The guided tour
The Metropolitan Museum of ArtCherrytree Books Pounds 9.95 each - Age range 11 - 14 John Reeve asks: What makes a children's art book?
This series prompts the question: What makes a children's art book? The author, Richard Muehlberger, is an American art historian, former curator and at one time head of the education department at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In this series, he is mostly wearing his curatorial hat. There is a great deal of useful information, calmly presented (for which we may be grateful), but also a lot of description in the manner of the "old art history", as in an urbane lecture by Kenneth Clark. The effect is of distancing us from what is going on in the paintings, and this is partly because of the language. We are told a lot, but seldom asked to do anything or directly addressed. We are referred to as "viewers" and rather formally permitted to know things ("It is said", "Scholars say", "It is assumed") and the tone is often adult ("Universal meaning", "spirited disposition", "with the fields dormant", "familiar to anyone who has trudged through snow").
Too often the text flows on without the pictures; surely today children and teachers expect greater integration? It seems rather perverse, for example, to explain the significance of the bird's eye vantage point in Bruegel without specific direction to an illustration or a detail on the same page. This approach can begin to seem like a slide lecture with more than half the slides missing, except in Monet, for example, or Degas, where we perch sufficiently long on one subject before flying on to the next piece of connoisseurship.
One characteristic of long-term changes in British art and history teaching is that we want to be given source material firsthand, not paraphrased - whether it is a letter from Van Gogh, a slice of the Old Testament, or Ovid telling the story of Icarus.
Perhaps these books just don't travel too well across the Atlantic. An art or English teacher using Bruegel's "Icarus" would probably want the Auden poem as well, which helps pinpoint the particularity of Bruegel as a painter. To answer What Makes a Rembrandt a Rembrandt? one might usefully juxtapose a Frans Hals or even a Van Dyck.
The Degas book works better than some of the others because it has more on process, but generally these heroic artists seem to work in isolation: there is not enough on patrons, purpose, or influences, nor on where these paintings belonged. The influence of Japan, for example, permeated much of the work of three of these artists, but is referred to only in isolation. There is far more on composition than on costume or context. To elicit themes like symbolism you have to use the (very thorough) index. One cannot escape a feeling of condescension, not only to some of the subjects (particularly peasants), but to us the readers. We are being initiated into a club that perhaps really doesn't want us.
Is Raphael really a good choice for an introductory series like this, or is he here because art historians venerate him? Why is there nothing more modern than Van Gogh? These are books for teenagers already convinced about this kind of art, to be used in conjunction with less lofty tomes.
John Reeve is head of education at the British Museum.