Madeline Kidd Pattern Making catalogue essay
'Seminal. The artist's evolution/ revolution' by Errol John Kidd
Madeline Kidd was halfway through working on her current exhibition, when she came upon the book, Inventing Kindergarten, by an American Norman Brosterman, which was about Friedrich Froebel, born in Oberwiessbach, Central Germany, 1782 and widely accepted to be the inventor of kindergarten.
Froebel’s seminal ideas at once resonated with her, she says, and she began to reconstruct in her mind her own experience of kindergarten, or perhaps to imagine it, for kindergarten DOES necessarily take place in those dim and deep recesses of one’s mind, doesn’t it? One is so young! ‘And,’ she says, ‘it was as though Froebel’s take on things was an explanation of my own development as an artist.’
For this is what Brosterman wrote in his book: ‘In 1805, when he was 23, Froebel had decided to be an architect and he might have become an architect of lasting interest. But he had a sudden change of heart and veered away from architecture to education at the very last moment and so he came to influence the history of architecture and all the plastic arts beyond any predictable proportion.’ He became a teacher at the Frankfurt Model School that very year and wrote in a friend's album an inscription "Thou givest man bread; let my aim be to give man himself.’
Now then. For Froebel, short segments of line and simple geometric shapes were symbolic of the building blocks of the actual universe. Thus things before words, concrete before abstract.
And kindergarten, invented no less by Froebel, was designed by Froebel to launch young souls on their lifetimes' passage of spiritual growth, which was, to him, a process seen as closer to forms before things before words.
As a teenager, Froebel recognised his own talent and facility for geometry, surveying, map drawing, and other endeavours that rely on the graphic communication of data independent of language. This emphasis on the concise visual exploration of a system's underlying structure became central to all that he attempted and achieved.
Put simply, kindergarten taught abstraction. In its explicit equivalency of ideas and things it taught abstract thinking, and in its repetitive use of geometric form it taught a new way of seeing that was utterly unfamiliar to the preceding generation.
In 1882, Marie Matrat, the Inspectrice Générale of the French national kindergarten system, or écoles maternelles, declared in exasperation:
‘Oh dear! Even the best headmistresses have visible form as their first concern! Rather than resorting to a few random exercises, which might even be called improvised, they have made THAT into the dominant portion, and the actual objects surrounding the children remain forever forgotten. In a word, these games, rather than being preparation, are the actual teaching.
Three little sticks held like a fan is a vase of flowers; a collection of triangles, laid out according to a given pattern, is a factory, a tomb, a log, the mechanism of a windmill, a hundred things the child has never seen, which he cannot represent using these trinkets, except by using fantasy. Such representation so little resembles the real object that even with the best of intentions, for me it was impossible to ever recognize the object.’
Alas, for Marie Matrat.
Frank Lloyd Wright was not only a 'kindergarten kid’ taught by his mother, who was a Froebel disciple, but one who wrote about his own childhood experiences:
‘Mother learned that Frederick Froebel taught that children should not be allowed to draw from casual appearances of Nature until they had first mastered the basic forms lying hidden behind appearances. Cosmic, geometric elements were what should first be made visible to the child-mind.’
Froebel designed physical tools for his students known as the gifts, which were the geometric ‘gifts’ used to create pictures or structures that fit loosely into each of three fundamental categories: forms of Nature (or Life), forms of Knowledge (or Science), and forms of Beauty (or Art). Unlike building blocks, or mosaic toys, or traditional crafts that were their forbears, the gifts were never available for entirely “free play.” Always tethered in some fashion to the forms of the three realms, their use was subordinate to the greater whole, which was Unity.
And Vasily Kandinsky attended one of the very first Italian kindergartens in Florence, where he was living with his parents in 1870. There he was confronted with the twenty gifts, which deliberately deconstructed nature from solid to plane to line to point and back, which does bear a decided resemblance to the components of Kandinsky’s Bauhaus paintings.
In 1889, at the age of seventeen, Piet Mondrian won his license to teach drawing in Dutch primary schools like his father before him. Pedagogical drawing for little children in Holland at that time entailed the systematic construction of increasingly complex geometric designs on right-angle grids. It was identical to the netzzeichen (net drawing) Fröbel first proposed in 1826. It was kindergarten gift number ten.
On 1 September 1891, even before his fourth birthday, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, the future Le Corbusier, began his studies in the École Particulière of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland run by one of the first graduates of the new state-mandated Neuchâtel Fröbelian Normal School, Mlle. Louise Colin. After three years in this private kindergarten, Jeanneret took the equivalency examinations that allowed him to enter the public primary school, which, as per an 1889 law, was also structured along Fröbelian lines.
And so it goes. The moving pencil having drawn moves on. Ditto, the paintbrush.
I asked Madeline Kidd, ‘Do you IMAGINE yours is the same heritage? As was Kandinsky’s and Modrian’s! That this predilection was imbedded in you, even inured in you, from kindergarten?’ She hesitated, then looked sideways and said, ‘I imagine it was.'
‘Oh? But your earlier exhibitions . . .’ I said, ‘were they not in the genre of realism?
‘Oh, certainly,’ she answered. ‘I had grown away from kindergarten. And I experimented in various genres.’
She thinks this present exhibition is a seminal exhibition. I wondered. Had not a number of her exhibitions preceding this one been similar in genre? So they also would reflect her use of the gifts, demonstrating a reliance on the use of the concrete? Referencing the point, the line, the form, the shape, which together constitute the abstract? And is it not noticeable that in her previous 5 or 6 or 7 exhibitions she had broadened her art to include 3 dimensional works, which seemingly drew the line from Froebel and Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier? So, I wondered: how can this exhibition, after those ones, be seminal?’
She said, ‘Why must you weary me with your questions? Now I am busy seeing in a blinding flash, kindergarten, the garden of children.’
- Errol John Kidd, 2017