Art historians tell us what we are looking at. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it, not many among us having much idea how to read the images we crowd into galleries to see. Hence Simon Schama is welcomed into our living rooms on a Friday night to explain patiently that the man on the canvas with his eyes rolling, his body writhing, and his features contorted into the form of a Hallowe’en mask is in fact in pain, while the woman depicted plunging a dagger into the naked body lying on the bed is feeling angry. As though he were taking a child through the pages of a picture book, Schama confirms that the mysteries of the world lie in the visible and not the invisible. We spend so long believing that we need to look beneath the surface of a picture for its ‘meaning’ that we miss seeing the picture altogether.
In Imagining Childhood, Erika Langmuir takes us through a plethora of Western paintings and artefacts, both in and out of galleries, and explains that they are to do with how we have seen children and childhood since antiquity: