Barbara Wittmann: ‘Bedeutungsvolle Kritzeleien. Eine Kultur- und Wissensgeschichte der Kinderzeichung, 1500-1950’

At the beginning of his 1886 treatise L’arte dei bambini [The Art of Small Children], the Italian archeologist Corrado Ricci recounts how “one winter’s day in the year 1882-83, returning from the Carthusian monastery at Bologna, I was driven by a downpour of rain to take refuge under the portico leading to Meloncello.” Huddled beneath the arch, he discovered to his surprise “a permanent exhibition, both literary and artistic, possessing little aesthetic merit perhaps, and hardly what could be considered chaste.”[1]Passing over the crude graffiti that first met him at eye level, though, his attention was soon drawn to those naïve etchings clustered near the bottom of the wall – evidently the work of younger hands. To the trained eye of the archeologist, these markings represented not so much artistic imitations of nature, as spontaneous records of the child’s primitive thought processes. Like freshly excavated petroglyphs, these juvenile scribbles spoke to the scholar across a vast historical and psychological distance, as traces of what Carl Einstein would later style a “Neolithic childhood.” The primal scene of Ricci’s accidental encounter with children’s “art” beneath the civic arch almost suggests a parodic inversion of the discovery, only three years earlier, of the prehistoric murals in the caves of Altamira by the eight-year old María Sanz de Sautuola y Escalante.[2]

By contrast with cave paintings, of course, children’s drawings are hardly hidden from view: if anything, they have generally been deemed a kind of “aesthetic pollution,” too abundant to justify preservation and too trifling to merit study. But as one learns from Barbara Wittmann’s important new study Bedeutungsvolle Kritzeleien. Eine Kultur- und Wissensgeschichte der Kinderzeichung, 1500-1950 [Significant Scribbles. A Cultural and Epistemic History of the Children’s Drawing, 1500–1950], their meaning changed dramatically in the period after Ricci’s treatise, as the children’s drawing transformed into a genuine “technique and instrument for the study of the child” (15). 

There is no dearth of scholarship on modern artists’ reception and appropriation of children’s drawings, but Wittmann’s book tells a decidedly different – and more ambitious – story. Employing an interdisciplinary approach informed as much by the history of science as by the history of art, the author sets her sights on the operative function of the children’s drawing within the discourses, practices and institutions that shaped modern childhood as such. By addressing a wide range of social and scientific contexts – from experimental psychology to progressive education, from intelligence testing to psychoanalysis – the author reveals the diverse and often contradictory ways in which these fields implemented the children’s drawing both as an object and an instrument of knowledge. 

Since the Renaissance, those individuals who took an interest in children’s drawings were almost invariably artists themselves. Accordingly, the book’s first chapters vividly illustrate how painters from Caroto to Courbet took on youthful scribblings as a figure for reflecting on the origins of art. But using children’s drawings as a means of understanding the child represents a decidedly modern phenomenon; this shift in perspective was achieved foremost by Ricci. Soliciting local schoolteachers for children’s sketches, which he then collected, classified and compared, Ricci thus scientifically “‘purified’ the drawings of the disorderly conditions of their emergence (the wall of the home, the playroom, school class), and groomed them into decontextualized artifacts” (20). It was only by way of this extensive series of “spatial and material displacements” that these images could be mobilized by the nascent disciplines of the child in the twentieth century (93). Indeed, it was precisely those same techniques of mass experiment and collection which furnished the medial conditions of possibility for the interpretation of children’s drawings as psychological, and even historical, documents in the decades to come.

Corrado Ricci, L’arte dei bambini(Bologna: N. Zanichelli, 1887 [based on a lecture from 1886]), 16–18.

Wittmann’s riveting fifth chapter (titled, with an explicit nod to Einstein, “Eine neolithische Kindheit”) takes a closer look at how children’s drawings around 1900 became mined as a “source of cultural history” (214).[3]Inspired by a widely-held belief in the parallelism of ontogeny and phylogeny, numerous art historians, psychologists, historians and biologists began to treat the child’s doodles as windows into the young subject’s mental development – an individual progression which they believed repeated the psychogenetic ‘stages’ of the human species at large. In keeping with this recapitulationist paradigm, many of those scholars exoticized children’s drawings as a kind of ‘art without history,’ akin to the art of indigenous “peoples without history” (238).[4]The children’s drawing was thus conceptually transformed, as Wittmann says, into an enigmatic artifact suspended “between fossil and document, myth and history, nature and culture” (192). 

One figure in this chapter stands out as an exception, albeit one that proves the rule. During his voyage to the Native American territories of the southwestern United States, Aby Warburg made use of native children’s drawings in a precocious cultural-historical experiment on the persistence of mythical symbolism (an experiment that in many ways anticipates his later studies of classical “survivals” in early modern European visual culture). Warburg’s experiment with Hopi schoolchildren in Arizona was unique for its time, Wittmann remarks, for taking account the cultural and institutional background behind these experimentally-produced artifacts. Yet in his less reflected moments, Warburg too treated these images as miraculously uncontaminated prehistoric “fossils,” wrested from beneath the historical sedimentations of colonization, conversion and industrial modernity.

Corresponding to her thesis on the fundamental modernity of the children’s drawing as an epistemic object, Wittmann’s book collects the bulk of its material from two sources: artworks made before 1885, and scientific objects, texts or procedures after 1885. Despite the historical justification for this decision, it can make for an occasionally asymmetrical reading experience; one wonders whether and how the book might have been enriched by integrating artworks from the 20th century. As it stands, Bedeutungsvolle Kritzeleien is at its best when succeeds in bringing those two types of source material together, as in the virtuosic reading of Philip Otto Runge’s Hülsenbeck Children (1805-06) (pages 335­–341), where Wittmann deftly ties together philosophical debates over sensory perception from the eighteenth century onwards with Jean Piaget’s theories of children’s supposedly non-Euclidean experience of space. The entire book is replete with similarly rewarding moments and discoveries. Barbara Wittmann’s Bedeutungsvolle Kritzeleien represents a formidably researched contribution to the history of art, psychology, pedagogy and anthropology. It should not only stimulate its readers, but also provide a model for further research at the historical boundary zones between art and the mind sciences.


[1]Corrado Ricci, L’arte dei bambini (Bologna, N. Zanichelli, 1887), 3; translated in Earl Barnes, “The Art of Little Children,” The Pedagogical Seminary3:2 (1895): 302-307, here 302.

[2]See Ulrich Pfisterer, “Altamira – oder: Die Anfänge von Kunst und Kunstwissenschaft,” in Vorträge aus dem Warburg-Haus, ed. Uwe Fleckner et al., vol. 10 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2007), 13-80, here 16-17.

[3]It comprises a synthesis of two articles previously published in English. See Barbara Wittmann, “Johnny-Head-in-the-Air in America: Aby Warburg’s Experiment with Children’s Drawings,” in New Perspectives in Iconology: Visual Studies and Anthropology, ed. Barbara Baert, Ann-Sophie Lehmann and Jenke van den Akkerveken (Brussels: Academic and Scientific Publishers, 2012), 120-142; and idem., “A Neolithic childhood: Children’s drawings as prehistoric sources,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 63/64 (spring/autumn 2013), 125-142.

[4]On this problem in the history of anthropology see especially Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object(New York: Columbia University Press, [1983] 2014).  



Cite this blog post
Matthew Vollgraff (2019, April 8). Barbara Wittmann: ‘Bedeutungsvolle Kritzeleien. Eine Kultur- und Wissensgeschichte der Kinderzeichung, 1500-1950’ BILDERFAHRZEUGE. Retrieved June 24, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/m0ip

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