‘You are supposed to be seen, not heard’, these are words that may be familiar to some of us from childhood but in this short sentence we do not get to hear the story of young person. Crawford Art Gallery recognised this phenomenon in history and have opened an exhibit entitled ‘Seen, Not Heard’. It runs from 28th June – 28th October and includes some Irish artists like Louis LeBrocquy and Robert Ballagh.
The phrase ‘you should be seen and not heard’ originates in religious culture in the 15th century. This exhibit shows how prevalent that culture was through the centuries but also how much has changed right up to the present day. Once you walk into the exhibit writing on the wall greets you explaining the exhibits’ inspiration. It iterates that it aims to spark a conversation about what being a child is like today in Ireland and look at why the representation of children has become an important matter in art. Walking around the exhibit for the first time I start to understand why this is such an evocative question in culture today.
Hughes De Beaumont shows two instances simultaneously in his painting ‘The Visit of The Poor Relations’ which is displayed here. It is an intriguing painting because the child’s expression could show either fear or boredom, it is up to the viewer to decide which one is appropriate. This painting serves the purpose of taking you back to your own childhood and flashes memories of meeting older relatives who you may have known by name but never known their care and warmth like memories of closer relations that you had built relationships with by spending time with them.
A painting that will send shivers down your spine is Robert Ballagh’s portrait of ‘Rachel as Marilyn’ which depicts a young child as the sex symbol the whole world knows at a glance. The controversial nature of this painting shows a young girl donning the makeup of Marilyn and in effect it makes us associate Marilyn’s life with this innocent child. Painted in 1974, it could suggest that society was asking children to grow up too fast and exposed them to concepts in the world that they were not prepared for and there was a value in simply letting children be children for the short years that they had available. As I walked around the gallery and mused over that idea I wondered if forty-five years later in 2019 society was still asking children to grow up to quickly.
While this exhibit does illustrate children acting under the watchful phrase ‘seen, not heard’ ‘News From America’ by James Brennan represents the ultimate powershift in societal roles. Set in 19th Century Ireland, the adults in the painting are visibly silent and listening attentively to the young girl reading a letter aloud that was sent from America. The girl is a symbol of the spread of education in Ireland during the mid-nineteenth century and the establishment of the Government National School system, signed into law in 1831. While this gives the child a voice by forming words through another’s writing it also shows that the adults in her midst are illiterate and depend on their daughter to read for them. Even though the child is reading on behalf of another it represents a philosophy that an increase in education can help give children a louder voice in society. This is a phenomenon we can see in the world today within political movements across the globe which indicates it something that continues to be a part of society today.
Seen, Not Heard does a superb job of highlighting problems about how childhood is placed within society in both the past and the present day. It leaves you with something to think about as you leave the exhibit and explore the upper floor where you can unlearn the adult norms that have been drilled in so deep over many years. A quote that I had seen on the walls in the exhibit came to mind, “All grown-ups were children but only very few of them remember it” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince. This space gives you a chance to express creativity with the freedom that it deserves so the world can once again become your oyster, starting from one building in Cork.