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Portrait of the Artist

Nadia: A Case of Extraordinary Drawing Ability in an Autistic Child

by Lorna Selfe
Academic Press, 137 pp., $12.30

This is the story:

The child, Nadia, is the second of three children born in Nottingham to Ukrainian immigrant parents. The father is an electrical engineer, the mother a laboratory technician with a Polish Master’s degree in chemistry. Both go out to work. There is also a Ukrainian granny on the premises—“much absorbed in her traditional culture,” as is usually the case with transplanted grannies.

Granny hardly ever speaks. Father is perfectly bilingual. So are his eldest and youngest children. Mother doesn’t feel at home in English, so Ukrainian is the rule at the dinner table. Nadia, born in 1967, picks up a dozen-odd words in her first year and then “loses” them and relapses into silence.

Something is wrong with her. She is large, dumpy, and tends to flop about—incapable of going on a swing or skipping rope. She is perfectly impassive—except when she explodes in a terrible tantrum and smashes things and tries to kick the door to pieces. She looks at the world out of the “corners of her eyes” and ignores any persons except the few for whom she develops an “obssession.” When she wants something, she gestures, or leads someone by the hand to where the thing is. But she must not cross a road; she has no sense of danger.

At the same time, her life is governed by an intense feeling for arrangement. When her clothes are put on (she can’t, or won’t, put them on herself, except at a snail’s pace), everything must be exactly right. She loves new clothes, but only if they are “just so.” Her dolls and teddy bears sit in a fixed order on her bed; great distress arises if one of them is misplaced. She likes tearing paper into thin strips; when she uses scissors, she can get each strip about one tenth of an inch wide with remarkable accuracy.

When she is three-and-a-half her mother has to spend a few months in the hospital. Nadia is “confined to her bedroom for long periods” by her overworked granny and is “overjoyed” to get her mother back. Abruptly, she begins to draw—all over the walls. Her mother is delighted and supplies paper instead. Nadia takes to any sort of paper, even when it is lined or covered with print; she makes do with empty cartons when the paper runs out.

She draws quickly, surely, and with intense concentration, her eyes very close to the paper. She is left-handed. She will have nothing to do with color; she will use nothing but a ball point pen. After one minute or so of rapid drawing, she sits back “to survey the effect,” and after doing so intently “she often smiled, babbled, and shook her hands and knees in glee.”

She chooses most of her models out of books, in particular a rotogravure series published for children with stock pictures of a mare and foal, the mounted guardsman at Buckingham Palace, a rooster in mid-crow, and such like. Her football players and deep-sea divers come, perhaps, from illustrated magazines.

She never copies these subjects, only stares at them with her usual intensity for a long time. A day, or two days, later, she starts producing her versions of what she remembers. The characteristics of the originals are strictly preserved—the guardsman’s plumes, the diver’s helmet, the position of the footballer’s leg when he kicks the ball. But the actual drawing belongs to another world.

It accords as a rule with Gombrich’s theory in Art and Illusion that “the artist cannot start from scratch.” The artist’s innovations are corrections and criticisms of his predecessors’ works. In Wölfflin’s words: “All paintings owe more to other paintings than they owe to direct observation.” Nearly all Nadia’s drawings are vigorous corrections of the originals—living pictures made out of dead ones. They are unconfined, because she cannot see the edges of the paper as a “frame”; if the paper ends before the horse is finished—well, the horse ends too. But if a line that is shaping, say, a horse’s knee suggests additional uses to which it could be put, these uses are seized on at once, so that horses’ heads grow happily out of horses’ legs, and a rooster crows out of a football boot. Many of the drawings, in fact, must be turned this way and that to catch the full roster of up-ended roosters and divergent legs. What’s more, nothing that is once seen (in the original) can be forgotten, e.g., a curious little animal like a hare or a fox that has been thrown across a huntsman’s saddle is repeated invariably, even in somewhat scatty sketches. The same goes for a square of paper or cloth (a flag? a satchel? a proclamation?) that the horses spurn with their front hooves. It is always there.

The work may be done in a few lines; more often than not it is done in hundreds, all wiry and spidery. Many of the figures manage to emerge with remarkable clarity from underneath a whole web of tiny lines. One of the masterpieces (No. 85) shows three diver-footballers (they have been blended into one type) going into action in a whole swirl of lines—with one unattached leg thrown in for good measure. The high-spirited vivacity of these figures, their whirling momentum, would be remarkable in the best of draftsmen, yet what is more remarkable is that the feeling of bulk and weight—the powerful horses, the tough helmets, the leaded boots, the thick suits—is never lost in the fine lines. Nor does the artist have the smallest difficulty with the positions of her figures; they face left or right, forward or backward, with the same grace. No. 32, which shows a huge horse trotting almost directly forward out of the page, would ask considerable training in a school of art, but Nadia tackles it at the age of five.

She can never have seen Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, or Giacomo Balla’s delicious terrier with multiple legs and multiple fluffy tails being walked on multiple leads by a mistress in a skirt with multiple flounces. But she is on the very verge of discovering this truth about what we “really” see in No. 81, with her lady riding side-saddle with multiple reins and a flounced skirt twirling in all manner of circles. No. 100, too, which belongs to the period when she got absorbed in the question of how people sit, cross their legs, and waggle their feet, is a fine example of making four sandals speak for one, as it jogs up and down. Pinheads are good enough for the owners of the legs, not because Nadia has studied modern sculpture but because, presumably, it is not the heads that interest her.

There is only one drawing (No. 52) that gives us the melancholy and distressed feeling that we get from Munch and most psychotic draftsmen. It is of a cat’s face. It is the more disturbing because the cat—probably one of those woolly, stuffed ones in reality—is wearing a bow tie.

At four-and-a-half, this little prodigy is sent to a school for “severely subnormal” children. Though her vocabulary doesn’t grow beyond ten words and her total passivity is interrupted only by regular tantrums (“she would scream and shout uncontrollably for two or three hours at a time”), she is described as “content and generally integrated.” Nonetheless, psychiatric treatment is seen to be necessary, and Nadia starts a perambulation of clinics, including the Mecca of child medicine, The Hospital for Sick Children on Great Ormond Street in London.

It is much to the credit of the many psychiatrists and teachers concerned that one and all saw that they were dealing with a prodigious artist. Perhaps the main reason why they were so clued in is the important part played by drawing in child psychology. Nadia finished up in the hands of Lorna Selfe, to whom we owe this remarkable book, and it is Dr. Selfe who tells us that her department at Nottingham University thought they knew everything there was to know on the subject of child art until Nadia came along.

A competition in the London Observer, “Pictures of Mummy,” had produced no fewer than 24,000 entries by Britain’s brats, and every last one had been donated by the newspaper to Nottingham University. Studied, classified, and rated according to age, the 24,000 showed exactly how and when children begin to draw, how they progress year by year, at what age they grasp technicalities such as composition and perspective. There is overlapping, of course, with three years showing the ability of five, and vice versa, but by and large there is the delightful propriety and niceness of classified order so well beloved by the statistical scientist.

What to say, then, about Nadia, an autistic mute who contradicted 24,000 cases, shot holes in all the textbooks and ability tests, and was half-witted in addition? Dr. Selfe, who is always honest, writes:

I was extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to study Nadia not just because she was so rare and her ability unique but because she has been important in my personal professional development…. I had to take a new look at many of the concepts used by psychologists. I had to apply concepts which I had taken for granted to a real human being. I found great difficulty in defining such concepts as perception, conception, memory and mental image to aid my understanding of this child.

There are disturbing things about this paragraph, particularly the discovery that real human beings have a part to play in psychology. There is a degree of innocence, too, in the realization that words such as perception, conception, and memory take a lot of figuring out: a history of philosophy from the earliest times to the present day would have shown the doctor that she was not the first to be puzzled. The doctor’s definition of the nature of art shows that in this medium, too, her development is retarded:

Throughout [this book] there is an implied value judgement that one of the important aims of drawing is to be able to reproduce the appearance of the real world. The more faithfully the visual world is represented, the more realistic the drawing, the better it is.

Either this definition is wrong, or horses do grow out of stirrups. But there is no need for us to decide. Dr. Selfe’s definitions, in art as in philosophy, are of no account. If she saw that Nadia was a prodigy, the fact that she saw it for the wrong reason is nothing to complain about. The interesting and important parts of her text have to do with the hundreds of books she consulted in her attempt to “explain” Nadia—and the numerous conflicting opinions she had to weigh up. Many readers will be surprised to discover how many pundits have explored the matter of child art and how thoroughly they have managed to disagree.

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