Is modern art too abstract and complex for children to understand? This seems to be the assumption of many primary school teachers, according to research which challenges the idea that realism in art is "concrete" and so simpler and more appropriate for young minds.
Jean Gilbert of Liverpool University has worked with children of different ages to discover whether it is really easier for them to work within the literal artistic framework devised in the 15th century.
Her task was to introduce children to early modern ideas inspired by Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso and others, encouraging them to work with what is known or conceptual rather than merely what is seen.
Ms Gilbert acknowledges that the work of many contemporary artists is difficult to conceptualise in its own time. But she believes that the work of the early modernists is now well documented. "The question is whether young children could analyse aspects of the figure realistically, expressively and in a cubist manner, and could this research show a similar approach to the teaching of art to that of mathematics?" she said.
The research was carried out in two contrasting places: inner-city Toxteth with two classes of five and 11-year-olds and in a leafy suburban setting in Cheshire with one class of seven to eight-year-olds. Ms Gilbert devised an eight-week programme of work designed around the figure for the sample of 70 children.
"I wanted to prove what I had suspected for some time," she says. "What I found in general was that the children had no trouble in understanding these concepts once they had been explained to them."
Three concepts were examined with the groups: realism; Matisse's early expressionism known as Fauvism; and Picasso's analytical cubism. The lessons began with a 15-minute session to help the children look at and discuss the art. "When the children did not have a word they simply used body language to describe what they saw," Ms Gilbert said. "The five-year-olds enjoyed the story of art and they readily found a language to describe realism, Cezanne's and Picasso's work. They had no problem grouping 20 postcards in the right sets." The class teacher commented at the end of the day: "I can't believe the language they are using, the ideas they have understood. I can hardly recognise them."
Ms Gilbert said working chronologically helped the children identify how different styles had developed. If they were to understand modernism they needed to know about earlier traditions that modern artists were reacting against.
The children were assessed through various methods. Their conversations were monitored alongside their attitudes, problem-solving responses and skill development. Most importantly, the children's art work revealed much of their skill development and the depth of their knowledge and understanding of the intellectual concepts.
Ms Gilbert had already noted in her work conducting in-service education for teachers that a common assumption was that individual children were either imaginative or not. But this was not the case once they had been exposed to a broader range of ideas. "I took some of the children to the Tate Gallery and watched them intellectualise about the images," she says.
She now hopes further research can be done to establish whether art taught in this way influences children's developmental learning in other subjects.