Dads and Art: some emotional landscape painting


And When Did You Last See Your Father?

Fictional child is called upon to display courage, loyalty and maybe moral leadership as a Puritan Government official questions him about his father, whom Cromwell’s officers are pursuing. Family watch anxiously from the left of the picture, while on right, the table, the gentlemen facing back into the room, the wall behind them all put a stop to the narrative continuing. The young boy is at the extreme of the crisis, facing stern authority without his dad. The tearful big sister is going to be next, and the hand of the soldier on her back suggests she is being pushed forward: all rests on the boy.

And yet the father is present, in a way: the firm gaze of the boy confronting his inquisitor, his hands behind his back. He has learned what it is to stand firm.

The awkward irony of this post is that the dads I will be discussing are very much in evidence, and the children are not the immaculately turned-out boy in pale sky blue (or indeed the tearful girl who we might assume to be his [?older] sister), but the children at the heart of the swirling emotions of books by Anthony Browne and Ian Eagleton/Jessica Knight. And they are not firm of purpose, but children in flux. I contend that both families are labile, and face challenges just as the wrong-but-romantic Cavalier family I started with. But while the when-did-you-last-see-your-father brigade propose an image of weak and tearful females as opposed to the firm chin and still form of the boy, the boys and men I want to discuss are survivors becaue of their openness to change.

There is a tangible absence in Ian Eagleton and Jessica Knight’s story of little Rory; his dad has moved out (or mum has moved out), and Rory, his lookalike son, lives with mum and mum’s new boyfriend, Tony. Rory misses his dad, although they meet up for an archetypical Saturdads time together in the park. In Rory’s Room of Rectangles Tony, nervous of the responsibility, takes Rory to an art gallery. They don’t see And When Did You Last See Your Father? or Käthe Kollwitz‘s unbending, grieving Father (I’m rather glad to say) but rooms of art which nevertheless challenge and move the little boy. They find nightmarish pictures, shimmering shapes and bright, loud, fierce art before coming to Tony’s favourite room. Tony is clearly not just joining in with Rory’s delight in painting: he gives something of himself in the room full of vibrant blues. This self-disclosure is key to the narrative: Tony is giving up something here. This is a risky day for all of them.

There is an unwelcome presence (as I see it) in Anthony Browne’s story where the dad – who uncomfortably dominated his family’s trip to the Zoo – similarly tries to assert himself in the hallowed halls of a London art gallery. In The Shape Game, his being there does not make for an easy read. Boorish, ill-at-ease when he is not the centre of attention, Browne seems to me to have created a figure of whom every dad reading the book would ask, anxiously, “Is this me?”

In Rory’s case he does find something new about his dad (does he, in a sense, rediscover his father?) and Tony’s sensitivity hints at a healthy relationship beginning here. What transformations of a father do we see in Anthony Browne’s Dad figure in The Shapes Game?

Here they are at the start of the book: dull tones, and a heavy border indicate a sense of entrapment. Maybe even Mum, leading the way for her birthday treat, senses it, with her three males slouching behind her.

This is not the footie match Dad and older brother are missing: there is little sense that today will be even mildly pleasant, let alone transformative.

Someone is going to have to give something up if today is going to be worth anything.

If he is confronted with motives to change, it is the art he encounters which forces Dad to become more open.

So here they are at the end of their visit. There is no frame to suggest they are trapped; the architecture across the river is transformed; the sky has a cloud-dove (a dove of peace?); Mum and Dad are walking together and the graffiti hints at the eponymous Shape Game the boys will play on the way home. The experience of the gallery has changed them all – and the autobiographical note at the beginning suggests it was this trip to the art gallery “that changed my life forever.” Mum had wanted to go “somewhere different,” and this has a deeper significance than simply a different physical location: the family are moving into a different place, and even home will be different.

Rory, in the Eagleton/Knight story experiences a transformation. But, like the family in Browne’s trip to the art gallery, is it only the little boy? Under Tony’s guidance Rory moves from room to room in the gallery, seeking something in all these forms of art to help him make sense, but outside is were he meets his father again. We get a hint that maybe he is on his mum’s boyfriend’s territory – or at least their common ground – with art, but the adult reader will maybe supply the conversations about how the three adults – mum, mum’s boyfriend, and dad – see Rory’s problems and propose a solution. In other words (to make the comparison between the two books), Dad and the boys in The Shape Game change by exposure to the art they encounter, whereas Rory comes to terms with his emotions in the gallery, while his three parenting figures have transformed their relationship “off-stage.”

What has changed?

Rory’s loyalty to his dad remains unshaken: he is, in this, like the boy who begins this blog post for us. But he has undergone something in the art gallery – and in the rage before it, and the reconciliation that follows it.As two American authors have put it* they – the males in both stories – are seen “developing and reclaiming their own fundamental human capacities.” It was in all four characters confronting their discomfort that they, like Anthony Browne’s family, move to “somewhere different.”

*Di Bianca, M. and Mahalik, J.R. (2022) ‘A relational-cultural framework for promoting healthy masculinities’, American Psychologist, 77(3), pp. 321–332

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