“I suppose you could say I went into art history because it combined my passions for art and travel,” quips Elizabeth Childs, Ph.D., associate professor of art history & archaeology in Arts & Sciences.
Indeed, travel does emerge as a kind of unifying theme in Childs’ life and work.
Born into an academic family, she was raised in Colorado, California and Texas, and trained in North Carolina; Venice, Italy; New York; Scotland; Washington, D.C.; and Princeton, N.J. As a scholar, she has written extensively on exoticism in the work of Honoré Daumier and Paul Gauguin, and has made a special study of Gauguin’s most celebrated subject, the island of Tahiti.
“I’m interested in the exchange and circulation of images — the ways Gauguin constructs a kind of idealized Tahiti from diverse visual and textual sources,” Childs explains.
For example, she has traced motifs used by the artist back to 19th-century French photographs that were themselves staged to recall idyllic conventions of salon painting that in turn derived from scientific discoveries during the “age of exploration.”
“My overall project is to come to terms with the cultural realities of the fin-de-siècle moment,” she adds. That is, to grasp the “preconceptions of traveling European or American artists — as they encounter an ‘exotic’ place that at once stimulates and disappoints them — and to consider how the art registers or retreats from the artist’s complex interactions with both colonial society and indigenous culture.”
Childs credits her father, a geologist, with fostering early interests in history and landscape.
“We spent a lot of time driving, looking at earth formations, trying to figure out the stories behind them,” she recalls. “It had a tremendous impact.”
(As an adult, Childs would collaborate with her father for an article on the art and geography of the Grand Canyon in the age of scientific exploration. The piece was published in 1996, only eight days before his death.)
Entering Wake Forest University, Childs intended to study archaeology but was soon drawn to anthropology and cultural studies. As a sophomore, she spent a month in Arizona working with Zuni fetishes — small stone animal sculptures used in hunting rituals — but was also powerfully influenced by a semester in Venice.
“We lived right next to the Peggy Guggenheim collection,” a small yet stunning sister museum — located in a palazzo on the Grand Canal — to the more famous Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York. “I became extremely interested in modern art. It was surrealism, it was Jackson Pollock, Max Ernst, Alexander Calder. … It changed my life.”
Childs graduated in 1976 with majors in anthropology and art history. She soon landed positions at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of the American Indian, and spent the following year in Scotland, studying at the University of Edinburgh and helping to establish the National Gallery’s first public lecture program.
Returning to New York, Childs entered Columbia University’s graduate program and, on the first day of classes, met her future husband, John Klein, himself just returned from a year at the University of London. She also commen-ced a long association with the Guggenheim Museum — an association that, in the mid-1980s, would take her back to Venice to co-author a handbook on the Peggy Guggenheim collection.
“Those works were sort of magical for me,” Childs muses. “Each one had a story, and I was very keen to know them all. The engagement just got richer over time.”
Childs published her first article in 1981, on Robert Smithson’s famous earthwork “Spiral Jetty,” located on the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
“Being from the West, I was very familiar with the geological framework,” she explains. “I was fascinated by the engagement with the earth, the awareness of time and the critique of the gallery system.”
Still, for her dissertation, Childs focused on Daumier, the great 19th-century French caricaturist.
“I was interested in humor, in art and politics, in art that had a job to do outside the studio,” she says. “And I wanted it to be art worth looking at. When you’re going through hundreds of sheets of newspaper, it really starts to matter if the drawings are good or not.
“Caricature was very tightly regulated in the 19th century, because it’s so powerful,” she continues. “Text is easy to censor but images have a flexibility and ambiguity that can be lethal. Cartoonists were thrown into jail or fined enormous amounts — Daumier was one of them — for prints deemed seditious or sacrilegious or pornographic.”
After completing her doctorate in 1989, Childs was named assistant professor at the State University of New York-Purchase, but in 1992 both she and Klein took positions in Missouri: Childs at Washington University; Klein, a Matisse scholar, at University of Missouri. Childs paused en route for a postdoc at Princeton University (and to give birth to their son, Will), but arrived in St. Louis in 1993.
Childs continues to write widely on caricature, censorship, landscape, 19th-century visual culture and the origins of avant-garde myths. (She has argued, for example, that Vincent Van Gogh’s notorious ear severing was partially inspired by a form of ritual mutilation practiced in Japanese brothels.)
In 2000, Eric G. Carlson, a former SUNY colleague, gave a collection of 440 French caricatures in Childs’ honor to the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. In 2004, Childs published Daumier and Exoticism: Satirizing the French and the Foreign, the first book to examine the pacifist republican’s use of racial and cultural stereotypes to comment on international and domestic politics (including the imperial ambitions of Napoleon III).
This fall, Childs will co-teach an innovative “studio/seminar” — with Lisa Bulawsky, associate professor of art in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts — on the history and practice of printmaking.
“We’re hoping it will be the first of several collaborations between artists and art historians,” Childs says. Students will explore four traditional process — monotype, woodcut, engraving and lithography — from both scholarly and studio perspectives. “The idea is to get them thinking about a medium’s cultural agency at the same time they’re making images.”
Education: B.A., art history and anthropology, Wake Forest University, 1976; M.A., art history, Columbia University, 1980; Ph.D., modern art, Columbia University, 1989
Selected publications: Daumier and Exoticism: Satirizing the French and the Foreign (2004)
“Eden’s Other: Gauguin and the Ethnographic Grotesque,” Modern Art and the Grotesque (2003)
Selected awards: Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award, Graduate Student Senate, Arts & Sciences (2005)
Excellence in Teaching Awards, ArtSci Council (1996 and 2004)
National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship (1996-97)
She adds, “It’s really a very exciting time, with the opening of the Fox School next fall. We are all very stimulated by the new range of possibilities for our classes.”
William Wallace, Ph.D., the Barbara Murphy Bryant Distinguished Professor and chair of art history & archaeology, notes that “I have never known a teacher more devoted to her students. Liz is dedicated not only to providing a stimulating classroom experience, but to mentoring students throughout their college careers and beyond.”
An internationally recognized authority on Gauguin, Childs is currently completing “In Search of Paradise: Painting and Photography in Fin-de-siècle Tahiti,” a study of visual culture that examines Gauguin’s work as well as ethnographic texts by American historian Henry Adams; the paintings of John La Farge, who visited the island in 1891; and commercial colonial photography. She is also collaborating on an exhibition of LaFarge’s recently rediscovered Tahitian sketchbooks for the Yale University Art Gallery.
New projects include a study of Gauguin’s writings (inspired by a little-studied manuscript held at the Saint Louis Art Museum); an exhibition of his relationship to Oceanic sculpture; and an exhibition tentatively titled Aesthetics of Travel in the Age of Impressionism, for the New Orleans Museum of Art (the latter delayed, due to Hurricane Katrina, until 2010.)
This summer, Childs will visit Tahiti once again for a symposium, which she helped organize with colleagues in the field of cultural geography, on “Identity, Alterity and Landscape” at the University of French Polynesia in Papeete.
Yet an even more important journey has already begun. Last September, she and Klein — currently a visiting associate professor of art history & archaeology — adopted a 15-month-old girl from Guatemala.
“She’s utterly fabulous,” Childs beams. Still, the process was far from easy. “It was in the works for five years and fell through a couple of times. But sometimes you just have to believe something is going to happen.
“She is adjusting well to her new life in St. Louis,” Childs concludes. “We know she understood some Spanish when we brought her home, and now she is learning English. She’s also really bonded with our son, Will, and in the last few days has started saying ‘bruth’ for brother.
“Between life and work, it’s been an incredibly rich and busy time for us all. I wouldn’t have it any other way!”