Sunday, August 5, 2012

‘Century of the Child’ show at MOMA

‘Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000’ is a big, enchanting showcase at the Museum of Modern Art. It looks to examine the intersection of modern thinking and Modernist design about children. This thought-provoking study of the subject matter carries some intriguing things and ideas to look at – roughly 500 items, including toys, games, posters, furniture, books and so much more.

What does a child need to flourish and turn into a proper member of society? How you will answer this question mostly depends on what you feel the essential nature of any child is. Implicitly a different image presides over each of the exhibit’s chronologically laid-out sections.

We meet at the start, what you might term the rational-creative child, who will become a little architect, given a few logical guidelines and the right materials to play with. There are kits to create two- and three-dimensional designs developed by the early 19th century kindergarten movement founder, Friedrich Froebel. A teaching tool kit with variously shaped non-representational items by Maria Montessori is more inviting and colorful. It is also based on the understanding that rather huge, complicated things are generally made from little things just following basic rules.

The post-World War I era presents another vision of childhood under the sub-heading ‘Avant-Garde Playtime’. A painting, called ‘The Bad Child’ (around 1924) is one of the most revealing objects here. This particular version of the child can be viewed as an apt reflection of the avant-garde artist’s desire to shed burdensome aesthetic and moral conventions.

Giacomo Balla, a Futurist painter designed pieces of children’s furniture akin to a very simple, painted wood wardrobe, deftly held off the floor by a pair of fascinating flat, abstracted cutouts of children. An opposite approach to the theme of childhood enters the realm in the 1930s even as fascist social engineers in turned to them as sheer raw material to be molded into cogs for military and industrial machinery.

It was only after World War II that consciousness regarding the children’s needs and how to serve them arose. Health and hygiene became primary concerns. Designers were asked to create more constructive toys, functional furniture, and also entire school buildings to provide the light, space and air that youngsters need for sound minds and bodies. Then arrived consumerism and thus the advent of the needy child, mostly driven by desires and wants he didn’t know he had till they were triggered by images in popular media.

The exhibit ends on a rather rueful note with a section about playgrounds, which includes a pastoral playground model by sculptor Isamu Noguchi. It explores how to give children freedom for exploring and testing their abilities even while minimizing risk and lawsuits?

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