BBC ONLINE: The allure of Youth



For International Youth Day, 21-year-old art critic Aindrea Emelife selects works from more than 500 years of art history that show different ways of thinking about young people.

Michelangelo, David, 1501-04

This is the ultimate symbol of the Renaissance – the epitome of male youth and beauty, harking back to Classical ideals. The Biblical hero David is shown here as a young man, with his curly hair and athletic physique, but Michelangelo has also included a noticeably soft tummy and large, awkward hands: a more realistic and honest rendering of teenage boyhood. 

Michelangelo was only 26 when he created David. He was already an excellent sculptor, but the challenge to carve the statue from a single block of marble was still an ambitious one. No artist had yet forgone the important character of Goliath from their interpretations of the David and Goliath story – the slain giant is there in Donatello and Verocchio’s earlier statues of the same subject. Michelangelo also did away with exaggerated heroism and gallant poses in favour of a thoughtful and slightly nervous stance, presumably showing David just before battle. Only the cockiness and pluck of a young man out to prove his talent would dare to mess with tradition and shake things up like this.

Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656

Las Meninas translates as ‘the maids of honour’ but our initial focus is drawn to the extravagantly dressed young girl in the centre and not the women who flank her. The young princess is surrounded by an entourage of maids, chaperones, bodyguards, dwarves and a dog. Infanta Maria Margarita, the daughter of King Philip IV of Spain, was five years old at the time. Yet, she stares outwards at the viewer with a nonchalant, worldly boredom. At this point court painters took a rather odd view of children, depicting them as miniature adults with stern poses and all the bulk of the luxuriant but complicated clothing of the time. Van Dyck, Titian… they were all guilty of this, and Velázquez kept with the fashion (he was being paid by the King after all).

Hans Bellmer, La Poupée, various dates

The Surrealist artists’ contortioned and sexualised dolls engage with the unsettling nature of pubescent desire and the corruption of innocence. His figures take many forms, most often defying anatomical logic and societal decorum, but all the more potent this way. To put it plainly – they are a disquieting form of a nude, dismembered and distorted young girl. For Bellmer, the Doll represented a complex nexus of desires: as a throwback to the fantasy life of his childhood, as a way to shock his bourgeois Nazi father, and, it is sometimes assumed, as a cathartic surrogate for his desire for young girls. 

Dolls and playing with dolls will always be a part of the childhood experience, and a nostalgic emblem of childhood. These inanimate youths don’t age and so are as much frozen in their own adolescence as the idea of the doll is in ours.

Balthus, Thérèse, 1938

Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, best known as Balthus, is the painter of storybook schooldays and childhood frustration. And also cats. In 1936, Balthus embarked on a series of paintings of Thérèse Blanchard, his 11-year-old neighbour when he lived in Paris. His fascination for depicting the burgeoning youth of his sitters certainly ruffled a few feathers, mostly for the perceived sexual tension between the subject and the painter. The poses of the girls have a childlike awkwardness (legs akimbo, but not in a provocative way) and lack of awareness that dispels any eroticism and rather resonates with the truth and naivety of adolescence. Like the writers of our favourite children’s stories, Balthus seems to be a kindred spirit with his young sitters and to share an intuitive insight into their boredom and fatigue from the trials of adolescence. The compositions are relatively simple and straightforward, but unlike his contemporaries who were too busy painting dreamy idealisations of children, his approach is poignant and sensitive. He removes all extraneous objects so we can focus on his true muse: youth. 

Joseph Cornell, Juan Gris Cockatoo number 4, circa 1953

Enter Cornell’s world and you give way to magic, dreams and secrets. Somewhere among the toys, cardboard parrots, bottled rarities and photographs of ballerinas, Cornell has taken the wondrous childhood imagination and given it form. Each little crafted box looks like a condensed version of a Victorian child’s playroom with all the organised chaos of childhood activity. 

The art of collecting is something that is so much a part of the childhood experience. We all remember growing up and collecting things – stamps, Barbie dolls, coins… Joseph Cornell’s boxes re-engage with the childlike excitement expressed in gathering and assorting. Cornell never trained formally as an artist, but starting young, he began to collect things that his father had given him. His natural eye for design flourishes is evident in the meticulous arrangement of the found objects in his boxes. Their composition and positioning add importance and sentimentality to each feature. 

Louise Bourgeois, Maman, 1999

Maman is a glorious, intimidating sculpture of a giant spider by French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois. The towering, unnerving structure, whose title translates as ‘mother’ in French, is an unlikely choice perhaps, but it is an homage to the artist’s own mother who died when she was 21 years old. The creepiness is undeniable, but once you move past that, the arachnid is a powerful emblem of strength and protection. Louise Bourgeois’ entire artistic production is deeply personal and moving, with frequent references to her childhood and the bittersweet nature of being human. Standing tall at almost 9 m (30 ft), the mammoth Maman is both idol and protector, embodying both strength and fragility. Walking underneath the ominous legs and cowering within the structure’s protective lair at once returns you to your youth and that warm, comforting feeling of parental safety and home.

Yinka Shonibare MBE, Dorian Gray, 2001

In this photographic series, entitled Dorian Gray Shonibare refers to Oscar Wilde’s dark literary creation of the same name. As the story goes – a handsome young man chooses to forfeit his soul in order to remain young and beautiful, as, all the while, a hidden portrait took on all his effects of aging as well as his debauchery and vice. The series of staged film stills mimics Hogarth’s narrative works, such The Rake’s Progress (1733) which also follows a young man spiraling into a life of self-destruction. Dorian’s painting, and Yinka Shonibare’s reimagining, presents us with a ghostly figure animated by his misdemeanours. Interestingly, the solitary colour photograph from Shonibare’s series shows the artist as Dorian Gray confronting his disfigured reflection in a mirror. It is difficult not to read this as a reductive stereotype contemporary youth culture. But it also speaks to an inert desire to be young and reckless forever.

Yoshitomo Nara, Can’t Wait ‘til the Night Comes, 2012

Children: small humans with high-pitched voices and jammy hands. Cute enough, but there is an unsettling element nestled in behind the rosy cheeks of infancy and Japanese contemporary artist Yoshimoto Nara’s paintings confirm my cynicism. His seemingly innocent but defiantly dark little girls sing to this idea as he embraces the sinister side of childhood in his work. Their creepy adult stares remind me of every terrifying child from cult ‘60s sci-fi film Village of the Damned, albeit lent some kitsch by the Wes Anderson pastel colour palette.

Isolated against sickly sweet backgrounds, the darling little girls that have now become his trademark speak not only of a faux-innocence, but also capture the frustration and boredom implicit in growing up. There is a restless tension in his deadly cute depictions, as Nara sucks us into the infantile consciousness and its foreboding spiralling towards youthful rebellion and adult anxiety. In their inanimate silence, these white washed creatures present a porcelain danger that is both dastardly and dreamlike.

Ryan Trecartin, CENTER JENNY, 2013

It’s hard to surmise Ryan Trecratin’s work without sounding hopelessly overwhelmed. But that’s the point. Being a young person today is pretty overwhelming – there are way too many Instagram filters to choose from and not enough characters on Twitter to properly present our views on gender politics and performative gender (sigh). But rather than parody the trials and tribulations of the Millenial era, Trecartin presents a dark and exaggerated performance of youth culture with just a hint of Hieronymous Bosch. 

Trecartin uses widely available editing software such as iMovie (perhaps in a nod to the YouTube era) and his flickering episodic glimpses into his oversaturated world hint at horror, sci-fi and really bad sitcoms. The films feature tribes of young, sexually ambiguous cyborg chatterboxes squealing about the woes of their over-exposed, over-existence in a futuristic patois of instant-messenger banalities and nonsensical slang. The mutterings of the digital unconscious escape from the mouths of every strange painted face and house party horror, copied and pasted from some dystopian Tumblr blog. It’s a terrifying reflection of youth culture, but it is undeniably compelling (and just a teeny bit true).

REVIEW: Fiona Banner 'Wp Wp Wp' at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

“You say it like ‘wop wop wop wop wop’. It’s like the sound of a helicopter, you know?” So Fiona Banner explains her curious title of her latest exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. It does become clear; both the onomatopoeic title of the exhibition that mimics the sound of spinning helicopter blades, and its relevance to the works exhibited.

Read More

INTERVIEW: Gilbert and George (Scapegoating Pictures, White Cube Bermondsey)

‘Controversial’ is a word altogether too reserved to describe Gilbert & George’s latest output at White Cube, Bermondsey. ‘Turbulent’ is another which has lost all meaning due to its frequent association with the pair.

Read More


There was a time when taking photographs of artworks was not a social media subgenre. Louise Lawler, who came into prominence in the late 1970s, reminds us of this. 

Read More


If you're looking for great art this week, turn your back on the renovated warehouses of Hoxton and the old world modernism of the West End and head north, to a nineteenth-century converted Methodist Chapel in Kentish Town. The 

Read More