The Genius in the Child

The first children's art exhibition in Germany took place in 1921
A Jahr100Wissen / 100 years ago interview with art educator Prof. Dr. Jochen Krautz

Mr Krautz, in the spring of 1921, an unprecedented exhibition in Mannheim, entitled "Der Genius im Kinde" (The Genius in the Child) focused on the artistic abilities of children for the first time. What did the initiator, Gustav Hartlaub, want to achieve with this show?

The exhibition was groundbreaking for art pedagogical thinking in two ways: children's drawing was no longer regarded as merely deficient, i.e. as "not yet skilled" according to the standards of adult ability. Instead, Hartlaub attributed a value of its own to children's drawing because he was able to show that it has its own pictorial logics and qualities. Hartlaub draws attention to the fact, and this is of new importance for today, that in the drawing, painting and sculpting of children and adolescents an anthropological disposition is revealed, i.e. a possibility of the human being that pushes for realisation. This is the core of the justification for art education in public schools: We can and must form this disposition.
In this respect, Hartlaub's work has contributed to raising awareness for the promotion of visual design among children and young people, also among a broader public. In addition, Hartlaub's developmental psychology of visual design has been extensively researched sinced then. Today, it is regarded as the basis for teaching and learning in art education and is also taught in our art education courses.
In this respect, Hartlaub's work has contributed to raising awareness for the promotion of visual design among children and young people, also among a broader public. In addition, Hartlaub's developmental psychology of visual design has been extensively researched sinced then. Today, it is regarded as the basis for teaching and learning in art education and is also taught in our art education courses.
This romantic-expressionist image of the child has been haunting art education ever since and continues to this day as an implicit theory, leading to questionable practices in art teaching. "Children, paint what you want! Be really creative!" is the infamous and convenient formula for this, which plunges many children into despair: "What do I want? And how am I supposed to represent it?" The associated myth of the teacher, who is only the "gardener" and "learning companion" of the self-developing child, is currently celebrating a questionable renaissance under the paradigm of "self-directed learning".

Hartlaub was also inspired by his son Felix. He saw parallels to primitive art in the unimagined, childlike way of depiction and discovered new art-historical territory. Did his contemporaries not think he was naïve?

The art historian Hartlaub's fascination with his son's artistic creations is nothing unusual. Most parents feel this way and it is an important prerequisite for young people to develop an inclination for art. This will also have been the case with his son Felix.
However, whether and how attention is trained for this, is historically and culturally determined. Children only draw when the appropriate material is available and this is culturally desired and encouraged. This has been the case in our culture for only about 150 years, since cheap paper and pencils became available. Around 1880, children's drawing was literally "discovered" as a form of design in its own right. This means, one became aware of a phenomenon that had simply hardly interested anyone before.
What one sees in it is therefore also historically conditioned: Hartlaub exhibited expressionist art following the spirit of his time. It is hardly surprising that he "discovered" such qualities in the works of his son. After all, so-called "primitivism" was in vogue in the art of the time: Japanese woodblock prints influenced the Impressionists, Picasso and others were inspired by African masks, and so on. The romantic motif of discovering and creating something "unadulterated" and "unspoilt" was at the root of everything. People wanted to break out of the rational, scientific and technical zeitgeist of Western culture.
For art, this was very enriching, even if the way other cultures were received was questionable from today's perspective. However, for art education, it was also problematic: if the "uneducated", as formulated in the question, becomes the ideal, a fatal opposition between culture and education is constructed. Then, one is no longer educated by culture, but culture appears as ballast with which one tends to do a mschief to children.

The magazine Kunst und Jugend writes in its May 1921 issue: 'The childlike creation itself, although not created with artistic intent and entirely "unconsciously", (can) nevertheless be viewed by man with the eye of the artist. Is this already the anticipation of a later understanding of art that Joseph Beuys describes with the words art = man = creativity = freedom?

This journal exactly puts into words what I have indicated: It is in the eye of the observer and his or her cultural and historical conditions how he or she sees childlike "art", precisely because it was not created with artistic intent at all.
Beuys, however, would need his own discussion... Just this much: this grand formula is certainly not wrong, but it does not say much either. You could also arrange the components the other way round and it would be true as well.
Perhaps more concretely: Freedom and creativity are conditions for art that everyone actually has. But making art is hard work. There is no direct path from supposedly "unconscious" childlike creation to being an artist. You have to go through the crisis of puberty, which makes adolescents aware that their creating is in a cultural resonance space. Then, one must begin to perceive and learn what art and visual culture have been working on for millennia. That is quite sobering, because then you realise that you are perhaps not as brilliant as your parents might have liked. And then you can slowly try to develop your own path in art. Of course, this sounds less thrilling than the pathetic hope of discovering one's unimagined genius. But it is not less optimistic, and here, I agree with Beuys: in principle, anyone can become an artist.

A year later, the exhibition entitled "Der Genius im Kinde" (The Genius in the Child) gave rise to the first publication of the same name, in which Hartlaub poses the question of the further development of childhood possibilities. How are artistic talents promoted today?

There is no such thing as artistic "talent", except in very few special cases. Just as little as other "talents", if one understands them as fixed predispositions, as is customary in the public sphere.
The task of art teaching is not to diagnose and promote "talents", but to give all children and young people gifts! Gifted art teaching is based on the fundamental, anthropological "talents": Every human being has visual and total bodily perceptive capacity, a rich pictorial imagination and the fundamental possibility to develop visual representations in the most diverse genres and media. This can and must be taught to children and young people in a targeted way, so that they can bring what they naturally bring with them in terms of creativity into a form that can make an enriching communication for others in our cultural world. Art is no pure self-expression, but a way of relating to the world, to fellow human beings and to myself, which can be given a perceptible form through design.
By changing the focus from what children or young people create supposedly "uneducated" because of "giftedness" on their own, to the task of giftedness, leads to children and young people making developmental leaps that were previously thought as hardly possible in our art didactic research. These could be taken for "giftedness", but they are in fact the result of intensive and cooperative teaching and learning processes.

With Hartlaub as director, the collection focus of the Mannheim Kunsthalle shifted towards contemporary art, and one of the best collections of contemporary art was created. He promoted Expressionism and coined the term "Neue Sachlichkeit" (New Objectivity). What is his significance in art education?

Hartlaub has a historical significance for art education, to which I have already alluded: He promoted a close look at the visual creativity of children and young people with his work, and stimulated respect for its intrinsic value. He did this with great publicity. Due to the problems I have mentioned, he is no longer of any systematic significance for art didactics, because ultimately there is no way to teach and learn art from his approach.

Mr Krautz, last year you published a systematic "Introduction to Art Education". How important is art in the classroom?

If you pose this question to an art educator, the answer is of course clear: enormously important. But I do not want to recite the romantic pathos formulas I criticised above. That does not help.
Arts education is important because it is a central part of general education. This is hardly understandable at a time in which the focus is on PISA-relevant competence output. But we live in a time that is characterised by images as hardly ever before. We have a rich artistic and cultural tradition and we have the basic visual capacity of children and young people that urges them to be active and educated: These are essentially the social, professional and anthropological levels of the justification for art education. We need it because the ability to perceive, imagine and create with all the senses and the whole body is central to our idea of what it means to be human. In this way, pupils can find their way into the incomprehensibly great tradition of fine art and applied visual culture in a creative and understanding way. They can assimilate them, i.e. make them into something that enriches themselves. And they can also judge them critically. In this way, art education also contributes to qualifications that are, for example, relevant to a profession, something that is often forgotten. But these are side effects of a well-structured, diverse art education, not its main goal. For this, however, we do not need all kinds of individual art projects and "artists in the schools" in the afternoons, but rather continuous art instruction across all school years. We are trying to do our part by training future art teachers who can do this if they are allowed to.

Uwe Blass (Interview on March 4, 2021)


Prof. Dr. Jochen Krautz studied art, Latin and education in Wuppertal and Cologne. Since 2013 he has taught art education as a professor in the Faculty of Design and Art at the University of Wuppertal.

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