked at their own families as subject matter—have depicted children in the centuries that followed.
Drawn entirely from the Museum’s exceptionally rich holdings in this area, Confronting Childhood can but hint at the complexities of representing children and childhood over a period of about two hundred years. Rather than proposing an overarching narrative, or selecting works that conform to a historical trajectory, the exhibition opens windows onto the individual voices of various European and American artists. Together the selected works tell a complex and shifting story of childhood as an unresolved idea that demand’s the artist’s continuing attention.
The first works in the exhibition, photographs by the nineteenth-century British artists Lewis Carroll and Julia Margaret Cameron, introduce some of the themes that recur throughout: How do images of individual children act as emblems of a wider question or problem? How much are such images creations of the artist—and by extension, should all images of children and families be investigated with skepticism? Should they all be regarded as constructions?
A historically cross-cutting selection of artworks—including one of two paintings in the exhibition, Ammi Phillips’s portrait of Henrietta Dorr—sets up these issues in miniature. These works were chosen for their direct engagement with the viewer, from Phillips’s painting, which combines timelessness with specificity, to Sally Mann’s effort to complicate childhood as more than a period of unalloyed sweetness. The earliest of the photographs in this section, an iconic work by Lewis Hine from 1908, illustrates a time of growing concern for the practical welfare of children. Some 175 years after childhood came to assume new weight, and as attention turned heavily to child labor, Hine showed us the continuing abuses of lax child labor laws in the early twentieth century. Diane Arbus later injected something quite different, mysteriously hinting at the depths of children who might defy our desire to know and categorize them.
The balance of Confronting Childhood considers the inevitable relationship between children and family, including gendered relationships to father and mother. The artist who comes closest to sharing Gainsborough’s focus on his own family is probably Clarence White, who repeatedly put his wife, children, and relatives under his lens to depict relationships imbued by quasi-religious feeling—even as he sought to give his photographs the weight of painting.
Decades later, by following a mentor’s advice that she focus on what was in front of her, Sally Mann, too, turned to her own family as her most fertile subject matter, doing so in ways that caused some to once again ponder the ethics of photographing children, even when they are the artist’s own. In much of the work displayed, childhood resists simplification; especially in the modern age, the sexuality of children is regularly present in art, just as we are perpetually reminded of how diverse and uncategorizable is the reality of childhood experience across time, race, and class.