Children have always had their role to play in society. They have always had their place in the mind of adults who have projected onto them their own fantasies and world views. Childhood has not always been, for all that, an object of historical inquiry. Even though people have expressed an interest in children since Antiquity through treatises on morality, medicine, and pedagogy, childhood truly became a special topic of investigation only after 1960 with the publication of Philippe Ariès pioneering volume, Centuries of Childhood (in French : L’Enfant et la vie familiale sous l’Ancien Régime). Although now subject to challenge on several points, this book remains a landmark. Even though one tends to relativize the importance of the eighteenth century in changing people’s mentalities—the Middle Ages also had their part to play in the invention of childhood—the family changed appreciably with the coming of the Age of Enlightenment : education became more attentive, and better adapted, to the child’s unique personality—as is testified to by the success of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s L’Émile in 1762.
The decline in mortality rates and progress in both medicine and childcare at the end of the nineteenth century were going to give rise to new hopes. The young person who had formerly been viewed above all as a voracious and dangerous miniature adult would then be seen in a new light. Educational institutions followed suit, and it is in this context, too, that the unprecedented notion of children’s art came to the fore in the twentieth century: liberal schools employed it in their quest to free the child (Freinet, Montessori, Decroly). This was also the moment when artists in search of the childhood of art discovered the power of children’s drawing, alongside the drawings of “madmen” and “primitives”; indeed, it was the time when one put into practice Baudelaire’s statement, “Genius is but childhood rediscovered at will.” The various avant-garde movements were going to make sweeping use of it in their struggle against conventions, materialism, and learned culture. Their neoprimitivism approached the taste for purity normally associated with monks. The child became a key tool, and his spontaneous art was going to be copied, commented upon, and exhibited. The psychologist would take care of the rest, studying, classifying, indexing, and establishing some order where others were above all enamored of chaos and pure instinct. The teacher oscillated between these two assessments, training children while also encouraging their free expression, caught as he was between the model advocated by modern artists and the one developed by the psychologists.
Before showing an interest in representations of childhood, Emmanuel Pernoud published a pioneering book on the subject itself, writing on “the invention of children’s drawing (L’Invention du dessin d’enfant [Hazan, 2003]). Camille Saint-Jacques responds to him as a mindful artist who sees in adults’ reproduction of children’s drawing the rejection of culture, therefore of an unprecedented but indispensable difficulty. The debate remains up in the air, for this is to go against the reaction of numerous contemporary artists who are responding to the myth of the childhood of art spread since the Romantic Era by caricaturing their own role as backward children. All the better to rid oneself of it in a society that has become infantile and infantilizing, says Pernoud, seeing a spiritual father in Alfred Jarry, the genius doodler who, with all his might, rejected model children.
Laurence Bertrand Dorléac
Seminair of April 15th 2005
From Children's Art to Puerile Art
The Childhood of Art : Myth and Demystification
The notion of children’s art came into force in the twentieth century, in particular among schools that were trying to promote the development of the child’s personality. That was the case with the famous Freinet Method, named after its founders, Elise and Célestin Freinet, who—along with Maria Montessori, Ovide Decroly, and others—promoted what was called the New School or the New Education.
People ended up being persuaded that children are artists and even that the latter would be the authentic possessors of a kind of “creativity” (the word is indissociable from this aesthetics of spontaneity) that regular artists would be seeking somehow or other to rekindle in themselves. “Creativity” is nothing other than artistic production as measured by the yardstick of a raw, native form of expression of which childhood would be the canonical form, the unsurpassable criterion. In order to lay down the bases for a debate around the pregnancy of this myth of “creativity” as the childhood of art—and of the reactions to which it led, in particular among artists, the primary parties concerned—one must recall the historical context in which the notion of children’s art was able to arise, for such a notion is inseparable from the various avant-gardes of the time. This reminder will lead us to take up again here some of the conclusions of our work entitled L’Invention du dessin d’enfant (The Invention of children’s drawing).[ref]Paris: Hazan, 2003.[/ref] It must be recalled that the very idea of “children’s art” would have been inconceivable in the nineteenth century. It would have then meant something else entirely : a disparaging judgment about a work of art, lowered to the level of childishness, criticized for its clumsiness [sa maladresse] and its puerility—pejorative comparisons with children’s drawing would indeed remain an enduring topos of art criticism. Nonetheless, we shall not disregard this former sense which, by a historical twist—one which we would like, as a matter of fact, to investigate here—was going to resurface and regain some meaning, thanks to artists themselves. The twentieth century glorified children’s art as much under the form of a rediscovered childhood as under that of a sought-after childishness. We shall endeavor to show how the two very different meanings became part of the same history: into the tendency toward voluntary infantilism, so frequently found in contemporary art, there entered a certain element of reaction against the myth of the childhood of art, which had governed creative endeavors from Romanticism to the various avant-garde movements. If “creativity = childhood,” all that remained for artists to do was to provide a caricature of their image as mentally retarded children which had been stuck onto them in order to rid themselves of it.
Children’s Art: Benchmarks for the Genesis of a Myth
In the nineteenth century, a whole current of thought inherited from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and tied to Romanticism likened childhood to the age of pure perceptions. It was art’s task to endeavor to rediscover this age. “Genius is but childhood rediscovered at will,”[ref]Charles Baudelaire, “Le peintre de la vie moderne,” in Œuvres complètes, vol. 3, ed. and intro. Claude Pichois (Paris: Gallimard/Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1976), p. 690.[/ref] wrote Charles Baudelaire. This childhood of perception is the one Gustave Courbet showed us in his work entitled The Painter’s Studio (1855), where it shared top billing with the artist’s other muse, the female model. This idealism of pure childhood is a sort of aesthetic adaptation of the immaculate childhood found in Christianity: the child’s perception is unblemished, as the child’s soul is without sin. In an aesthetics that erected the laws of perception into new criteria for representation that replace the ancient canons, the childhood gaze, that “ecstatic curiosity of the child in the face of the new” (Baudelaire)[ref]Ibid.[/ref], was raised to the rank of a paradigm, alongside the blind man who has recovered his sight.
Not far from the contemplative child Courbet shows us a child drawing—thus, a childhood that is no longer visual but now manual. What we glimpse here is a wholly new role for childhood in the arts: with the child’s hand, it is a production from childhood that comes to fore, a rough draft of graphical activity, which is coupled with a sketch of the human figure, since this rough draft is a “little man” [bonhomme]. It happened that, in the 1860s and 1870s, some personalities in the world of art were starting to take an interest in children’s drawings. These were art critics, such as Champfleury and Zacharie Astruc, defenders of “modernity” in painting, the modernity in question being Courbet’s first of all and then Edouard Manet’s. Neither of them spoke of “children’s art,” but they insisted upon reproducing children’s drawings in their works (which thereby constituted a dawning recognition, without prejudging the precise status to be attributed to the pieces reproduced), and in the case of Astruc at least, he did not hesitate to suggest that the child’s “funny figures” [les “bonshommes” de l’enfant] contained a power that was lost in more elaborate representations of the human figure, such as those shown in Salon paintings. Artists would do well to take a look at what kids produce if they want to restore some vigor to their works: such was, in substance, Astruc’s message in his 1859 Salon.[ref]Zacharie Astruc, Les 14 stations du Salon, 1859, suivies d’un récit douloureux, preface by George Sand (Paris: Poulet-Malassis et de Broise, 1859), pp. 110-112.[/ref]
This idea was going to become a commonplace of the avant-gardes between 1905 and 1914, that is, between Fauvism and Expressionism. It was expressed in a rudimentary and rather romantic form. Here is how August Macke, for example, put it in the Almanach der Blaue Reiter (1912) :
“Are not children, who create directly on the basis of the mystery of their feelings, more creative than the imitator of Greek forms ? Are not savages artists, those who have their own form that is as strong as thunder’s ? ” [ref]August Macke, “Les masques,” in L’Almanach du Blaue Reiter, ed. Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, intro. et notes Klaus Lankheit (Paris: Klincksieck, 1987), p. 113.[/ref] It was André Derain, ten years earlier, who wrote in a letter to Maurice de Vlaminck, “I would like to study kid’s drawings. The truth is no doubt there.”[ref]André Derain, Lettres à Vlaminck, suivies de la correspondance de guerre, ed. and intro. Philippe Dagen (Paris: Flammarion, 1994), p. 89. [/ref]
Here we witness a falling back upon the old Christian theme of the childhood virginity of children’s drawing. Children’s drawing would be the redemption of painting, which has been spoiled by conventions, corrupted by materialism, and sold out to “practicality.” This was the argument being developed by Wassily Kandinsky in 1912 [ref]Wassily Kandinsky, “Sur la question de la forme” (1912), in Regards sur le passé et autres textes, 1912-1922, ed. and intro. Jean-Paul Bouillon (Paris: Hermann, 1974).[/ref] : when adults reproach children for not respecting the size of a chair or of a house in their drawings, they do so because they are reducing the value of a house to his practical worth, whereas the child perceives this house from a much more “spiritual” angle that is to be found in his drawing. Primitivism gives new life to the Christian inversion that puts the innocent in power, the smallest on top, and children at the right hand of God :
“At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven ? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them. And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”[ref]Matthew 18:1-4 (King James Version).[/ref]
Christ’s call to “become as little children” was taken literally by the primitivists who put on top the ignorant, or those whom they thought of as such: children, the naive, the insane, and those who were still being called savages. The Christian background for this revolution is all the firmer as the edifice it was overturning was the classical tradition inherited from the Greeks and Romans: things went as if artists were “replaying” the fall of Rome and of paganism in the name of a rediscovered spirituality.
With these avant-gardes, children’s drawing well and truly attained the rank of art, and the notion of “children’s art” then began to make itself felt. So as not to remain on the level of intentions and to make this a reality, the artists of the Blaue Reiter and some Russian Futurists (such as Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova) went ahead and exhibited children’s drawings alongside their own works, collecting such drawings and copying them as, previously, people had copied plaster casts and the paintings of the masters (we are referring here to the pieces reproduced in Jonathan Fineberg’s book and to his accompanying commentary).[ref]Jonathan Fineberg, The Innocent Eye: Children’s Art and the Modern Artist (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997).[/ref]
The avant-gardes expressed themselves in an incantatory, messianic mode; they rarely burdened themselves with nuances. Henri Matisse communed in the cult of childhood, writing for example that “one must look at all of life with children’s eyes.”[ref]Henri Matisse, Écrits et propos sur l’art, ed. Dominique Fourcade (Paris: Hermann, 1972), p. 321 (title of an interview conducted by Régine Pernoud and published in Le Courrier de l’Unesco, 6:10 [octobre 1953]). This title borrows from a phrase employed by Matisse during the interview: “All of life must be seen as when one was a child.”[/ref] But he put a damper on this primitivist fervor when, while stating that he shared his peers’ lively interest in children’s drawing, he also declared that “I do not think that a great deal should be made of the drawings of children because they don’t know what they are doing.”[ref]Interview conducted by Guillaume Apollinaire, “Les arts – Dessins d’enfants,” Paris-Journal, June 7, 1914, in Œuvres en prose complètes, vol. 2, ed. and intro. Pierre Caizèrgues and Michel Décaudin (Paris: Gallimard/Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1991), p. 756.[/ref] The difference is clear : for the Primitivists, it is really because they do not know what they are doing that children are artists (under the same heading as madmen, the naive, and all “innocents” of creation) ; for Matisse, this is on the contrary an argument against describing children’s drawing as artistic.
During these same years, the burgeoning child psychology movement was going to get involved in the debate. Such a scholarly discourse offered what was lacking here: an analytical approach to the object in question, children’s drawing. The experimental psychology of the time was not content with generalities : it studied the child-illustrator within the context of his activity (the family or school) ; it indexed and classified what he drew ; and it tried to understand to what precisely the need to draw was responding. Being careful all the while not to formulate an aesthetic judgment—or to make their own the polemical notion of “children’s art”—the conclusions found in such works came to reinforce the thesis of children’s drawing as the childhood of art. For psychologists, there was no doubt that artistic activity derives from a need or a drive [une pulsion], the first manifestation of which is children’s drawing. Georges-Henri Luquet (a student of Henri Bergson’s who in 1913 devoted his thesis to the topic of children’s drawing)[ref]Georges-Henri Luquet, Les Dessins d’un enfant, étude psychologique, a work illustrated with more than 600 reproductions (Paris: Alcan, 1913).[/ref] wrote that the principles of man’s artistic activity are to be found at work already in the graphical activity of the child. On the one hand, children’s drawing is without ulterior motive ; it comes under the heading of a “game” and not of “utility.” On the other hand, this game is “serious” : it has rules of its own; it is organized and elaborated in ways Luquet described point by point in his analysis. Far from a chaos and far from the “approximations” to which the prejudiced would have liked to reduce it, children’s drawing appears to be dictated by a will to clarify and to abstract the world, a will to translate reality into a symbolic and synthetic language that makes of children’s drawing a system of signs. A faithful follower of the author of Creative Evolution, Luquet applied to the child’s “doodling” the idea that chaos is but an order whose laws elude our grasp. Moreover, the child’s graphical activity, said Luquet, responds to an absolutely irrepressible need : he employs, in this regard, the term automatism, which was quite in vogue in his time to describe everything, within psychical activity, that eludes the control of reason. This threefold feature of (1) lack of ulterior motive, (2) elaboration, and (3) vital necessity made of children’s drawing, if not an art (Luquet refused to speak of children’s art), at least the direct source of man’s artistic activity.
A decade later, the German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn was going to publish a sensational book whose main thesis can be summarized as follows: at the source of artistic activity is to be found a drive, the Gestaltung (or drive to “shape,” to “put into form”)[ref]Hans Prinzhorn, Bildnerei der Geisteskranken: ein Beitrag zur Psychologie und Psychopathologie der Gestaltung (Berlin: J. Springer, 1922). The French translation of this volume of insane asylum drawings, paintings, and sculptures was edited and introduced by Marielène Weber, translated from the German by Alain Brousse and Marielène Weber, with a preface by Jean Starobinski (Paris: Gallimard/Bibliothèque de l’inconscient, 1984).[/ref]. The art of artists is but a watered-down version of this drive, diluted by academic or commercial compromises and by the requirements of communication, whereas what the mentally ill produce yields us this drive in its raw state, without the least concession to external imperatives—mental illness provoking a regression in the subject toward instinctual states [états pulsionnels]. The more primitive this shaping instinct, the more original it is : it was quite natural then for Prinzhorn to have placed children’s drawing alongside the drawing of the sick in its pure forms of expression that spring from the very depths of the subject, unfiltered by the codes of education, fashion, or the market. With Prinzhorn, it was no longer a matter of knowing whether the work of children and the insane was artistic: it is because such work is not artistic that it is authentic; the term drive or expression rises above that of art upon a scale of values that places individual difference [l’écart individuel] above norms and common language. Prinzhorn’s psychiatric treatise came at the right time to confirm the expressive aesthetics then prevalent in the various avant-garde movements.
This legitimation of children’s drawing by the overlapping contributions of an aesthetics and a psychology of expression would end up having repercussions in the field of teaching : little by little, artistic education was going to go from a learning of artistic codes (perspective, relief, etc.: the laws of mimesis) to a development of expression in which the child was asked, not to acquire rules, but to give voice to his gifts, his innate sense of color and form. This was a crucial stage : art teaches the childhood of art ; teaching to children becomes a teaching of childhood. This extension from the aesthetic to the didactic (the Bauhaus playing a key role in this conversion) dramatically testifies to the avant-garde’s takeover of institutions ; it sealed the social coronation of avant-gardism, which attained the rank of the vernacular. At this key moment, Picasso would be led to say, “We are told that children must be left to be free. In reality, they are forced to make children’s drawings. They are taught to make them. They are even taught to make children’s drawings that are abstract.”[ref]Pablo Picasso, Propos sur l’art, Marie-Laure Bernadac and Androula Michael, eds. (Paris: Gallimard,, 1998), p. 149 (interview conducted by Hélène Parmelin in Picasso dit… [Paris: Gonthier, 1966], p. 86).[/ref]
Artists’ quest for the childhood of art and the pedagogical channeling of children’s drawing enter into a complicit relationship that can be summed up in three phases :
1. Artists champion childhood in their quest for the basic, for spontaneity, and for “deconditioning.”
2. Pedagogues invoke artists in order to work out a vocabulary of forms that are supposed to respond to the expectations of childhood.
3. Children copy the “children’s form” concocted by artists’ and pedagogues’ official “childhood of art.” This is nothing but a model, and children are here nothing but executants, but since this model takes childhood as its pretext, everything happens as if the spontaneity has remained intact. While the models have taken on the appearance of childhood, the modeling, for its part, has not given in an inch.[ref]Recent examples of this “modeling” of modern and contemporary art may be found in Renaud d’Enfert and Daniel Lagoutte’s Un Art pour tous, le dessin à l’école de 1800 à nos jours (Rouen: INRP/Musée National de l’Education, 2004). Kandinsky, Picasso, Chaissac and so on are raised therein to the rank of school models.[/ref]
Puerile Art, Childhood of Art
This process whereby the childhood of art gained hegemony and became official had its dissidents, and they were there from the start of the avant-garde movement. For these dissenters, this great regressive illusion had to be demystified. Their strategy, as well, was going to consist in tackling the problem of childhood, but by reflecting an image of it that was completely at odds with the ambient angelism ; they sought to desacralize childhood—so as, perhaps, to rediscover its true salt.
The master among these opponents of the childhood of art was Alfred Jarry. With his bad doodlings, he was clearly seeking to destroy the model child of painting already rife in his time with a Paul Gauguin and an Émile Bernard who, as Vincent Van Gogh had reported, claimed to be doing “children’s painting.”[ref]Vincent Van Gogh, Correspondance générale (Paris: Gallimard, 1990), vol. 3, p. 269.[/ref] In the twentieth century, Jarry’s offspring formed a sort of informal brotherhood. Therein one finds Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Jean Arp, and Roberto Matta, leading up to more contemporary figures like the Englishman Barry Flanagan—all artists who, at one moment or another, have declared their loyalty to Jarry and his undermining of the childhood of art via the puerility of doodling. Puerility vs. childhood, childishness vs. children’s drawing—these are the terms of the war these agnostics led against the inveterate romanticism of the various avant-gardes and against the incurable quest for innocence which became the apostles of elementary form and color.
Where is the childhood of art at now, at the beginning of this twenty-first century ? It has changed. It is no longer the quest for innocence, which fed the avant-gardes of the past century. It may be said, in a way, that it has succeeded in preserving its aura of authenticity, while at the same time stealing from its detractors—the Jarryists—the subversive force of a demystified childhood. One of the most official artists of our time, consecrated by a Jack Lang who commissioned him to decorate the rooms of the French Ministry of Culture when the latter took up his post in 1981, is none other than Pierre Alechinsky, an artist who has been able to procure from doodling and slapdash work a genuine stylistic effect that makes explicit reference to the writing of dunces and to the blotted pages of a schoolboy’s notebook. The myth has been renewed by coopting its successive demystifications: this is a classic phenomenon that is accompanied by a gradual extension of this myth, departing from the spheres of art in order to reach those of business and the media.
In a society that claims to be “creative” on all levels (see the analyses of Luc Boltanski and Eve Chapello in Le Nouvel Esprit du capitalisme),[ref]Paris: Gallimard, 1999.[/ref] the child becomes the universal model for permanent and spontaneous inventiveness. “Long live brats and hoodlums” is a slogan that could be read on the walls of Paris in May 1968.[ref]“Les murs ont la parole,” journal mural, Mai 68, Sorbonne, Odéon, Nanterre etc., quotations collected by Julien Besançon (Paris: Tchou, 1968), p. 180.[/ref] This could be the motto of our “creative types” in all areas of endeavor today, a bit hoodlums and very brattish, unless the reverse would be the case. The artist, in the sense the word has taken on in our time (designating pretty much everyone: anyone who would henceforth be an artist in his line of work) is a superchild, an adult who would have stolen from childhood its faculties of creation and permanent invention.
The escalation of childishness recognizable on the artistic stage today can be interpreted as one final spurt of the childhood of art seeking its salvation in obscenity, vacuity, and insignificancy, which would render it definitively beyond cooptation. The “idiocy”[ref]Jean-Yves Jouannais, L’Idiotie : art, vie, politique, méthode (Paris: Beaux-arts, 2003).[/ref] Jean-Yves Jouannais praises (and which he recognizes in such artists as Pierrick Sorin, Alain Séchas, Mac Carthy) is perhaps only the ultimate symptom of the nostalgia of art for the childhood of art, which, to a final farewell, prefers instead a disenchanted, worldly-wise, and aged childhood—in short, adolescence.
One can certainly be understanding of the guerilla war contemporary art is leading against media alienation and against the cretinization of minds of which childhood has become the symbol : consumerist childhood, that is, both a subject and an object of advertising par excellence. Advertising makes use of children to sell us anything and everything, but it is because it succeeds in selling us anything and everything that we have become children, in this permanent Christmas of the advertising spot. To sell an object from 7 to 77 years, as every marketing firm dreams of doing (and often succeeds in doing) is not to sell to “juniors” what is destined for “seniors,” but always the reverse, thereby extending childhood to all ages. This is a generalized infantilism, but one that rests, obviously, upon a cliché : upon a childhood as vapid and distorted as the pious images of the Baby Jesus in the age when Velázquez knew how to paint childhood without putting any piety into it.Perhaps we should henceforth ask ourselves about the reality of childhood, rather than contrasting clichés with clichés, countering the cheerful fair-haired boys of advertising with the perverse nymphettes of mangas—our images of modern piety. Childhood is a great topic, but curiously one about which, with some exceptions (especially cinematographic ones—let us think of Abbas Kiarostami—sometimes literary ones), the world of art seems to have forgotten. The art of childhood, that of showing childhood and testifying for it, is not to be summed up in the childhood of art.
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Higonnet, Anne. Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998.
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Former chief librarian for the contemporary stamp collections at the French National Library, Emmanuel Pernoud is an associate professor in the History of Art at the University of Picardie (Jules Verne). A specialist in the graphic arts, he has devoted himself to the history of drawing, stamps, and printed images, organizing exhibitions (Louis Bourgeois, Pascin, Michaux, Tal Coat, etc.) and publishing such works as Olivier Debré, les estampes et les livres illustrés (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2001), L’Estampe des Fauves (Paris: Hermann, 1994), Le Bordel en peinture (Paris: Adam Biro, 2001), and L’Invention du dessin d’enfant, en France, à l’aube des avant-gardes (Paris: Hazan, 2003).