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Children interpret Picasso’s works: ‘He looks like an alien!’

Children interpret Picasso’s works: ‘He looks like an alien!’

January 13, 2016 // by MOCA Staff

“He looks like an alien!”

“That one looks like George Washington!”

“That one has a mustache!”

These are just some of the observations students make while viewing Pablo Picasso's Imaginary Portraits series currently on display in MOCA Jacksonville's Permanent Collection. Created in 1969 toward the end of his career, these portraits display Picasso's singular vision. To interpret these works, we can look to a group of fifteen first-graders from Greenfield Elementary School who recently came for a school field trip. Who better to understand Picasso's childlike spontaneity than children?

Children Tour Picasso Gallery
Image courtesy of Ingrid Damiani.

“What do these pictures look like? How can you tell these are pictures of people?” I ask the students.

These sound like very simple questions, but for first-graders, abstract art is a new and foreign concept that can be tricky to decipher. But tiny hands go up. The children eagerly tell me the artworks are people because they see eyes, noses, hair, mustaches, and even feet. As we determine the facial features, I ask one question to put it all into perspective: “Do we look like this?”

“No!” the entire class cries. Now we can explain what abstract art is! By explaining how Picasso uses his imagination to combine colors, lines, shapes, and designs in ways not seen before, the students learn how they must use their imaginations to understand the ideas behind abstract works of art. 

“Who do these people look like to you?”

The title of this series is Imaginary Portraits, an apt title for works of imaginary people, perhaps Shakespearean characters or other fictional beings. This question unleashes the students' ideas. The children look at each other, pondering the question, and then light bulbs start popping on above their heads.

Pablo Picasso 19_3_69 II (Imaginary Portraits)
Pablo Picasso, 19.3.69 II (Imaginary Portraits), 1969. Lithograph on paper, edition 181/250. Gift of Richard V. Benson.

“King George?”

“A jester, but not a joker because the Joker is the bad guy in Batman!”

“Michael Jackson!”

“A knight!”

None of them is wrong. By asking students inquiry-based questions, we are able to have more of a discussion than a lecture. This style of tour allows students to have an open dialogue with us and express their own opinions. This is clearly evident when talking about abstract art. 

Through the Duval County Public Schools STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art Math) Passport, MOCA Jacksonville has the privilege of facilitating school tours more than 10,000 Title I first- and second-graders during the 2015-2016 school year. These tours expose students to contemporary art, increasing their knowledge and appreciation of art history.

These experiences also give MOCA's educators fresh perspectives. Each time students share their opinions, I look at those artworks with new eyes, making each tour a different experience. Now, every time I take students to see Picasso's Imaginary Portraits, I can't wait to see how they will interpret them.




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