“To really instil a love of art, children need to be encouraged to have a go and be creative themselves.”
— James Mayhew
In the last three blogposts I have shown how James Mayhew brings life to museums in Katie’s Picture Show, and now in this final post I want to explore how he brings life to the artwork itself.
Mayhew’s story begins in the Classical world. In the 8th poem of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c.800) a statue comes alive with a kiss. Since then, “the idea of art coming alive…in children’s fiction is not an uncommon fantasy. But I think Katie’s Picture Show was the first-time real paintings were used in a picture book story for young children,” observed Mayhew. As the paintings come alive, Katie discovers life beyond the frame. Katie is quickly drawn in by the story and characters within the 5 oil canvases that span 100 hundred years of predominantly 19th century art (1821-1916).
As Katie stands in front of each painting for the first time, Mayhew includes photographic replicas with illustrated frames as opposed to his usual watercolour and ink style. In contrast, the exhibit labels next to them are blurred sketches – the names and dates are not her focal point. The effect is electric for us adult readers. The accuracy of the reproductions brings authenticity to Katie’s fantasy world.
One minute Katie is standing in front of the photograph, the next, with a dramatic turn of the page, there is a Mayhew-illustrated double page spread of Katie fully immersed in her fantasy world having broken the frame of the page. How did she actually get there? The touch of the magic finger, the climb, the turn of the page and a whole lot of imagination.
Katie jumps into them chronologically giving life to static creations. She begins in Constable’s grand six foot The Hay Wain (1821), which helped revive classical landscape painting. Katie’s next stop is tea and cakes with Ingres’ Madame Moitissier (1856). This formal neoclassical portrait might not seem interesting to a child but Katie “likes it best” (11). Perhaps it is the lady’s faint welcoming smile in her Greek goddess pose that beckons her in.
But it is a little playmate that Katie is really after. She spots a little girl in Renoir’s The Umbrellas (1881-6). Amidst the combination of impressionistic strokes and inspiration from Italian classical art, they share cake and play with a hoopla, until the runaway hoopla ends up in Rousseau’s Surprised! (1891). Chasing after it, Katie is now face to face with a dreamlike tiger suspended above the grass who not only does not devour the tasty Katie but assists in the rescue mission.
With the hoopla returned to its rightful owner, Katie has one last run-around in Malevich’s Dynamic Suprematism (1916). The abstract colourful geometric forms are the ideal climbing frame but like most visits to the playground, Katie needs rescuing from modern art’s lack of boundaries as she falls deeper and deeper into the painting (Mayhew, Katie 29 ). Thank goodness the guard is there.
Such a magical introduction to fine art. Whether playing with her new friend in The Umbrellas or rescuing a hoopla from Surprised! Mayhew shows how much fun Katie is having without knowing a biography of Renoir. This is out of the question for most grownups, let alone children. When we think of art history, it is often the dates and facts. When we think of art, it is often creativity, self-expression, imagination. Art and art history are often disconnected. The artists that have made it into the history books, are often remembered not for ‘perfect’ painting skills but because they challenged the status quo. They made people talk. They pushed the boundaries and questioned the ‘norm’. Why is Rousseau’s jungle so dreamlike? What is Malevich doing with all those shapes? Their creativity and imagination are why they are remembered, why Mayhew includes them, why they are on the walls of the National Gallery, why we want our children to see them and why Katie jumps into them.
To think that most children first encounter fine art in a picture book rather than in a museum, makes Katie’s Picture Showall the more special. The idea of art history is gently introduced to young children, but with the aim of inspiring them to become creative themselves. In an earlier post I discussed how Mayhew made some significant changes to the 25thanniversary edition of Katie’s Picture Show. One major change is the final page because Mayhew felt there was “too much emphasis on looking at artists and not being an artist.” Today he wants children to get their pencils out and get drawing.
So as this series of blogposts on Katie’s Picture Show comes to a close, curl up on the sofa with your little ones, introduce Katie to them and start planning a trip to your local museum this summer. It will be hard not to let her adventurous spirit inspire creativity, friendship, and a love for art.
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