Years ago in my first job as a guide-docent at the National Gallery of Canada I came across many paintings from as early as 1200 to today, many periods and artists from Europe and North America. We were trained by the Education dept., as part of our training we were also advised on what to expect from visitors. We were told to be careful with children under the age of 11 and with children between 11 and 16. We were told what not to show and how to avoid controversy or questions which might be delicate to answer. The real concern was not the kids but the parents, some parents who have a certain world view or philosophy of life might object to art depicting topics like nudity, violence, religious or biblical scenes, young naked children, dark colours or modern contemporary art like the surrealist art of Dali, Picasso, Magritte.
So what do you show exactly beyond a vase with flowers and more importantly how do you avoid such art on the walls as you walk through the galleries.
This painting is a case in point, it is in the National Gallery in Ottawa on the Second floor. The subject is Actaea the Nymph on the sea, by Frederic Lord Leighton, in his Pre-Raphaelite style so loved by Queen Victoria.
So we were instructed by the Education Dept to avoid that corridor and if not, see if we could not attract the attention of the children to the opposite wall where one could look at Italian and French landscapes. Did you notice that Actaea is looking at dolphins? Kids love dolphins, they fascinate them. So one day I had a class of grade 5 student, so around 10 years old, also with our group was their teacher and one parent who appeared indifferent which is often the case.
I was trying to get this group of 20 kids to look at a painting by Camille Corot, The bridge at Narni.
We had just walked by the Venus by Lucas Cranach the Elder and one boy asked me why was the Lady naked.
So back to Actaea, while I do my best to speak of the Corot painting and the ruined bridge at Narni, I suddenly notice that I lost my audience, the kids are all looking at the dolphins. I look at the teacher and ask, what should I do? Teacher says; you better explain the dolphins. The children were oblivious to the naked Nymph and all they wanted to know was the names of the dolphins and where they could see them. Now that was a tough question to answer. After that episode I decided that whatever was in the Museum I would simply present and give honest answers to children’s questions. I have found that they are perfectly happy with that approach.
Kids are fascinated at that age by things they see and are trying to understand and make it fit in their world view, which is completely different from the adult world. Renaissance paintings with Biblical scenes of violence as a moral lesson, also attracts them, what they want to know is how was it done, not the violence itself.
Currently at the Art Gallery of the Confederation Centre I have not had this dilemma, with one exception recently. We currently have a study in our Summer show one art work the artist took as a subject La grande baigneuse de Valpinçon by Ingres and modernized or updated it.
So last week I had two groups of 13 year old students and the boys found it quite funny, sort of the funny embarrassed laughter of boys in puberty.
This is where it gets tricky as children enter puberty and their world changes drastically, no longer children but teenagers. Luckily I have lots of other works to show them and start discussions around. Never a dull moment at the Gallery.