Childish Things: How Childhood Memories Shape Art

Regine Debatty/Flickr
Regine Debatty/Flickr
Photo of Christopher Little
24 April 2017

Childish Things, a new exhibition at Bond Street’s Skarstedt Gallery, features childhood-inspired works by iconic artists Vija Celmins, Robert Gober and Mike Kelley, inviting viewers to engage with the personal and often repressed memories of their younger years. A collection of keepsakes and domestic objects driven with emotional and physical significance draw attention to how earlier life can shape both personal and artistic development. In light of this thought, here are a few examples of how upbringing influenced the works of some of the world’s most creative minds.

Andy Warhol, Untitled from Marilyn Monroe, 1967 – Ian Burt/Flickr

Andy Warhol

Warhol was born in Pittsburgh, U.S. in 1928 to Czechoslovakian parents and grew up with two older brothers. In the third grade he developed Sydenham’s Chorea, a nervous disorder causing involuntary body movements. Eventually he became a hypochondriac, leading to a fear of hospitals and doctors. He was outcasted from school peers and found himself in frequent isolation due to his bedridden condition. When confined to his bedroom he would listen to the radio, make drawings and collect pictures of movie stars which he stuck around his bed. It was in this period he also formed a tight bond with his mother, an avid arts and crafts maker who encouraged his creativity. He later credited these times as pivotal in developing his artistic style and the obsession with celebrity culture which made him into the iconic success we know today.

Francis Bacon, Head III, 1961 – Libby Rosof/Flickr

Francis Bacon

Francis was born in Dublin, 1909, to parents of English descent. His father served in the army which naturally introduced him to the concept of danger from an early age and his mother was a socialite, meaning Francis and his two brothers and sisters were often left to their own devices. They were raised by a family nanny who eventually became a mother figure to Francis. The family would frequently relocate between England and Ireland, leading to a feeling of displacement. As time passed by his homosexuality became more apparent and he was eventually thrown out of the family home after his father discovered him dressing in his mother’s clothing. In an interview with art critic David Sylvester, Bacon admitted his turbulent upbringing had contributed to the connotations of violence that we see throughout his work.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant, 1613 – 14 Laurom/WikiCommons

Artemisia Gentileschi

Gentileschi was born in Rome, Italy in 1593, as the eldest child of Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi. Her father gave her painting lessons in his workshop alongside her brothers. Her artistic ability exceeded that of her siblings, but despite this, she was rejected from various art academies due to her gender. When Artemisia was 12 her mother passed away leaving her surrounded by a male presence for the duration of her later childhood. At 17 years of age her father hired renowned painter Agostino Tassi to offer private lessons. During a session, Tassi raped Gentileschi and sexual relations were made to continue with the assumption they would marry. When Tassi did not stay true to his word, a trial ordered him to one year’s imprisonment, for which the time was never served. The trial and her childhood were believed to have had a profound effect on her paintings. They show cathartic depictions of women’s suffering, a sense of unity between female figures and signs of seventeenth-century feminism.

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893 – Bibiblio/WikiCommons

Edvard Munch

Born in Loten, Norway in 1863, Munch had two sisters and a brother. His mother died of tuberculosis in 1868. Within a decade his sister Sophie died of the same cause and a further sister became mentally ill. Due to his father’s career as a military physician, the family moved regularly and were often in a state of near-poverty. His father would regularly read him the ghost stories of Edgar Allan Poe along with history and religious lessons which contributed to Munch’s anxiety and fascination with death. Edvard’s father held strong religious views. Talking about the effect this had on him, Munch later stated: ‘My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious to the point of psychoneurosis. From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.’These macabre feelings are expressed throughout Munch’s work, most famously in ‘The Scream.’

Remedios Varo, Taxi acuático, 1962 – La Tête Krançien/Flickr

Remedios Varo

Various works of Mike Kelley
Various works of Mike Kelley | © Regine Debatty/Flickr
Remedios Varo was born in Girona, Spain in 1908. Her father worked in construction and would often bring home blueprints for her to copy. The family travelled regularly to Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. Varo would keep herself occupied during these long trips by drawing the blueprints, which were believed to influence the mechanical nature of her later works. After much travel, Varo’s family settled in Madrid when she was eight. The displacement felt on these childhood journeys has often been depicted in works where she characterizes a traveller. Her father also encouraged her to be an independent thinker, frequently bringing her books of science, fiction, philosophy and even mystical literature. Mysticism in particular had been a strong influence throughout her life’s work. Her mother, a devout Catholic, insisted Varo attend a convent school. However, this caused Varo to reject religion and its ideology, and lean further toward the universalist and liberal ideals introduced to her by her father which continued to shape her artistic future.

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