Can Four-Year-Olds Really Draw Better Than Famous Artists?

We challenged some children to recreate the "Greats," then got an art critic to review their work.

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Aug 30 2017, 3:54pm

Criticizing art is easy; certainly easier than making it. "It's just all shit, isn't it?" you say, five minutes and $20 into the Tate Modern Art Museum. "Just absolute shit. What's that supposed to mean? Some novice has just splatted paint all over the place and called it 'art'? Bullshit. My four-year-old niece could do a better job than that."

But could she?

We wanted to put that famous criticism of modern art—that a child could do a better job—to the test, so we asked some children to copy some famous artworks, then got our friend and art critic, Sarah Thacker, to review their versions.

Piet Mondrian, by four-year-old Aiden
Source material: Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Grey and Blue, 1921

"This is somewhat of a free interpretation of a Mondrian, perhaps using Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray, and Blue (1921) as source material, but some of your acts are so deviant it's hard to be sure. Indeed, according to the principles of his Neo-Plasticism, Piet Mondrian strictly employed only primary colors (thus "pure," unmixed) regulated by grids of horizontal and vertical lines, though these were never symmetrical compositions. With this simple language, Mondrian aimed to achieve something of a spiritual equilibrium with the arrangement of elements on the canvas, influenced by the mysticism of Theosophy, which pursued universal order.

"Considering this, your composition—with its bowed lines and mixed palette (though, at least you only use blue and red to make a purple wash, rather than green, a color utterly deplored by Mondrian)—would be blasphemous to the De Stijl master. And yet, in its own right, Aiden, your work has an absentminded charm, less pretentious and altogether more human than Mondrian's."

Paul Klee, by three-year-old Cleo
Source material: Senecio, 1922


"Paul Klee famously was interested in 'taking a line for a walk,' lauding the forms he found in its wanderings. However, in Senecio (1922), which translates from Latin as 'Old Man,' he fashioned a face with geometric elements—a triangle for a raised eyebrow, a neck composed of squares. This gives a certain balance and calm to the work, despite the asymmetry of the eyes and the cheek of the raised brow.

"I raise a brow at your work, Cleo, the line overtly gestural and guttural. Though the vertical line has been acknowledged, some nod to the grid of the face, it is an altogether more 'loose' translation of the work, impressionistically rough, though not without character. Indeed, with such luminous color, you've breathed new life into this old man."

Mark Rothko, by three-year-old Nora
Source material: White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), 1950


"Mark Rothko is famed for his brooding, vertically aligned rectangular 'floating' forms. The artist declared that 'I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers... They are organisms with volition and a passion for self-assertion.' Furthermore, he thought 'sensuality' as 'the basis of being concrete about the world' and 'tension' as 'curbed desire.' As such, the juxtaposed severity (of design) and sensuousness (of color) in White Center (1950) creates a dialectic of dramatic emotions.

"Yet, in your work, Nora, there is desire unbound: Your hand, rather than the shapes, has too much self-assertion; the shapes here are nothing but swathes and formless scrawls. Nonetheless, you've captured the prismatic palette of the Rothko, though rather than the depth and intensity of his painterly rumination, you've created something like the luscious, liquid femininity of his contemporary Helen Frankenthaler."

Joan Miro, by five-year-old India
Source material: Le sourire des ailes flamboyantes (The Smile of the Flamboyant Wings), 1953


"The Smile of the Flamboyant Wings (1953) typifies the cheer of Joan Miro's sinuous Surrealism. It is this delicate line that is lost in your translation of the Wings, the thick brush stroke altogether weighing down the buoyancy of the composition. However, India, you have quite accurately rendered the visual elements of the work and their arrangement in space—for instance, the small daub of yellow on the figure's shoulder. Yet, what is lacking in your work is the gray ground which helps the colors, particularly the red, radiate out of the canvas. This gray also tempers, in the Miro, the blue elements, whereas, against the white, in your work, the blue becomes a central actor, particularly in the figure of the enlarged star. And, indeed, you have made the star a figure—arms outstretched as if to greet an old friend with a smile."

Jackson Pollock, by six-year-old Bronwen
Source material: Convergence, 1952

"Monumental in scale (237.49 x 393.7 cm), Convergence (1952) is an archetypal drip work by Jackson Pollock, in which he poured and applied (with sticks and basting syringes) the paint from above, circling around the canvas, which he grandiosely nicknamed 'the arena.' It appears, Bronwen, that you have been faithful to Pollock's working methods in your application of the black abstract patterns first, though, unlike Pollock, resorted to the use of a brush, the sweeps reminding the audience of your hand, an assertion of authorship, rather than Pollock's more detached methods which give a greater feeling of chance and control at play.

"Also, your use of paper, instead of unprimed beige canvas, gives the work an altogether different feel: Your paint pools loom on the brassy white surface, eliding the saturated, velvet elements of Pollock's composition. Lacking the detritus of everyday life (Convergence notoriously has a small match embedded in its layers), your work seems somewhat more clean-cut than Pollock's, though there's something special in the intimacy of the smaller scale."

Dora Maar, by eight-year-old Eleri
Source material: Portrait de Pablo Picasso, 1936

"In recent years, there has been some effort to rehabilitate Dora Maar from the status of mere muse to Picasso and the Surrealist group. Maar had trained as a painter, but, doubtful of her abilities (likely exasperated in her position as lover to the bullish master), largely ceased painting while with the group, instead producing a small but delightfully unsettling series of hallucinatory photographs.

"In your interpretation of Portrait de Pablo Picasso, a rare painting from the period, you have brilliantly staged some of the psychological drama of Maar's employment of Picasso's Cubist visual language, which, it is said by some sources, was forced upon her. There is a mournful nervousness in your lines, evidently composed of short, apprehensive dashes that undermine the notoriously confident sweeps of Picasso's oeuvre. Indeed, your straightening of some of the figure's curves—for instance, of the sitter's cheekbone—seems to evince Maar's straight jacket fate, for a while confined to a psychiatric hospital, after the couple split. As such, this is a beautifully poignant homage to Maar, Eleri, in a muted, elegiac palette."

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