‘Paper’, Saatchi Gallery, 2013
Text by Ben Street
Annie Kevans’ paintings depict an ideal of innocence – the doe-eyed, rosy-cheeked faces of young boys – in a palette and handling that are carefully chosen: colour is washed-out and delicate, the brush applied like the tender touch of a loved one. Yet the titles come as a shock: Joseph Stalin, Soviet Union. Adolf Hitler, Germany. Mao Zedong, China. These are the faces (some actual, some invented) of dictators as children.
Their titles are premonitions: that child’s face isn’t “Adolf Hitler”, obviously; none of these children are Hitler, or Stalin, or Mao yet. The disjunction – what we know now, what we didn’t know then – calls to mind the old argument about going back in time to kill Hitler; but his soulful blue eyes brim with innocence: even Hitler was a child once. Kevans plays on our weakness for the apparent innocence of the young face, drawing on the Victorian idealisation of childhood still very much in vogue when many of these men were young. Those eyes – invariably the darkest, most substantial part of each painting – draw sympathy in a way a cartoon cat on a greetings card might; there’s a kitschy sentimentality to the paintings that runs deliberately at odds with their titles. Those dark eyes hold the viewer in place. Frozen like this, these children might never amount to anything.