How children’s drawings tell of war and exile

Among the civilians of countries under military attack or persecution, child figures – child victims, displaced children as in Ukraine today, refugees or even child soldiers – have fueled the renewal of academic research on the violence of war for several decades.

Research initially focused on the child as the object of mobilization in war discourse, national and international social policy, and humanitarian aid. Media images of children taking part in mobilizing around victims evoke emotions to very different degrees depending on the proximity of a conflict.



Read more: Abuse, violence, crises, wars: childhood traumas have a lasting effect


in the A Century of Refugees, Bruno Cabanes also emphasizes the “permanent ambiguity between the photograph that documents exile, that which delights in the spectacle of suffering, and that which, sometimes voluntarily, fuels the fear of migratory invasion”. These depictions deeply reveal adult perspectives, collective sensibilities, and sometimes propaganda.

In addition to studies on the mobilization and care of the child, based on the discourse and practice of the one who looksmore recent works focus on children’s experiences of war, examined through the traces they left: diaries, letters, drawings… These childish sources reveal the child’s own perspective on war and exile: they allow us to get closer to the experience, the dimension lived the event.

Student of Fritzi Riesel (Françoise) and Alfred Brauner, summer 1930.
I drew the war. The Gaze by Françoise and Alfred Brauner, Rose Duroux and Catherine Milkovitch-Rioux (eds.), Pubp, 2011

Thus, the child whose words or drawings are collected is part of the war story, and his vivid testimonies are valuable, not only for measuring the psychological effects of a conflict on the child – so the science of psyche – but also in other disciplines of the humanities and social sciences to assess the specific qualification of certain conflict situations, especially involving civilians: war of aggression, occupation, bombing, mass extermination, so-called “crimes of profanation”, violations of human rights of descent, crimes against humanity…

Humanitarian issues are paramount; but these depictions also allow the story of a decided conflict to be written “on a child’s level” and set in a childhood story of war and exile.

pioneering work

The reading of children’s drawings is fueled by previous commitments, particularly at the time of the Spanish Civil War, with the activity of Alfred and Françoise Brauner, which has become the subject of scholarly work childhood, violence, exile (EVE). From the perspective of a childhood story “at the height of childhood”, the study of the funds collected and analyzed allows us to deepen our understanding of the experiences of children at war, evacuees and/or exiles. They are currently being prosecuted as part of the Refugee-Childhood Violence Exile (REVE) project.

Throughout their lives, Alfred and Françoise Brauner collected the “testimonies” of children at war. In 1937 she joined the International Brigades in Spain, notably as a doctor; then he with the task of inspecting the centers for children evacuated from the Levantine coast. It was in these homes that the Brauners began to take an interest in drawing as a therapeutic but also political tool, used to denounce the horrors of war and even more to direct international solidarity with the Spanish Republic.

During the war, an estimated total of around 600,000 casualties were directly caused by the war, more than half of whom were non-combatants. This first humanitarian experience continued on their return to France, when Jewish children were evacuated from Germany and Austria, and then returned from the camps in 1945. Subsequently, the commitment of the Brauners in favor of “these children who lived through the war” is undeniable, whether through the associative action with Enfants Réfugiés du Monde or through the uninterrupted collection of drawings of children at war, across the century and the continents – from Lebanon to the Iran-Iraq conflict, from Algeria to Vietnam, from Afghanistan to Chechnya…

Of the two thousand drawings they keep, the Brauners keep only a tenth for the book I drew the war 1991, as in the 2000 film of the same name by Alfred Brauner and documentary filmmaker Guy Baudon.

Figure 2 – Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Manuel Pérez Osana, 12 years old: “My broken house”.
in I drew the war. Le Respect de Françoise and Alfred Brauner, Rose Duroux and Catherine Milkovitch-Rioux (eds.), Pubp, 2011, p. 44-45

In particular, the Brauners looked after children evacuated to Spain, in 1938 in Benicàssim. Alfred Brauner comments: “And you have to look very closely to see a tiny human figure next to the bomb that has not yet fallen, with the inscription: dad. It is the reduced dimension of the father’s dead character that conveys the fear. […] At the top of the drawing, the title of the caption is political: Fascism was here! »

The Brauners’ originality is to prioritize children and their discourse on the war, from their early anti-fascist and anti-Nazi commitment to their later pacifist and anti-nuclear positions, and to pursue them in educational contexts. As a support for freedom of expression, drawing represents a field of experience through which it is a question of enforcing children’s rights.

Read Battlegrounds

The drawings from the Brauner Collection often seem remarkably topical to us. However, we must beware of a presentist interpretation that, for example, juxtaposes Russia’s current war of aggression against Ukraine in the light of past wars between the 20th and 21st centuriese and the 21ste centuries. Each drawing must be placed in its historical context, as long as it bears the imprint of a social world that has undergone unique upheavals during times of war, which determine the character and representation of what is experienced.

Each drawing must therefore be the subject of a reading Specific, which takes this production context into account. The Brauner Collection is therefore the subject of a precise description that reflects both Alfred Brauner’s commentary, which is itself historically located, and the partially incomplete descriptive data available to researchers: name of the child, age, place of manufacture, date, format…

Review of the Childhood Violence Exile program (City of Clermont-Ferrand, 2013).

The collection of drawings is based both on this description of contextual, factual elements and on the correlations made between different_ graphic views_ of children; and your lecture is also located in this context (The R-EVE Collections, including the Brauner Collection, are deposited and described in the Nakala Data Warehouse and available on the research blog: “Refugee Childhood Violence Exil (R-EVE)”, “Collections”) .

The course of the collection reveals the existence of thematic and compositional analogies. Everywhere we find violence in motion, the emotions it arouses: military incursion, bombing, dead bodies, wounds, death, flight. From the European population to the Sahrawis and Asian boat people, children’s drawings show a special attention to the warlike arsenal, from the machete to the scud, through bayonets, tanks, rocket launchers and show the squadrons, grenades …

In “Everything is Burning” (Figure 1), two Soviet tanks burn: a choice that also reveals the patriotic culture in which the Chechen child is growing up. In “My Broken House” (Figure 2), Manuel Pérez Osana shows both fighter and bomber aircraft and the trajectory of the bomb exploding on the ground.

reappropriation through drawing

The imagination of the children’s designer often turns to the idea of ​​\u200b\u200bpeople who could bring help to the wounded, stretchers, ambulances or the hospital. Above all, these safe supports are the ones he sees with his own eyes: firefighters, doctors, stretcher bearers. Manuel Pérez Osana’s drawing explicitly contains a call for help (Socorro), presumably cast from the perspective of the child trapped in the bombed and burned-out house.

Figure 3 – The war in the former Yugoslavia (1991-1995). [Anonyme] : “Tulips on the graves”, drawing by a child from a kindergarten in Zabreb.
in I drew the war. Le Respect de Françoise and Alfred Brauner, Rose Duroux and Catherine Milkovitch-Rioux (eds.), Pubp, 2011, p. 131

In a more astonishing way, the child enacts its own capacity to act – as if the drawing controls the chaos of war, albeit in an imaginary way. This capacity to act can be manifested in many symbolic forms: In the drawing (Figure 3) “Tulips on the graves”, a Croatian pupil of a kindergarten in the city of Zagreb, who was confronted with the bombings of the Yugoslav army in 1991, shows graves where civilians and combatants are buried.

With the large tulips, the candles that illuminate the graves – also placed by the rivers in some Slavic traditions – the child engages in the mourning rituals that maintain the connection between the survivors and the world of the deceased. This graphic reappropriation is a form of action.

Children’s drawings often invent imaginary representations depicting so many places of refuge in a chaotic reality: in 1944, in Theresienstadt, a little Czech Jewish girl, Érika Taussigova, aged nine, drew the dormitory of her Stalag, according to the first plan, a basket of fruit, a butterfly and a big vase full of flowers. At death’s brink, it opened up an imaginary, intimate and familiar space haven, that of the world before.

Explosions – Children’s Drawings, Adult Wars, Zérane S. Girardeau, Anamosa, 2017.

The collections of children’s drawings, which are of terrible importance in the world, bring before us extreme experiences of violence in childhood and adolescence. Their collection, preservation, description and analysis make it possible to trace the history of the scientific, political, humanitarian and artistic use of pictorial evidence. But also, as Hélène Gaudy writes in her story about the Theresienstadt camp, An island, a fortressfrom the drawings of the adult Arthur Goldschmidt, they undertake to escape from the surface of things, “to keep part of the beauty”: “everything is bare, the faces, the water, the trees, everything exists more. »

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