Creativity and imagination have always been considered the special province of children. Because they are so eager to grasp the delights of the visual world, it shouldn't be difficult to teach them to appreciate art.
"Just Look," by Robert Cumming, and "Creatures of Paradise," by Bryan Holme, both try to introduce these young readers to the masterpieces of the ages. Neither book includes a basic history of art or an explanation of schools of painting. Instead, cubist works may occupy the same page as romantic landscapes. Although this approach can confuse -- or frustrate -- a child who would like to know how the realistic styles of an earlier era were replaced by abstract images, it is visually successful. The potpourri of reproductions presents different challenges to the viewer and shows the wide range of approaches developed by working artists.
"Just Look," as its title implies, attempts to teach the child how to see a painting so that he grasps the artist's method and meaning. Geared to an elmentary school audience, the book explains such technical subjects as light, color, and composition. Questions about these techniques -- whose answers can be looked up in the back of the book -- give "Just Look" a playful, "test yourself" appeal. Mr. Cumming, however, concentrates so heavily on artists' methods that he neglects the richness of the subject matter. For instance, Paul Delaroche's "The Execution of Lady Jane Grey" is shown as an example of "spotlight" effect, with no mention of the drama -- and horror -- of the recorded moment.
Bryan Holme takes a different view, devoting "Creatures of Paradise" to pleasant depictions of the animal kingdom: "'Animals painted in savage chase, butchered agony,' as John Ruskin put it, would be out of place in a book subject matter is clearly the focus; Holme provides an ample caption for each work of art (artifacts and sculpture are included as well as painting), and intersperses quotes from artists and writers with the commentary. These, plus biographical details and historic points, give "Creatures of Paradise" an enjoyable, anecdotal quality. Holme's interpretations of the expressions of the animals portrayed also reveal the artists' intent far more than a discussion of technique. Unfortunately, though, some of the book's finest reproductions are in black and white -- limiting their impact.
Despite these shortcomings, "Just Look" and "Creatures of Paradise" perform a valuable service: They give a tempting glimpse of museum treasures. Hopefully, most young readers will want to take the next step: to see for themselves.