If, at the moment, you’re a child of picture-book age, your two most visible guides to the glories of art are a very old elephant and a rather young pig. March into the children’s section of the bookstore at the National Gallery of Art and you’re confronted by two crowded, colorful displays: on the left, the tower of Babar; on the right, all things Olivia.
Many readers will be familiar with the game, green-suited monarch of the savanna whom Jean de Brunhoff made the toast of Paris in 1931 and whose exploits have, since 1946, been chronicled by de Brunhoff fils, Laurent. Some will also know that Laurent’s latest book is titled Babar’s Museum of Art. If fewer people know of Olivia, that is surely changing, for Ian Falconer’s energetic, intelligent swine is an Eloise for the oughts, a playroom prima donna with a marked enthusiasm for the finer things—by any measure, the breakout picture-book star of the past five years.
Olivia’s self-titled 2000 debut isn’t purely about the petite porcine’s art treks, and the book doesn’t devote more than a handful of pages to Jackson Pollock. But in both Olivia and Babar’s Museum of Art, the action-painting icon holds a prominent place, appearing at each story’s climax to serve as a bridge between art and life, between admiration—or incomprehension—and mimicry.
Pollock has been dead nearly half a century, but only in the last couple of years does he appear to have received much serious kid-lit attention. Clare Oliver’s Pollock entry in the Artists in Their Time series appeared less than a year ago. And the excellent Action Jackson, in which Robert Andrew Parker’s loose, moody illustrations accompany Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan’s partly imagined but deeply researched account of the making of Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), was published in 2002.
The reason for the delay is presumably that Pollock is a problematic figure in relation to childhood, approachable and yet baffling at the same time. To the novice, his drip paintings appear to be as random as the finger-painting of nursery-schoolers. Children Olivia’s age—I take her to be an early-blooming 5- or 6-year-old—are very aware of the need to leave such nonsense behind. At a time when the aspiration is to stay inside the lines and make things look the way things look, Pollock seems like a regression into sloppy, mucky infantilism. Why would you want to put the diapers back on?
Besides, can we fault Olivia for saying, “I could do that in about five minutes” when so many adults claim the same thing? Even Felicity Woolf, who calls abstraction “one of the most significant inventions of the twentieth century,” writes on the very next page of 1989’s Picture This: A First Introduction to Paintings, that “[a]bstract painting differs from other types of painting because it can be fully understood only by the artist. For this reason many people do not like abstract art.”
The truth of the matter is that nobody, least of all the artist, “fully understands” any painting, abstract or otherwise; art’s thwarting of full understanding is perhaps the prize we should hold most dear. Otherwise, why keep making it, and especially, why keep looking, keep conversing, keep disagreeing about it, if there is a single correct response to be sussed out, a puzzle to be solved and set back on the shelf like a jigsaw?
Still, Woolf represents the common fear of the unintelligible that every untrained eye—as well as a number that ought to know better—brings to Pollock. In children, this fear is compounded by the fact that they respond instinctively to what their parents deem the social position and purpose of the museum: a combination of school and church, it’s a site where obligatory obeisance is paid to figures as esteemed and untouchable as kings or saints.
To a child, everything that came before him or her is the same age: old. There’s no sense of historical scale, no apprehension of passing time or the span of one’s life against which the achievements and eras of others can be measured. But even if some precocious children enjoy cavorting among the monuments, different epochs remain distant at best, no more than imaginary playhouses for the acting out of daydreams.
In most children’s books, paintings are simply depictions of scenes into which one can insert oneself—the architectural diagrams of those playhouses, as it were. Olivia actually enjoys the museum, unlike so many children—notably her younger brother, Ian, who is usually shown facing away from the paintings his sister and mother are viewing—but strictly because it appeals to her sense of make-believe. Degas is her favorite, because she fancies herself a ballerina.
When the pig family—sans Dad, who is, I’m guessing, at work, providing the financial wherewithal for all this larking about—stands before the detail of Ballet Rehearsal on the Set that serves as a “Degas,” Falconer aligns his composition for access. As the ornate frame reaches down to sweep up the picture’s admirers, Olivia holds on to the outstretched hand of her mother, who, with her other hand, gestures toward the dancers, guiding her daughter into the scene. Two pages later, we see what amounts to a black-and-white snapshot of Olivia’s imagination: She is onstage, en pointe, tutu’d, tiara’d, and smiling, leaning out toward an unseen audience—the fulfillment of her own dreams and the consummation of her mother’s direction.
But abstract expressionism gives Olivia’s imagination no purchase. The unframed, squared-off detail of Autumn Rhythm #30 (incidentally flopped, as well as truncated) that functions as a “Pollock” at the end of Olivia’s museum scene hangs far above her mother’s head. Even raised up and cradled in her mother’s arms (the posture a sly reference to Madonna-and-child tradition), Olivia remains confounded before the “one painting [she] just doesn’t get.”
She doesn’t get it because there’s no room for her in it. Picture books about art conventionally condescend to both audience and subject by replacing the figures in famous paintings with animals, whether in a roundabout fashion, as in Olivia’s Degas reverie, or directly, as on the canine-bedecked walls of the Dogopolis Museum of Art in Thacher Hurd’s 1996 Art Dog or in the pachyderm-packed canvases
lining the Celesteville Museum of Art in Babar’s Museum of Art. The reasons for this move are many,
chief among them unifying the look of a book, simplifying the illustration, and providing kids with an ostensible in.
Painters from Van Gogh to Delacroix to Vermeer respond readily to animal substitution. Seurat, Monet, Picasso, Matisse, and Dali, too—any artist who painted people can have those people replaced. But whom do you replace in a Pollock?
You replace the painter. In her book, Olivia herself acts as the stand-in, confronting her fear and punishing the inscrutable world of adults by flinging streams of red and black paint onto the walls of the family home. In Babar’s Museum of Art, the museum’s artist-in-residence is the black-T-shirted, lunging Pollock familiar from Hans Namuth photographs—only now he grips his brush in his trunk. This time also, a youngster, doubting but longing to possess the painter’s power, is the voice of discontent: “‘Oh, I could do that myself,’ boasted Arthur.” With royal magnanimity, Babar calls the kid’s bluff: “I wish you would,” he replies. “I’m sure I will like what you do.”
In both cases, normality is quickly reasserted and the specter of Pollock as both liberator and transgressor banished. Olivia gets a time out, a bath, and a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. (Thus she consumes and, we assume, eliminates the tangled lines that made her misbehave.) Her mother reads her a book about Maria Callas, and the little pig, now corrected, slumbers in the embrace of visions of opera stardom, memories of her cold-water boho episode banished.
The elephants, too, return home from the museum, but we never get to see cousin Arthur—whose best friend, significantly, is a beret-wearing monkey—follow through on his braggadocio. The last page shows Queen Celeste presiding over a roomful of artistic hopefuls, all of whose finished pictures—whether landscape or portrait or still life—remain in the realm of representation, and all of whose dreams trickle briskly back to the mundane: “They thought they might like to be artists when they grew up, or collect art, or teach, or make T-shirts.”
True, one of Babar and Celeste’s boys is down on the floor drawing what may become an abstraction—it’s too early to tell—but no paint is flung. Grasped firmly in his trunk, his crayon doesn’t leave the paper.
Both Falconer and de Brunhoff understand that abstraction still signals a break with what came before it. It still gets under people’s—and pigs’ and elephants’—skin. And in suppressing abstraction, both authors take their place in a protective pedagogical tradition by which flights of fancy are encouraged only if the pilots drift safely back to land.
In Art Dog, the hero is the titular muralist, who, in mask and under cover of darkness, takes to the streets to paint. Art Dog even has the capacity to make his paintings come literally to life. The conceit is lifted from Crockett Johnson’s 1955 classic Harold and the Purple Crayon, where it serves as a call for children to fabricate their own realities, and Hurd has it function as a rebuke to the stodginess of the museum: Paintings done directly on walls are exciting but naughty; paintings done on easels are decorous but stuffy. When the sanctity of the museum is fractured by an art heist, Art Dog captures the thieves by trapping them beneath the Pollockesque spatters of his “MESSTERPIECE.” Tellingly, once the stolen paintings are returned, Art Dog adopts the down-to-earth daytime persona of a museum guard, Arthur Dog.
In Action Jackson, by contrast, there is no such cultural watchdogging. Nor are there any stand-ins. The only thing that comes between the painting and the viewer is the artist who brings it into being. Although its subject is described as “[a]n athlete with a paintbrush,” Action Jackson’s Pollock spends more time looking, thinking, agonizing, preparing, and looking once more than he does throwing paint. He even cooks dinner and throws a party as he waits for the paint to dry. And when he’s finished, he steps out of the way: Parker’s sketchy, washy illustrations, which hint at the freedom of Pollock’s flow without attempting to mimic it, give way to a big photo spread of the artwork itself.
Action Jackson offers children a rare unchaperoned entree to abstract painting. Narrow in focus but rich in ramification, it countervails the backhanded compliments and lip service paid to art by other children’s books, trusting the reader with the possibility of an educated, even adult experience. The book doesn’t pretend that such an encounter is immediately available to children, but it doesn’t contradict it, either, holding the door open for a deeper congress with art at some point in the future. It asks readers to consider what it took for Pollock to make his work, what burdens it placed upon him—and it demands that we not merely recognize the work but submit it to serious visual consideration.
At the National Gallery, you can do just that. You can see the real Lavender Mist spread out before you. If you time it right, you can even have it all to yourself for a while. And there, as your eye threads its way back through the pulsing cloud of Pollock’s movements, it might occur to you that the museum—and all the parental aspirations it represents—enters Action Jackson’s narrative only in the credit line next to a photo.
It is present, not as a school, church, mausoleum, or playground, but as a conduit, a means of attaining an experience that extends both the promise and the threat of a life undone and remade by art—art that takes possession of you as, in the looking, you take possession of it, art that does something other than act like a firm hand on the back of the head, directing you where your parents wish you to go. CP