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Heartbreaking 'Childhood Torments' At Wadsworth Atheneum

Angry, heartbreaking, even funny describes 'The End of Innocence' at Wadsworth Atheneum:

The new exhibit at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford is called "The End of Innocence: Childhood Torments in the Contemporary Art Collection." With a title like that, visitors know going in that some of the artwork will break their hearts.

And they do.

Some of the pieces in the exhibit are funny and some are angry. Some are creepy and some are difficult to comprehend. It's the sad stories that stay in the mind. As a quote on the wall by playwright Ken Hill reflects, "Childhood is a promise that is never kept."

The most poignant artwork in the installation is "Untitled (one day this kid ... )," an autobiographical work by David Wojnarowicz. The artist placed an elementary-school photo of himself in the center of a block of text, which points to a frightening future for the boy. "One day this kid will talk. When he begins to talk, men who develop a fear of this kid will attempt to silence him with strangling, fists, prison, suffocation, rape, intimidation, drugging, ropes, guns, laws, menace, roving gangs, bottles, knives, religion, decapitation and immolation by fire." The long narrative concludes "All this will begin to happen in one or two years when he discovers he desires to place his naked body on the naked body of another boy."

Another poignant image is "Surrounded!!!" created by Cady Noland. The silk screen ink-on-steel work recreates a journalist's photo of two of Charles Manson's young female followers, Ruth Ann Moorehouse and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme. The pretty young women smile at the camera, seemingly oblivious that they are devoted to someone who has destroyed many lives, including their own.

An oil on canvas by Ida Applebroog, "I've Chosen Cyanide," recalls a 1984 incident at Brown University when students rallied for the campus health centers to stock suicide pills in the event of a nuclear war. A photograph by Collier Schorr shows a painfully young German man in a military uniform, a commentary on how the Hitler Youth movement indoctrinated Germany's youngest citizens.

Patricia Hickson, the curator of the show, said that many works in the collection take on the topic of childhood trauma. "Not all of the work is about traumatic childhood experience," Hickson said. "There are some that are about painful experiences in childhood, but sometimes they refer to childlike things."

Pepón Osorio's elaborately decorated chair called "No Crying Allowed in the Barbershop" reflects an incident in Osorio's childhood that others may able to relate to. "It's about Osorio's first haircut as a boy. ... It's a rite of manhood, your first barbershop haircut, and he blew it by crying," she said. "It pulls at your heart. It really had a big impact on him."

More lighthearted images are seen in "Ghost," a mummified head made of resin by Martin Honert, after a foggy memory of a TV show that scared him as a boy. It is relatable to anyone who has had an experiencethat they couldn't quite remember accurately. Vernon Fisher's "Muddy Mickey" is ingenious, a painting created to look like a chalkboard, on which he depicted Mickey Mouse dipped in mud and emerging out of a mushroom cloud. Norman Rockwell's painting "The Young Lady with the Shiner" is classically charming, showing a girl obviously delighted that she got into a fight at school.

A photo by Louise Lawler, "Once there was a little boy and everything turned out alright. THE END," from 1985, shows the living room of an obviously refined person, with artworks on the wall. Lawler's title allows viewers to fill in the blank. What happened to the child between "Once there was a little boy" and "everything turned out alright"? Good things? Bad things? There are so many possibilities.

'Miniature World'

Another new show at the Atheneum will be a respite, after "Childhood Torments," into a world of romanticized happiness and luxury. "Miniature World in White Gold: Meissen Porcelain by Johann Joachim Kaendler" exhibits dozens of pieces of small-scale 18th-century statuary made during a time when porcelain was as valuable as gold.

The pieces designed by the master modeler depict kissing lovers, aristocrats in exotic clothes, commedia dell'arte actors, frolicking animals and other bucolic scenes. The darkest subjects in the Kaendler collection are a couple of drunkards, stumbling and waving their tankards.

The most charming piece is a teapot whose body is a mama monkey, whose handle is a baby monkey arched on the mama's back, and whose spout is another baby monkey, grasping his mama's neck with his claws and bending backward, screeching. A series of fancy-dress pieces show a woman sitting on an elephant wearing a battle helmet, a woman in Japanese clothes and two elaborately decked-out camels.

Most of the pieces are multicolored, with richly patterned dress fabrics and an abundance of flowers and leaves scattered at the characters' feet, even in the artworks that depict indoor scenes, such as a cavalier sitting at a writing desk. One exception is a lovely plate from Kaendler's famous 2,200-piece "Swan Service." Except for the rim of the plate, the design is all-white, depicting an exquisite scene of swans.

"THE END OF INNOCENCE: CHILDHOOD TORMENTS IN THE CONTEMPORARY ART COLLECTION" will be at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St. in Hartford, until June 12. "Miniature World in White Gold: Meissen Porcelain by Johann Joachim Kaendler" will be up until January 2017. thewadsworth.org

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