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“The Children-Spectators” is an exhibition coming within the framework of the European project “Mapping. A Map on the aesthetics of performing arts for early years”, dedicated to the performing arts for the very young. One of the objectives of the project is to investigate the relationship between theatre and illustration for children – two different but contiguous worlds whose possible intersection has been given little thought. The competition invited all interested illustrators to produce an artwork summing up - in just one image - the idea of the child spectator, capturing children’s reaction before any type of artistic performance.
Work was submitted from around the world. The jury was moved to see how many people had invested energy and thought in the project. The breadth of views and interpretations provided fascinating insights for all of us asked to judge the works.
This year, the jury asked that each illustration be accompanied by a very short explanation of the image, or provide a few elements enabling interpretation. This proved very useful to our understanding of narrative and metaphorical aspects implicit in what we saw.
Any selection made by a jury made up of several members is obviously the outcome of different points of views, priorities, concepts, and even tastes. The resultant exhibition will include those illustrations voted by the majority. This means that among the illustrations that did not make it there were several that were highly appreciated and considered excellent by some jurors.
Our jury was made up of people from a variety of professional fields, who therefore had a range of views, experience and skills. One member is from the world of theatre, another a university lecturer and researcher in children’s literature, and two are acclaimed illustrators, one of them a lecturer in illustration at a Fine Arts Academy. All the illustrations were therefore examined and analysed from many points of view in search of elements we believe fundamental, albeit from our different stances. For example, originality was considered a key requirement, which led to our sifting out conventional run-of-the mill images. Pertinence to target was another element. Images were chosen that took into account the fact that children were the public, which led to our eliminating abstract artistic work. Image composition – its construction and layout on the page - was another element, along with narrative drive. Images, and especially images for children, must not just be beautiful drawings; they must tell a story, allude to a specific world, communicate with spectators and draw them into that world. In addition, the image had to be an intelligent representation, in other words, not a sugary stereotype depiction of childhood as seen by adults, projections of the latest thinking on childhood. Indeed, the ungraspable complexity that is the young child is something everyone involved with children must reflect on, whether they create for children, perform for them on stage, or draw illustrations. The jury was also very clear that the image should, in its own way, be special. As a resultant, many technically and stylistically excellent images were discarded because they had nothing to do with the theme of the competition, which was to represent the Child Spectator. In this sense, we tried to privilege those illustrations that succeeded in capturing the emotional and participative rapport created between children and performances designed for them. We very much appreciated the choice of many artists to give space to movement, action and dynamism – vital components of many performing arts. This allowed us to step outside some of the clichés that had characterised the previous editions, where illustrators had tended to focus mainly on circus performances and so implicitly emphasise the emotion of awe as children watch spectacular physical feats beyond their own ability. This focus implicitly neglected the child spectator’s ability to share moments of sensitivity and imagining, more typical of theatre, dance, music, narration and other aesthetic moments that even the very young are enthralled by. Happily, this year the theme of the child spectator was seen from many more angles. As well as the child’s reaction to a circus performance, this year we saw the child’s reaction to theatre, to the spectacle of nature, before the ineffable power of music, or pure fantasticating and dream, when engrossed in the magical world of fairy stories, looking at art in museums or the fascinating contents of a book. Some artists tried to meld the different planes, underlying how the child spectator can at times be so caught up in the atmosphere of the show as to imagine herself the protagonist. This amazing ability of the child audience to participate in a performance with uninhibited emotion is one of the most fascinating and moving aspects for anyone working with children. It was inevitably a source of inspiration for the illustrators. Some artists chose to give an account of a real performance on stage, others observed from the wings, while others again showed the public. Some depicted both at the same time. For some of the jurors, the most interesting illustrations were those that gave a telling representation of the performance and its dynamic vitality; other jurors were impressed by illustrations able to describe the audience’s sense of anticipation, or the marvel and surprise produced by a show that remained in a mysterious place, on this side of the page together with us, who, in turn, became spectators of an invisible performance. The jury tried to give space to all these dimensions in its final selection. There were many filters we passed through before arriving at our joint decisions.
These are very difficult times for everyone but especially for those working in the performing arts who have lost the essential component of their work: children spectators, the physical presence and participation in theatrical performance of an audience, especially children who have that special gift of becoming enraptured by what is before them.
We worked remotely, discussing and exchanging opinions, never able to shake hands. We examined all the illustrations without being able to touch them and feel traces of the author’s work. We were, however, constantly reminded of the atmosphere, noise, and smell of a theatre full of children, feeling their presence even if we know that this will not happen again in the short term.
Helping to set up this exhibition at this particular time had both a nostalgic but also propitiatory significance. We remember very well what it is like to go to a theatre. Hopefully, we will leave this period behind us and soon be able to relive the experience. Hopefully, Children Spectators will once again soon be filling theatres.
The Jury: Roberto Frabetti, Giorgia Grilli, Giulia Orecchia, Maurizio Quarello