They Still Draw Pictures: Children’s Art in Wartime, A Review

Posted on March 01, 2003 by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, spring 2003
Paula A. Bigboy '03, Curatorial Intern

They Still Draw Pictures is a stunning exhibition of children’s drawings completed during various twentieth-century wartimes from the Spanish Civil War to contemporary Kosovo. The exhibition has been arranged in a chronological discourse that wrenches the heart with innocent yet observant detail and raw emotion in sections entitled “Before: Memories of Loss,” “War,” “Displacement,” “Camps,” and “Peace.”

These are drawings done by the untrained hand, images that have been burned into young, vulnerable minds. Some of them depict the subjective experience of documented historical events; others are shapes brought into existence only as embodiments of feeling. They Still Draw Pictures ultimately calls into question the “realness” of the factual versus the imagined, and it leaves the viewer resolved to the notion that both aspects equally comprise what we call memory, and, furthermore, what we call life.

They Still Draw Pictures is made up of about sixty drawings, all completed by children ages eight to sixteen. Initially, the drawings bring to the viewer’s mind childhood memories of sitting at home or in school doodling pictures of stick-figure families and yellow suns smiling down on idyllic landscapes. It would seem that they convey a pure and undistilled, simple way of looking at the world. But while perhaps we as viewers are most accustomed to these kinds of pictures as expressions of simple pleasures, in the context of war they confront us as indisputable images of horror. Gigantic planes with Nazi symbols engulf the picture, attacking the secure places that children identified in memories of the prewar period; flames erupt, destroying houses, boats, land, and people, and leaving the scars of war on the adult minds of tomorrow.

But in these young minds remains hope, shown in the drawings of peace. In the camps, the children are safe, and their fantasized visions of world order find their way onto paper. It is a little difficult to distinguish the prewar drawings from the drawings of foreshadowed peace, but this only indicates that memories of the way the world once was, or, perhaps more accurately, the way it once looked and felt, no matter how realistic or idealized, continue to represent a way that it could be again.

In a time of war, it is often easy to forget about children; war is made by adults. They Still Draw Pictures is a very special evocation of raw emotional power that not only gives the viewer an eye into wars throughout history but also identifies the experience of war as a recurring universal problem, one that is perhaps perpetuated by wars within ourselves and within our individual lives.

The exhibition is curated by Anthony L. Geist and Peter N. Carroll for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives and the Mandeville Special Collections Library at the University of California, San Diego. It is made possible by grants from the Puffin Foundation Ltd., the Estate of Isabel Johnson Hiss, the Sonya Staff Foundation, the Consulate General of Spain (New York), and the Program for Cultural Cooperation Between Spain’s Ministry of Culture and US Universities. Its presentation at the Hood Museum of Art is generously supported by the William Chase Grant 1919 Memorial Fund.

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Written March 01, 2003 by Kristin Swan