Children are so wonderfully receptive to art. With their natural inquisitiveness, and their imaginations uncluttered by prejudices about what a work of art should be or say, they look at pictures with fresh insight, delighting in colors, lines and shapes and excitedly discovering hidden images and suggested meanings. Enthusiastic artists themselves, children take up crayon and paintbrush and make bold images with spontaneity and verve, restrained only by the need to explain them patiently to uncomprehending parents.
Ordinarily, children receive few opportunities to reinforce their natural love for art through actual exposure to paintings and sculptures. If lucky, they might occasionally accompany a parent or class to an art museum or have the chance to browse through a coffee-table book with art reproductions. A typical children's section of a community library has some art history surveys for the older child and books about making art, but few books geared toward art appreciation or aimed at the younger reader. Finding affordable art books suited to a growing young family's home library is not easy either. That's why I was so delighted to discover these recent publications that tap the natural interest in art of 7- to 12-year-olds, and are entertaining as well as instructive. The three by Ernest Raboff, being published for the first time in paperback, are about modern artists. Lives of the Artists, by M.B. Goffstein, is a little jewel of a book, with poems about five artists and reproductions of their work.
Raboff's books are the most education-oriented. Describe as "very first art books for children," they are part of a series called "Artstart." The first three in print are on Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, and Marc Chagall, in volumes of 32 pages with excellent color and black and white illustrations. Each book begins with a brief biographical sketch, illustrated with a portrait of the painter by Raboff, who is an artist as well as a writer; a few revealing quotes by the painter on art and life (such as Klee's "Art does not reproduce the visible. It renders it visible"), followed by a dozen full-page color reproductions of paintings and accompanying pages of text discussing the works illustrated. Rather than explaining each work, Raboff suggests ways of approaching them to understand how colors and line work to create images and moods. An occasional note about the painting's context (such as the fact that Picasso painted The Gourmet during his "Blue Period"), is given when relevant, but little history or jargon gets in the way of the joy of looking and appreciating.
Written in simple, uncondescending language with hand lettering instead of type, the text is inviting and not intimidating to the young reader. Key works are emphasized with colored letters, and expressive phrases curve and dance their way across the page, echoing movements or meanings in the paintings. While fun for a child to read by himself, they are also ideal for teachers or parents to read aloud. They fit comfortably in the hand, with all of the full-page color illustrations on the right-hand page, the text on the left. The words singled out in color can be used to trigger a discussion about special elements in the painting and to elicit the child's personal responses. Raboff makes the experience of looking and thinking about pictures, as well as learning about an important figure in the history of modern art, into the enjoyable experience it should be. I hope more monographs will be added to this series, which in hardcover includes books on eight other European masters, and one American, Frederic Remington, and that more Americans and women will be included.
M.B. Goffstein's Lives of the Artists creates a different sort of experience with art. Its title recalls that of Giorgio Vasari's historic work of the 1550s documenting biographies of Italian Renaissance masters. Like Vasari, Goffstein weaves a bit of fantasy and legend into her stories. They are not biographies in the strictest sense, but rather portrait sketches, evoking in free verse form the special gifts and contributions to art of her subjects. The selection is eclectic and a bit surprising: the 17th- century master Rembrandt; Francesco Guardi, a Venetian view painter of the 18th century; the Dutch postimpressionist Vincent Van Gogh; the slightly younger painter Pierre Bonnard; and Louise Nevelson, the only American, woman, sculptor and contemporary artist in the group. There seems to be no unifying theme in her choice of the five artists; perhaps they are just personal favorites.
As with her earlier works, such as Me and My Captain and Sleepy People, Goffstein's Lives of the Artists is a small, intimate book with a few spare lines of verse per page interspersed with sensitively chosen illustrations. Although ostensibly a children's book, it has a sophistication that reaches an older audience. Its readers will come away with little factual knowledge about the artists or the scope of his work, because of the limited number of illustrations, but will be left with a sense of comfortable familiarity with each artistic personality, a feeling for the creative process, and pleasant reverberations from Goffstein's lyrical expression. With the economy and compression of poetry a few lines can evoke what ordinarily would take several pages of explanation in prose. Here, for example, is her passage on Bonnard:
Around and around
went Bonnard's brush,
dipped in one color,
then another and another--
until the scene
seemed to be reflected
in a silver candy wrapper.
This is the way
the tall, thin, shy man
has invited us in.
Though he has gone,
we can stay there.
There certainly should be a place in a child's repertory of favorite bedtime stories for such a charming little book about real-life artists. Both Lives of the Artists and Raboff's Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall are delightfully welcome additions to any family's library.