Is it true that children’s picture books are going out of fashion? “Parents are saying, ‘My kid doesn’t need books with pictures anymore.’ ” That’s what Justin Chanda, publisher of children’s books at Simon & Schuster, explained to a New York Times reporter the other day. Whatever the kids may be thinking, the thinking of their parents is all too easy to understand. In our test-score crazed culture, pictures are seen as a waste. Why linger over a farmland vista or a knight in shining armor or one of Richard Scarry’s crazy traffic jams when there’s real work to be done? Why drift along, filling your eyes with all these differently shaped and colored and articulated images, when you could be doing something useful, like learning to spell a new word or figuring out the answer to an especially difficult arithmetic problem?
I will leave to the educators the battle to save the picture book. This discussion is about much more than education policy. It’s a symptom of an epochal argument about the nature and future of modernity—and modernity’s core belief in the majesty of the imagination. In The Banquet Years, that hymn to the genius of early twentieth-century Paris, Roger Shattuck writes that “starting long before Freud, a mood developed which re-examined with a child’s candor our most basic values: beauty, morality, reason, learning, religion, law. With Rimbaud a new personage emerges: the ‘child-man,’ the grownup who has refrained from putting off childish things. Artists became increasingly willing to accept the child’s wonder and spontaneity and destructiveness as not inferior to adulthood.” And it is this extraordinarily sophisticated faith in the importance of childish things that is at risk when adults announce that they want no more picture books. Why should kids be encouraged to linger over picture books? The answer is simple. When children look at pictures—and daydream with pictures—they discover that seeing is a kind of knowing. The eye plays with the images and the imagination is thereby sharpened, refined.
“A child’s candor”—to use Shattuck’s neat phrase—is of course a very complicated thing. A little bit of that child’s candor can be rediscovered in some of civilization’s most gloriously refined achievements. In New York right now, you don’t have to look any farther than the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a small, beautifully paced exhibition has just opened that focuses on a trio of works that Joan Miró painted in 1928. “Miró: The Dutch Interiors” is about a child’s playful explorations carried into the champagne-high lucidity of great modern painting. In the spring of 1928, Miró took a trip to Holland, where he was fascinated in the Rijksmuseum by a couple of interiors by the seventeenth-century painter Jan Steen, one with a man playing a lute, the other with some children teaching a cat how to dance. Miró went home with postcards of the pictures, and set out to paint his own supercharged variations on Steen’s ebullient domestic scenes. The conventions of Dutch naturalism became a springboard for hallucinogenic imaginative escapades that are not quite like anything else that Miró ever did and for that matter not quite like anything else in twentieth-century art. In this dream-perfect show—probably the best organized event that Gary Tinterow, a key curatorial figure at the Met, has ever done—we can look from one side of the room, where Steen’s paintings hang surrounded by Miró’s preparatory drawings, to the other side of the room, where Miró’s three Dutch interiors comprise a casually cosmi-comic trilogy. (The exhibition has already been seen at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.)
"The Dancing Lesson," Jan Steen, 1665-68
"Dutch Interior I," Joan Miro, 1928 "Dutch Interior II," Joan Miro, 1928
For Miró, Steen’s dark-toned, crowded interiors must have had some of the fantastical fascination that certain highly detailed picture books have for children. And what Miró did with his variations on Jan Steen is really just an infinitely subtler version of what kid’s do when they contemplate the illustrations in a favorite book. The picture is a jumping off point for the free play of the imagination. Children love to weave stories around pictures, and sometimes their stories confound the author’s and the illustrator’s intentions—which is all to the good. The child is reimagining the story. That’s precisely what Miró was doing in his studio after his return from Amsterdam. The lute player’s face became a grimacing red planet. The white tablecloth became a quivering amoeba. Gravity was confounded, domesticity was disassembled, and a new kind of gleefully discombobulated narrative emerged from the coziness of Dutch domestic life. Taken together, Miró’s three Dutch interiors are a picture book for adults. They’re hanging in New York right now, even as parents, booksellers, publishers, and educators argue about the future of the picture book.
Jed Perl is The New Republic's art critic.