A conspicuous number of avant-garde artists tried their hand at making toys. They weren't just looking for cheap Christmas gifts, but were connecting with childhood and utopian desires, according to a new exhibition.
Pablo Picasso's refrained from cubist influences with his toy car
When Pablo Picasso carves a toy horse for his grandson, it may not be a significant artistic event. But when hundreds of artists working within the same movement turn their attention to making toys, it's time to take note.
"We saw and knew that the issue of the toys was somehow important for some relevant artists of the avant-garde and it hadn't been done as an exhibition before," said Jose Lebrero Stals, art director at Malaga's Picasso Museum, which is currently featuring an exhibition called Toys of the Avant-Garde.
The exhibition features nearly 600 objects by more than 200 artists - including that wooden toy horse by Pablo Picasso, but also puppets by Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer, and a traveling circus orchestrated by Alexander Calder.
In these cases, the toys were never intended to grace a museum case, but were created for everyday use by the artists' own children or grandchildren.
Yet even in these instances, the artists-turned-toy-makers don't depart from their avant-garde mindset, said Ara H. Merjian, assistant professor of Italian studies and art history at New York University. The blurring of boundaries between aesthetics and real life was fundamental to the avant-garde movement, she said, so "the toy offers a very useful case study for the relative success and failure at reconciling art and life."
These toys can also be seen as an overflow of the artists' creative energy into their private lives, Lebrero Stals added. "It's normal, I think, that an artist would make creative objects for their children, too."
Toys to teach
Not all of the objects in the exhibition were only made for personal use. Photo-books by Edward Steichen or building blocks by Joaquin Torres Garcia are examples of toys that were meant to be mass-produced and developed with pedagogical intentions.
"Garcia is a good example of an artist who knew the educational theories of the 19th century and wanted to make a company and produce these toys that were very much made with these educational theories in mind," Lebrero Stals said.
Joaquin Torres Garcia planned to sell his building blocks
One of the main discoveries Lebrero Stals and his co-curator Carlos Perez, head of exhibitions at the Museo Valenciano de la Ilustracion y la Modernidad in Valencia, came across was that many of the avant-garde artists were knowledgeable about new pedagogical theories and saw toys as central to education.
The avant-garde didn't want to just teach children their ABCs and 123s, but rather lay the foundation for building utopian ideals. Within the avant-garde movement of the early 20th century, there were different interpretations of utopia, though they were generally bound by a common desire to break away from the rules, structures, and failings of the previous generation.
"Because youth and children obviously represented a new generation, their potential as a new citizenry was in line with some of the utopian aspects of the avant-garde between the world wars, especially after the devastation in World War I," Merjian said. "They were using the avant-garde to change the material and spiritual life, and children in some ways stood as the primary vehicle of that utopia."
Connecting with children
Though the exhibit focuses on the artistry and functional relationship between toys and education, there also is an emotional element that can't be overlooked, said Gary Cross, a professor of modern history at Penn State who specializes in work and leisure in the 20th century.
There were really two different themes in early 20th-century toys, and while some toys were aimed at education and preparing children for the modern world, others focused on the preservation of childhood.
Paul Klee's doll was created shortly after the end of World War I
Cross said there were a number of different groups at the beginning of 20th century interested in connecting to the child. One of them was the so-called Puppen reform movement, "which was about making dolls much more child-like, so as to produce emotions in children that were more innocent, instead of getting the child to adopt adult values," he said.
While the Picasso Museum hopes to interest children in art with this exhibition, as Lebrero Stals said, the exhibition will inevitably bring visitors closer to the child's perspective.
"Parents and artists sometimes seek inspiration from children because the assumption is that children have an innocence and fresh modern view of the world," said Cross.
Author: Sylvia Smith (rf)
Editor: Kate Bowen