Let us consider the collection in both its aspects - as a purely aesthetic phenomenon and as an expression of contemporary history, through the eyes of the sociologist no less than of the art critic.
From an aesthetic and psychological point of view, the most startling thing about a collection of this kind is the fact that, when they are left to themselves, most children display astonishing artistic talents. (When they are interfered with and given "lessons in art," they display little beyond docility and a chameleon-like power to imitate whatever models are set up for their admiration.) One can put the matter arithmetically and say that, up to the age of fourteen or thereabouts, at least fifty per cent of children are little geniuses in the field of pictorial art. After that, the ratio declines with enormous and accelerating rapidity until, by the time the children have become men and women, the proportion of geniuses is about one in a million. Where artistic sensibility is concerned, the majority of adults have grown, not up, but quite definitley down.
The sensibility of children is many-sided and covers all the aspects of pictorial art. How sure, for example, is their sense of colour! The children whose drawings are shown in this collection have had the use only of crayons. But crayons strong enough to stand up to the pressure imposed on them by impatient childish hands are a most inadequate colour medium. Child colourist are at their best when they use gouache or those non-poisonous, jam-like pigments which are now supplied to nursery schools and with which, using the familiar techniques of playing with mud or food, even the smallest children will produce the most delicately harmonized examples of "finger painting." These Spanish children, I repeat, have had to work under a technical handicap; but in spite of this handicap, how well, on the whole, they have acquitted themselves. There are combinations of pale pure colours that remind one of the harmonies one meets with in the tinted sketches of the eighteenth century. In other drawings, the tones are deep, the contrasts violent. (I remember especially one landscape of a red-roofed house among dark trees and hills that possesses, in its infantile way, all the power and certainty of a Vlaminck).
To a sense of colour children add a feeling for form and a remarkable capacity for decorative invention. Many of these pastoral landscapes and scenes of war are composed - all unwittingly, of course, and by instinct - according to the most severely elegant classical principles. Voids and masses are beautifully balanced about the central axis. Houses, trees, figures are placed exactly where the rule of the Golden Section demands that they should be placed. No deliberate essays in formal decoration are shown in this collection; but even in landscapes and scenes of war, the children's feeling for pattern is constantly illustrated. For example, the bullets from the machine guns of the planes will be made visible by the child artist as interlacing chains of beads, so that a drawing of an air raid becomes not only a poignant scene of slaughter, but also and simultaneously a curious and original pattern of lines and circles.
Finally, there is the child's power of psychological and dramatic expression. This is necessarily limited by his deficiencyies in technique. But, within those limitations, the invention, the artistic resourcefulness, the power of execution are often remarkable. The pastoral scenes of life on the farm in time of peace, or in the temporary haven of the refugees camp, are often wonderfully expressive. Everything is shown and shown in the liveliest way. And the same is true of the scenes of war. The drawings illustrating bombardment from the air are painfully vivid and complete. The explosions, the panic rush to shelter, the bodies of the victims, the weeping mothers, upon whose faces the tears run down in bead-like chains hardly distinguishable from the rosaries of machine-gun bullets descending from the sky - these are portrayed again and again with a power of expression that evokes our admiration for the childish artists and our horror at the elaborate bestiality of modern war.
And this brings us by an easy and indeed inevitable transition to the other, non aesthetic aspect of our exhibition. It is a pleasure to consider these children's drawings as works of art; but it is also our duty to remember that they are signs of the times, symptoms of our contemporary civilization. If we look at them with the eyes of historians and sociologists, we shall be struck at once by a horribly significant fact: the greater number of these drawings contain representations of aeroplanes. To the little boys and girls of Spain, the symbol of contemporary civilization, the one overwhelmingly significant fact in the world of today is the military plane - the plane that, when cities have anti-aircraft defenses, flies high and drops its load of fire and high explosives indiscriminately from the clouds; the plane that, when there is no defense, swoops low and turns its machine-guns on the panic-stricken men, women and children in the streets. For hundreds of thousands of children in Spain, as for millions of other children in China, the plane, with its bombs and its machine guns, is the thing that, in the world we live in and helped to make, is significant and important above all others. This is the dreadful fact to which the drawings in our collection bear unmistakable witness.
North of the Pyrenees and west of the Great Wall, the imagination of little boys and girls is still free (I am writing in the first days of September, 1938) to wander over the whole range of childish experience. The bombing plane has not yet forced itself upon their thoughts and emotions, has not yet forced itself upon their thoughts and emotions, has not yet stamped its image upon their creative fancy. Will it be possible to spare them the experiences to which the children of Spain and China have been subjected? And, if so, by what means can this be achieved? To this second question many different answers have been given. Of these the most human and rational is the apparently Utopian but, at bottom, uniquely practical answer proposed by the Quakers. That this solution, or any other of its less satisfactory alternatives, will be generally accepted in the near future seems in the highest degree improbable. The most that individual men and women of good will can do is to work on behalf of some general solution of the problem of large-scale violence and, meanwhile to succour those who, like the child artists of this exhibition, have been made the victims of the world's collective crime and madness.