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Indepth Arts News:

"Paintings of Children at Play through the Ages"
2000-04-04 until 2000-07-10
National Palace Museum
, , TW Taiwan

Children, by their nature, have always been full of energy and curiosity. In the eyes of a child, even the simplest of things can become the object of play and enjoyment. Games and toys not only stimulate the mind and inspire creativity, but they also develop the physical capabilities of children. Games are the tools by which children explore and learn about the world around them. Indeed, children at play are tense with excitement and focused on the pure pursuit of joy. Often with more passion than skill, children not only reveal the innocence and carefree world of youth but also endear themselves to adults. Artists in ancient China certainly did not miss this aspect of life, capturing it with ink and colors in a genre that became known as 'children at play' in the Sung dynasty (960-1279).

Earlier, artists had depicted children in figure painting with a subsidiary role in a world dominated by adults. Even then, artists found that painting children presented enormous difficulties. They not only had to figure out how to avoid representing children as miniature adults but also to convey the characteristics of children, such as soft skin, innocent expressions, and differences in age. For this reason, few artists were able to capture the natural appearance of children in painting. Chang Hsuan (fl. 8th c.) and Chou Fang (fl. late 8th c.), master figure painters of the T'ang dynasty (618-907), became famous in their time for exquisite renderings of ladies sometimes accompanied by children. By the Sung dynasty, realism in painting reached a high point. In the late Northern Sung (960-1126), artists such as Liu Tsung-tao and Tu Hai-erh (Tu of the Children; fl. early 12th c.) achieved fame for paintings of children playing. Unfortunately, none of their works has survived. By the early Southern Sung (1127-1279), the representative painters of children were Su Han-ch'en (fl. 12th c.) and Li Sung (fl. ca. 1190-1264). Perhaps the one who achieved the most lasting fame in the genre was Su Han-ch'en, works by whom still exist. An art critic once wrote, Su [Han-ch'en's paintings of children] had a meticulous style with fresh coloring and soft forms as if they were before one's eyes. Looking at these children long enough brings joy to the heart; that is the power of their spirit. Su's reputation was so far-reaching that his signature was added to many later works on the subject.

In the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), literati painting took hold as a dominant trend. The technical skills of realism - applying layers of color washes and building up brush strokes - were no longer emphasized. Consequently, the ability to represent children naturalistically decreased as artists no longer focused on their psychological or physical features - often showing them more as small adults. Unable to capture the spirit of children at play, the number of artists who achieved fame in the genre decreased dramatically. Likewise, the pure, simple, and endearing appearance of children in paintings gradually gave way to their representation for festive occasions or for auspicious symbolic purposes. Many paintings of children at play produced in the Ming (1368-1644) and Ch'ing (1644-1911), for example, show children with auspicious undertones, such as Hundred Sons in an Everlasting Spring, which served as a metaphor for wishing progeny and prosperity. This type of painting was appreciated by general audiences, creating for a style marked by opulent coloring and delicate brushwork.

The National Palace Museum presents a special exhibition of paintings of children at play in conjunction with its 'Birth of a New Century--Images of Children in Western Art' display from the Chi Mei Museum. Representing some of the best paintings of children at play throughout the ages from the collection, it is hoped that visitors will enjoy the artistic quality of these works as well as the joyous and peaceful atmosphere of children at play, thus also serving as an appropriate start for the new millennium.

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