War and Remembrance: Children Draw the Battle Zone


You might well wonder why artworks documenting the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) compose the bulk of this exhibit of children’s art from war zones. One reason is that they’re plentiful and remarkably well preserved. Spain’s republican government housed, fed, and schooled over 200,000 refugee children while fighting Franco, soliciting in the process thousands of therapeutic, autobiographical drawings. Secondly, curators Anthony L. Geist and Peter N. Carroll contextualize all subsequent juvenile visions of war by centering on the graphics produced by children in the first nation “to experience the horrors of modern mechanized warfare directed systematically at a civilian population.”

These images—thoughtfully etched in pen, pencil, crayon, and watercolor by kids aged six to 16—were often simple yet no longer naive or “innocent.” Use of color and perspective varied wildly depending upon the message each artist strove to convey. The aggressive clarity with which an Israeli child fills all available space with a black gas mask, or a Spanish Civil War orphan makes the last rooftop of a detailed row of urban structures explode in smoke and debris under tiny black planes dotting an otherwise innocuous blue sky, suggests not only the banality of terror, but the frightening ease of a child’s acceptance of routine evils.

Illustrated collisions between soldiers and civilians in modern Burma (Myanmar), Croatia, Sri Lanka, and Palestine hang together toward the back of the gallery like freshly rendered parallels to adjacent atrocities painted 50 years earlier. The most instructive juxtaposition comes near the exit to the show when happy, bucolic episodes of work and play in Spanish republican escuelas give way to sketches of claustrophobic bunk beds inside Nazi internment camps and the grim, desolate barracks of post-Pearl Harbor Japanese American detention centers. In young refugee eyes, all are complicit, and no one is safe.