When Lumina was five, I brought her to the Capitoline Museums in Rome. My plan was that we’d only stay for about an hour, and that we’d stick with just the Palazzo dei Conservatori—especially the courtyard, which I knew would make quite an impression with its Marforio fountain and its fragmented statue of Constantine.
The courtyard certainly did make an impression—so much so that we ended up staying at the Capitoline all day long, and covering practically every inch of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, the Galleria Lapidaria, and the Palazzo Nuovo. Lumina was indefatigable. She gazed in awe at thousands of statues and artifacts, took in the view of the Roman Forum from every possible angle, and danced among the dust motes in the sunlight streaming through the tall windows in the Great Hall. By the end of the day, she was dragging me along—not at all the outcome I’d expected.
A lot of us assume that kids will complain and drag their feet at museums and galleries, when in reality most kids love these spaces when given a chance to experience them in an organic way.
That’s the main message of Françoise Barbe-Gall’s How to Talk to Children About Art. As Barbe-Gall points out, art is, first and foremost, about “life as it is perceived by the artist” (26). Though there’s always much to explore depending on the age and interest level of the viewer, we all look at art first and foremost through the lens of our own experience of life—and though kids have less of it, their experience is no less valid than ours.
In other words, the best way to approach art is with a curious and open mind—your mind, informed by your experience of life, no matter how old or young you may be. And as you add experience (including repeated experiences of looking at art), you learn to see art in a more sophisticated way. (Which may actually be a shame, but that’s an argument for another day.)
There’s an earlier, 2002 edition of How to Talk to Children About Art; I’ve only read the second edition (2018). The first 40 pages of the book are devoted to a discussion on—you guessed it—how to talk to children about art. Barbe-Gall makes dozens of helpful suggestions for approaching art from a variety of perspectives, depending on your interests and those of the children accompanying you. Not at all ponderous to read, this discussion is divided into small sections with informative headings, allowing you to pick and choose what’s most relevant to you. If you’re into sports, for example, you might be interested in discussing the Greek notion of ideal beauty, and comparing a Greek statue to a photograph of a modern Olympian.
This section contains some technical information about things like brushstrokes, light and shadow, and perspective (all delivered in refreshingly plain language), but focuses more on things like how to harness children’s impatience, how and why you should value their impressions of images, and how to avoid inhibiting their ability to look at art freely and without self-censorship.
The rest of the book contains 30 images of art from the Renaissance through to the 21st century. Each image is followed by 2-3 pages of example discussions appropriate for three different age groups—5-7, 8-10, and 11-13. These examples are not meant to be used verbatim, but rather to provide ideas for engaging your kids in conversation about whatever works of art you happen to be looking at. As in the first section of the book, the author uses plain language as she anticipates questions and comments kids might have about art, and demonstrates how we might respond in a way that fosters curiosity and appreciation.
How to Talk to Children About Art is a great resource for parents and teachers, but I found it also just plain great for myself. I’m experienced at looking at art and reasonably well educated when it comes to art history, but this book still offered plenty to think about the next time I’m in a museum or gallery (which I hope will be soon, Covid-19 willing). In fact, I enjoyed Barbe-Gall’s tone and approach so much that I ordered her other books, How to Look at a Painting (2011), How to Understand a Painting: Decoding Symbols in Art (2011), and How to Talk to Children About Modern Art (2012). I’ll let you know what I think of them in future posts.
Françoise Barbe-Gall, How to Talk to Children About Art. Chicago Review Press, 176 pp. 2018.