this issue contains
>> Conversation: Laura Owens
>> Interview: Markus Schinwald
>> Images of Children from the Deutsche Bank Collection
>> Childlike Strategies

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With the Eyes of a Child

In their anarchic attack on social and artistic conventions, painters have been seeking to give expression to their need for immediacy and genuineness since the avant-garde. The notion that the childlike in art is a possibility for the creative process to penetrate into regions of the personality that remain inaccessible to others carries through to the present day. Ulrich Clewing describes the childlike strategies of this urge.

Laura Owens, Untitled, 1999
Deutsche Bank Collection,, Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ

This is how a child might paint: the lines of the check pattern in the background form an irregular scribble in colored pencil, while the bright green and yellow spots on top seem randomly distributed, like leaves drifting over the paper’s surface. In reality, however, the American artist Laura Owens was 29 years old when she painted this watercolor in 1999. "I always thought it was better to adjust the picture to everyday reality than to adjust the everyday to the picture," she said in an interview with Artforum the same year. Now, Owens counts among the most prominent representatives of present-day American painting. While many of her contemporaries struggle with the heroism and achievements of past generations, the paintings of the Los Angeles-based painter are filled with an almost magical lightness. Owens employs a variety of sources ranging from Modernist masters like Henri Rousseau or Toulouse-Lautrec to Abstract Expressionism and Op Art. At the same time, her work is inspired by wallpaper, decorative patterns, comics, children’s books, and traditional Japanese art.

Laura Owens, Untited , 2001
Courtesy of Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York

The naive grace of the gentle forest animals that populate her landscapes might be misleading in regards to their art historical references. Yet a closer look makes it clear just how expertly her work shifts between abstraction and figuration. Owens is mainly interested in formal aspects such as the application of paint, perspectives, surface, the relationship between the painting and its environment. The playful connection between apparently childish or "primitive" gestures, conceptual concerns, and skilled technique serves Owens as a strategy to reflect upon the history of painting and to test its borders.

Erich Heckel, Stehendes Kind - Fränzi, 1910
Deutsche Bank Collection

Paul Klee, Seiltänzer, 1923
Deutsche Bank Collection

And she is in good company with her strategy of the childlike. A look back over the art of the past hundred years shows that the childlike was also a main reference point for the avant-garde. The painters of the Dresden Brücke group, the Dadaists, Surrealists, Bauhaus artists like Paul Klee – these and countless other artists belong to the broad movement that left its mark on 20th-century art like no other. Pablo Picasso, one of its chief advocates, once described an exhibition of children’s drawings in the following words: "When I was that age, I was able to paint like Raphael. But it took me my whole life to paint like a child."

At the beginning of the 20th century, a broad opposition grew among artists all across Europe that was directed against the academies and its members, which were seen as rigid, bloodless, and flaccid. This initially expressed itself in secessions from the older artists’ organizations and unions, later in an increasingly intricate patchwork of artists’ groups that were often not only in agreement in terms of their art historical ideas, but in their world views, as well.

A painter like Erich Heckel did not paint his figures and landscapes in such a coarse and seemingly childlike way because he was incapable of doing otherwise, but because it enabled him to express what he and his artist friends Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff had formulated in 1906 as their program while announcing their exhibition at the Seifert Lamp Factory in Dresden: "With a belief in development and in a new generation of creators and connoisseurs, we hereby call today’s youth together; we, as the youth that shall carry the future, want to bring about a freedom in life and action in opposition to the well-established older powers. Anyone who gives direct and pure expression to whatever moves him to create counts among us."

Kurt Schwitters, Contramerk, 1923
Deutsche Bank Collection

These were the words the Brücke painters chose to formulate the prototype of an artists’ manifesto that would prove quite similar to what many artists’ groups after them would have signed their names to, as well. Freedom in visualization, the rejection of the old and traditional, the self-satisfied, combined with the right to participation and to being heard, in short: the future – these are the motivations and postulates artists often voiced throughout the 20th century. Yet the most important point in the Bücke Manifesto is the urge to give in to inner impulses and to translate them "directly and purely" into a work of art.

Heinrich Hoerle, Begegnung, 1925 , Deutsche Bank Collection

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