Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Childhood isn't what it used to be

The San Francisco Chronicle examines the increasing popularity of darker, more complex portrayals of childhood in art, film and literature:
Childhood has become a boundless new frontier in the arts, a terrain of seemingly infinite magnitude, emotional density and thematic complexity. Audiences may find themselves disoriented and unnerved, as the conventional views of innocence, precociousness and predatory corruption give way to deeper vistas of childhood experience and meaning. In complicated, challenging and sometimes confounding ways, children occupy an increasingly large share of our collective imagination.
From the unnerving Birth to the wry A Series of Unfortunate Events to even the action-packed Incredibles, the trend signals a rejection, of sorts, of the "cult of the innocent child," which art historian James Steward calls a "banal, simplistic" product of the Victorian Age:
"Before that," he says, "going back to the Renaissance, children were often depicted in ways that were far more nuanced and psychologically complex." Paintings of children and adolescents by such artists as Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds held "layered references to sexuality," Steward says, "that the audience of the time would have easily understood."
(The image is from Gottfried Helnwein's digital photography exhibit at San Francisco's Modernism Gallery.)