Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  

back to school to forget it all

by Alan Moore  

Inventing Kindergarten

Friedrich Froebel,

The First Gift,
c. 1898

The Second Gift,

Top: Peas Work,
c. 1860

Bottom: The Cork
Model Maker,
c. 1855

Abbie A. Herrick
Beauty form made with
the 12th gift,

Piet Mondrian
Composition 10 in
Black and White
(Pier and Ocean)

Paul Klee
Suspended Fruit
c. 1921

Irma H. Crawford
Beauty form made
with the 7th gift
(paper parquetry)

"House" made with
the sixth gift,

Frank Lloyd Wright
Frederick C. Robie House
   Norman Brosterman, Inventing Kindergarten, Abrams, 1997, 160 pp., $39.95. Photographs by Kiyoshi Togashi.

Could it be that the pioneers of modernism learned abstraction as children? Did artists and architects like Mondrian, Klee, Braque, Itten and Wright actually learn their radical art in 19th-century kindergartens, playing with blocks and atavistic Tinker Toys? Author Norman Brosterman thinks so, calling kindergarten "the seed pearl of the modern era." This remarkable thesis seems feasible, especially from our Postmodernist perspective, where the boundaries between high and low culture seem so porous.

An avid flea marketeer and antique hunter, Brosterman sold his peerless collection of early building toys -- some 300 examples of blocks, erector sets and the like -- to Montreal's new Canadian Centre for Architecture in 1989. Two years later he curated its exhibition of the material, titled "Potential Architecture." Out of all this grew a second research, resulting in this lavishly illustrated book. Inventing Kindergarten combines a fascinating history of early education with a catalogue of a new kind of collectible, the 19th-century learning toys -- blocks, balls on strings, modeling clay, strips of paper for weaving and the like -- that made kindergarten the playful undertaking that it still is today.

As Brosterman details, kindergarten was invented by a German crystallographer and educator named Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852), who opened his first school for young children in Germany in 1837. Prior to that, Brosterman reports, "there was no prescribed early education whatsoever." Froebel devised a program of educational exercises that harnessed children's urge to play, directing it into a "radical and highly spiritual system of abstract-design activities" intended to teach them to recognize and appreciate "natural harmony."

The first of Froebel's 20 learning toys, or "gifts" as he called them, was a set of crocheted wool balls. The second gift was a sphere, cylinder and cube made of maple or beech. Other gifts included various sets of wood blocks, parquetry kits, drawing, pricking, sewing, weaving, folding, modeling clay and "peas work," an early type of construction toy made of softened peas and toothpicks. (The commerical Tinker Toys were derived from peas work.)

Froebel described his system as "the free republic of childhood." Fretful autocrats in Prussia banned kindergartens in 1851, but the system was better received in western Europe and very popular in the United States. The goal of Froebel's system was "perfecting a feeling of unity between the child and God," a feeling manifested in nature as principles of unity. Froebel modeled his curriculum on the trust between mother and child at a time when most instructors were men. His teachers were women, and his system appealed to feminists.

Play with Froebel's "gifts" taught children the unity of all, material, conceptual and spiritual -- nature, knowledge and beauty. Froebel wrote of his first "gift," the emblematic sphere, cylinder and cube on strings: "As the cylinder is contained in the cube and the ball in the cylinder, so all consequences lie dormant in their antecedents. Thus great truths enveloped in simple figures are presented." Froebel's pre-Darwinian idealist conceptions dovetail nicely with the metaphysical and spiritualist ambitions of modernist geometric abstraction.

As kindergarten children in the pure Froebelian system worked their way through the gifts, they played with building blocks on communal tables scored with grids. The gridded tables "orthogonalized or, simply speaking 'squared' everything [the children] saw and did, all of these tiny blank slates, eager to absorb what their elders saw fit to pass before their eyes and into their hands -- experienced the (il)logic of fragmentation and the language of geometric abstraction before they had learned to read."

Brosterman begins his book with an account of the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, where Frank Lloyd Wright's mother discovers a Froebel learning toy -- maple blocks, "the sense of which never afterward leaves the fingers," as the architect later wrote, "so form became feeling." "It is haunting," Brosterman writes, "to imagine the young Wright, seated at a kindergarten table in Boston in the 1870s, using the gifts to build miniature structures -- [like] his mature work to come -- grid-based, rotationally derived, and generated by the systematic juxtaposition of simple triangular and orthogonal units on a modular field."

Just as haunting perhaps as watching the young Napoleon win a snowball fight in Abel Gance's film....

What is unusual in Brosterman's formulation is the connection he draws between Froebel's idealist philosophy of education, highly abstract and conceptual, and the equally utopian art of the early 20th century. In this regard, Inventing Kindergarten complements Jonathan Fineberg's Im Auge des Kindes (1996), a book that examines the use of children's art as a model by early modernists, most of them Expressionists. Fineberg treads a more beaten path, the art historical analysis of "primitivism." Brosterman's history lies in the fissure of disciplinary separation between haughty art history and hard-working art education. This is dim territory, but it is vast.

Brosterman boldly links culture with nurture, rather than with tradition and contemporary circumstances. In insisting on the primacy of childhood experience in the formation of modernist art, Brosterman commits himself to writing psycho-history. Mondrian's "exposure to Cubism was sure to have resonated memories and visual harmonies that were powerfully implanted within him" by kindergarten training. Here the author suggests a creative process of regression towards the abstract, and the recovery of a pictorial system as if it were unconsciously retained.

In her classic essay Grids, Rosalind Krauss argues that the use of the grid by 20th-century artists is an attempt to avoid choosing between the sacred and the secular. The grid connotes materialism, or logic, "while at the same time it provides us with a release into belief (or illusion, or fiction)." The grid is a structure "that allows a contradiction between the values of science and those of spiritualism to maintain themselves within the consciousness of modernism, or rather its unconscious, as something repressed -- it is fully, even cheerfully, schizophrenic."

Both authors are working the same territory. But Krauss's "psycho-history" is mandarin academics, informed by Surrealism and classic iconographic symbology. Her assaying of the psychology of modernist pictorial structure is a job of speculation, a work of philosophy, not history. Krauss remains always conscious of the tenuous nature of the explanatory model. Of course, she lacks Brosterman's data.

In his "biographical archeology," Brosterman uses cultural geography in place of missing childhood biographies. He then assumes that modernist artists discovered their mature art by tracking back to the Froebelian experience of abstraction "imprinted" upon them at an early age. This is not, historically speaking, solid ground. Artists do not proceed unconsciously (unless it be deliberate), all unaware of the structural bases of their artwork.

To speak broadly of the hidden influence of Froebel gifts in later life, one might look less to the artists and more to the audience for modernism, at the popular presentation of new art, and ask -- did Froebelian education prepare the way for the work of modernists?

By pointing at how an excited author in the grip of his thesis overreached himself I do not mean to encourage rejection of Inventing Kindergarten. That simply continues the vigorous separation of advanced art practice from comprehension by a mass public, and gardens art by hacking at the roots of expression explored in early childhood education. Brosterman's book is true to modernism, whose avatars sought the comprehensive reform of visual culture and education, and the establishment of the modern view in place of the Beaux Arts academy. The relation between emergent modernism and art education was direct and continuous, if little attended by historians today.

To imagine the cultures of our recent past as moments within which the continuum between childhood learning and adulthood creativity was clearly envisaged seems laborious. Somehow it insults the contemporary autonomy of the artist's practice, an avant-garde rooted in criticality, embodied for the mass not by the figure of the child but the adolescent. If as Brosterman contends Froebel's comprehensive conceptual system laid the groundwork for the intellectual and artistic achievements of the 20th century, we should naturally wonder what is being prepared by early childhood teaching today.

ALAN MOORE is a New York critic and art historian.