Open the gallery door

21st March 1997 at 00:00
A Child's Book of Play in Art

By Lucy Micklethwait

Dorling Kindersley #163;6.99

Looking at pictures By Joy Richardson AC Black in association with National Gallery Publications Limited #163;9.99

Here are two books with an optimism about the openness of young people to art. In the first, Lucy Micklethwait says to parents and teachers: "Introducing children to art is as easy as opening a book, and the rewards are enormous". The art of this book is the core of teaching: creative juxtaposition.

Ours is a world of eclecticism: never in human history has such a wide range of cultures, periods, and genres been open to us. A Child's Book of Play in Art vividly demonstrates this: one page juxtaposes excitingly 18th-century England, 19th-century Japan and 20th-century America. Under the heading "Touch and Feel" we see an 18th-century painting of a rhinoceros, against a 13th-century drawing of a hedgehog, Stubbs's 1790 kitten, and an 1845 plate of fish.

Play in Art combines strikingly simple presentation with great depth of thought; fun (such as the "How do they taste?" pictures) with seriousness. Cheaper than postcards, at 8p a picture, it is a marvellous investment. Described as for "children of all ages" I strongly recommend it for infant,junior, and early secondary pupils. Its brilliant concept never condescends and always stimulates. It teaches us all how to look and react.

Looking at Pictures, the book of the National Gallery, may sound like a conventional gallery guide, but it is more than that: it is an analysis of art, brought to life with examples from the gallery.

The triumph of Joy Richardson and her publisher is that they have produced a coherent sequence in which text and illustration are complementary and equal aspects of the developing theme.

Thus sections on Spot the Symbol and The Power of Light are technical expositions of great depth made brilliantly simple by clear, analytic text working together with very skilfully select-ed and cut illustrations. For instance, the use of detail with full reproductions is very effective.

The exposition is thematic rather than historical, including: stories in pictures, how paintings were made, colour and paint, light and atmosphere,organising pictures.

This deep and broad analysis of Western art from the 13th to the 20th centuries is described as for "children of 10 and upwards, but my six-year-old son loved the way the illustrations made you see. Monet's "The Thames below Westminster" is juxtaposed with a recent photograph from the same viewpoint. "Look, Dad," he exclaimed, "you can see how it has changed."

This is a properly didactic as well as delightful book, essential for the key stage 3 art curriculum, but valuable for younger and older children as well.

Both these books are of our age at its best, bringing subtle responsiveness to a range of cultural forms to young and old. They demonstrate that simplification can and should be the distillation of deep truth.

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