Artistic Notes: Touch - `the very life of things in the mind'?

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the defining features of the 20th century is its belief in the importance of the education of the senses. The key figure here is the Italian Maria Montessori (1870-1952), the first woman to qualify as a doctor from an Italian university. Montessori refined and systematised the methods of the international kindergarten movement. She loathed the idea that children should sit immobile at desks watching a teacher write on a blackboard, chanting in unison.

Her credo was that "things are the best teachers". Montessori developed the concept of a children's house, a Lilliputian classroom which contained movable furniture and fittings adapted to the needs and scale of children. Tactile education was central. Writing was taught by using stencils and by touching sandpaper letters and numbers. The Montessori child also had to insert geometrical objects into the correct slots, thus getting a sense of the volume, weight and shape of an object, and of the space that it occupies.

Montessori hoped that these tactile experiences would not be forgotten or repressed in adulthood, and by the second half of the century they had become all the rage. The big idea behind Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media (1964), a bible of the swinging Sixties, was that we were now living in an intensely tactile and sculptural age:

In cars, clothes, in paperback books; in beards, babies, and beehive hairdos, the American has declared for stress on touch, on participation, involvement, and sculptural values.

Perhaps, he wondered, "touch is not just skin contact with things, but the very life of things in the mind?"

This concern with the education of the senses has been closely paralleled in the visual arts. The first Montessori school in France opened in Paris in October 1911, and there was extensive press coverage about the school and the method until the outbreak of the First World War. These are the key years for the development of Cubist collage and constructed sculpture by Picasso and Braque.

Braque started to stencil letters and numbers on to his paintings in spring 1911, and during 1912 added sand, sawdust and metal shavings to his paint, and also created collages, gluing newspaper and wallpaper to his pictures. He later observed:

It was this very strong taste for material itself that led me to consider the possibilities of material. I wanted to make of touch a form of material.

Picasso was obsessed with the idea that he might go blind, and in his Blue Period made several works featuring unsighted people touching still- life objects. We can see Picasso's mixed-media works as his attempt to develop an art-form that might be appreciated by the blind.

Most Cubist collages feature humble still-life objects, and this down- to-earth orientation is also a feature of the Montessori Method. For the American Dorothy Canfield Fisher, writing in A Montessori Mother (1912), the method's field of operations was similar to that of the kitchen, the principal home of still-life objects:

We all know how much more fascinating a place our kitchens seem to be for our little children than our drawing-rooms . . . the drawing-room is a museum full of objects . . . enclosed in the padlocked glass case of the command, "Now don't touch!"

These ideas underpin the post-war explosion of mixed-media art, and of art that physically challenges the viewer. Jasper Johns's mixed-media paintings and collages have been described as "paintings in braille". One could also cite the collage paintings of Chris Ofili, the winner of last year's Turner Prize. His unframed pictures are casually propped up against the wall. They are studded with, and stand on, lumps of elephant dung.

We're not supposed to touch these works but the point is that modern artists - like some modern educationalists - are prepared to acknowledge that we live in an intensely material world.

James Hall is the author of `The World as Sculpture: the changing status of sculpture from the Renaissance to the present day' (Chatto, pounds 25)