How to explain pictures to a toddler

In 1965, the legendary German performance artist Joseph Beuys tenderly cradled a dead hare in his arms, whispering to it in a mysterious and inaudible language.

In this ritualistic performance, How to explain pictures to a dead hare, Beuys alternately tap-tap-taps the floor with a cane, or sits completely motionless, one finger held aloft as if transmitting the universe’s tightly-held secrets.

It is Beuys and the hare and the audience and…silence…minutes and minutes of unadulterated, ritualistic focus.

This is why I love looking at art. For a few moments everything that is busy or painful or complicated drops away.

It is just the moment, the colours, the light, the silence.

Enter my nineteen-month-old, stage left.

Art and toddlers don’t mix well I discovered today during an excursion to the National Gallery, where I saw less art than had I just stayed in our hotel’s bathroom.

This is a ridiculously obvious understatement, I am aware. A toddler and a sacred 12th century statue of Nandi go together just about as comfortably as a chimp with a blow torch.

You’d think I’d have realised this by now.

But alas, nay!

The thing that is different to the last time we went to see some art is: now she can WALK!


And do her best horsey impression: “Neeeeiiigggghhhhhhhh!!” when she spies Ned Kelly’s horse in one of Sidney Nolan’s famous paintings.

And shriek “Wowowowowowow!!” as she hurtles toward the display of Indigenous bark coffins.

And play peek-a-boo behind the Buddha in the Asian wing.


I am so proud.

But also: looking at art isn’t the same anymore.

Don’t get me wrong.

I’m all for introducing babies to art at the embryonic stage, while the galleries certainly welcome us with arms wide open in the name of “Kids Programming”. (Who are they trying to kid? I saw that security guard with a lasso behind her back).

The problem is fairly and squarely me.

I’m used to the absolute pleasure, freedom – and now, luxury – of looking at art on my own.

This morning I take Magoo to see James Turrell’s Within without. This used to be one of my favourite works at the gallery, a monumental dome set outside amongst an elemental landscape of grass, slate and water.

A plaza of stone and grass slopes down toward an outer structure that encircles the dome. Once inside this you are led gently up a winding slope alongside a pool of gently running water.

You find yourself absolutely in the moment: the water, the sound, the sky, your steps. Blue, grey, brown, green.

Now all I see is the water and the danger.

The gaps between the walkway and the water / Magoo falling into the gaps between the walkway and the water / Magoo getting wet / Magoo getting pneumonia because it’s 3C outside.

I see obstacles, inconveniences, work, the stuff that art doesn’t care about.

And then, this evening, Magoo surprises me as usual.

“Imadeamess” she parrots me, after flinging her dinner on the floor for the umpteenth time.

Yes, you did make a mess my darling.

And there’s very little silence anymore. And not much room for contemplation.

But you also make me see new things every day.



3 responses to “How to explain pictures to a toddler

    • I’m so sorry for the late reply Bronwyn (my WordPress comment thingy must’ve been on the blink). Ah yes, the many observations that come daily…and all too fleetingly.

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