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In 1981, Robin Tanner, an English art educator, a former HMI who was also an artist and printmaker, wrote about his first encounter in the 1920s with work by children taught by the Viennese educator, Franz Cizek. He said:
I immediately recognised their grave, un-English, fairytale idiom as something genuine and indigenous to these Austrian children - so utterly unlike the rough Cockney pictures my little boys were making . . . Seeing these beautiful decorations - some made as early as 1919 - strengthened the belief, to which my own children were leading me, that we are all born with the attributes of the artist, the designer, the craftsman; we have the power to select, to transmute the ordinary into the memorable, to see the world imaginatively or, as the poet Rilke expressed it, 'to re-enkindle commonplace' (sic)
Franz Cizek, a student at the Vienna Academy in the 1880s, began teaching children in 1885. Sometimes credited as the discoverer of 'child art', Cizek's voluntary weekend classes for children aged about six to fourteen were incorporated into the progressive Vienna Arts and Crafts School (Kunstgewerbeschule), where he also taught students until his classes were closed as a consequence of increasing political repression in the 1930s. Tanner learnt of Cizek's work through the pamphlets published by Francesca Wilson and he almost certainly saw the exhibition that Wilson had organized with Bertram Hawker of the 'Save the Children Fund'. This exhibition opened in Knightsbridge in November 1920 at the British Institute of Industrial Art and then toured the country.
Tanner recognized in Cizek's children's work qualities such as the emphasis on self-realization in art and the power of art-making to transcend the ordinary or everyday through imaginative creativity - a means to add or to enlarge experience not merely confirm pre-existing knowledge. These are notions that we now associate with modernism or aesthetic modernity. Tanner's insight, however, was perhaps unique in its identification of both the 'making strange' or defamiliarization function of art at work in Cizek's educational enterprise and also his perception of the 'un-English' qualities or 'otherness' of the Viennese child's drawings. What Tanner recognized, in other words, were both wider implications in the form of a transcendental impulse to innate creativity and the specificity of the work, its particularity to the time and place of Vienna around the end of World War One.
I want to argue here that Franz Cizek's teaching should be debated as a modernist practice. This is not only a matter of illuminating Cizek's own practice, however. More fundamentally, an examination of Cizek makes explicit the extent to which any understanding of modernism is inadequately realized unless critical attention is given to the function of 'child art' in the formation of modern art. The concept 'child art' was most fully developed and promoted in the teaching of pioneers such as Cizek. This implies that theories of modernism in relation to Cizek must be grasped in all their complexity. It means therefore that we must understand modernism with both its transcendental claims to universalism - Tanner's 'we are all born with the attributes of the artist' - and its specificity. In other words we must examine modernism as a problematic. In this process, it becomes possible to examine Cizek's practice critically.
Although I will ultimately argue that Cizek's way with children is no longer our way - as indeed it was not for Robin Tanner in the 1920s and 1930s - I want, at the outset, to avoid arguing from a narrow or reductive account of modernism. The term 'post-modernism' would not be adequate for my account implying as it does merely the benefit of hindsight. It is the negotiation of not simply taking up either a post- or a pro- nor indeed an anti-modernist perspective that characterizes what I have called the problematic of modernism.
Mary Kelly, in her article 'Re-viewing Modernist Criticism', defined modernism as a 'determinant discursive field'. She argued that modernism is produced discursively within the formation and transformation of the statements that circulate within critical texts and the institutions that disseminate these formations as events. It is significant that much of what we understand of Franz Cizek and 'child art' was mediated through the circulation of exhibitions and through publications by writers such as Francesca Wilson and later Wilhelm Viola who also lectured and broadcast on 'child art'.
In Anglo-American writings on modernism and modern art, modernism is defined in the following terms. In modernism, aesthetic experience is conceived as unified and autonomous. Works of art, paintings and sculpture, are therefore perceived and need only function for their painterly or sculptural meaning. The work of art, where the primacy of the visual is asserted as the attribute it shares with no other art form, is said to refer to nothing outside itself. …