Because I’m returning to writing I’m concluding the naked child in art series (although I may resurrect it at some point). The simple fact is that whilst I have a great deal more material on hold (I haven’t really begun to consider contemporary art or film) I no longer have the time or inclination to keep posting.
The reason I started this project was to correct the extraordinary ignorance about the subject evident in recent controversies over the naked child in art. I think I have more than adequately provided a great many examples (far more than I originally expected) that prove that the naked child has long been considered a legitimate subject and that recent objections are in fact non-normative.
It is really a debate between different attitudes to childhood; the idea of the natural child versus the highly sentimentalized notion of the innocent child which has its roots in Protestant Puritanism. It is not a specifically Christian issue because the Catholic Church commissioned a great many works of art that included naked children, many on open exhibition in galleries around the world, including the Vatican. No, it’s a particularly Puritan attitude; an attitude that is suspicious of art in general as a form of idolatry.
But it is art that we must turn to to better understand the changing attitudes to childhood throughout history, from the classical period to the modern. To illustrate the very modern split in attitudes I have chosen to highlight two quite different works of art. The first reflects the highly sentimental modern theology of the child in the art of American, Dona Gelsinger. I’m not sure that she understands that the original winged child was in fact the Greek god Eros.
The second is the 1979 Swedish children’s film, Du Är Inte Klok Madicken. The screenplay was written by noted Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren, author of the much loved Pippi Longstocking series. Lindgren is the champion of the independent and somewhat rebellious child. The opposite of the type of saccharine, ‘innocent’ child promoted by the moral conservatives. Du Är Inte Klok Madicken would no doubt horrify modern, Anglophone Puritan sensibilities because the film’s title sequence involves a scene where Madicken and her sister run around the room and jump on their beds naked. This sequence is shot full frame without any attempt to hide the parts of the body that so upset the moral conservatives. I have included some still shots along with the first eight minutes of the film because, under complaint from the moral conservatives, Youtube has previously censored the title sequence – and they may again.
What is interesting about this film is that it was written as a children’s film and the frank nudity was not in the least controversial at the time (I expect it would get a PG rating in Australia). Lindgren, in writing the scene, obviously considered such behaviour to be natural and no doubt worked closely with the director in its realisation.
Of course it is all innocent and the film makers would have reasonably expected the viewer to interpret it as depicting innocent childish high spirits.
Unfortunately, a new breed of moral conservative only sees something sinister in such a natural expression of childhood nudity. Let me make this perfectly clear in this summary. After looking at countless images of the naked child in art it is obvious that it is this sinister interpretation that is non-normative. It is a Puritan view that automatically associates nudity with sex and, especially, child nudity with paedophilia. To me this is a perverse interpretation.
Tragically this sinister interpretation is being promoted by certain child protection groups with a rather paranoid view and a populist media who delight in attacking the ‘elitist’ art world. A good example of the sinister interpretation being placed on otherwise innocent works is the attack on the exhibition of Tierney Gearon’s exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery. The Daily Mail indulged in excessive polemic by suggesting that the masks the children wore were far from innocent.
What is at issue here isn’t a celebration of childhood innocence… Masks and relentless nudity [the nudity wasn’t relentless] appear to hint at child abuse rituals.
‘Appear to hint at child abuse rituals’? To whom exactly? And what child abuse rituals? Only the most paranoid of those at the heart of the moral panic over child abuse still believe in the satanic ritual abuse theory (as it turns out the real conspiracy is within the Church). The authorities have demonstrated that this is just a bizarre, paranoid fantasy. So why is the editor of a leading London newspaper invoking the spectre of ritual abuse in the context of an innocent exhibition?
Who is the one promoting the sinister interpretation?
Sadly these are the times we live in and they too shall pass. If my survey of the naked child in art has demonstrated anything, it is that fads and fashions change, but art remains.