'They all wanted Hitler," the U.K. artist Annie Kevans has said of her series of portraits of dictators as children. She is talking about the art buyers, of course. Thankfully, British art collector Charles Saatchi, owner of the collection (and a man currently in the press for disturbing personal reasons of his own), kept her series together – so today the wide-eyed Robert Mugabe can hang beside a sweet-faced Pol Pot, who might be on a play date with a plum-lipped Mussolini. The effect is both spooky and soothing – a gallery of innocent baby faces haunted by atrocities they have not yet committed, of which they know nothing.
Now on display at the Saatchi Gallery in London, Kevans' collection is the highlight of a new exhibition called, simply, Paper, which focuses on works made from that soon-to-be-outdated material. Notable pieces in the show include a series of crinkled-paper human-like forms perched on furniture by the sculptor Rachel Adams, an enormous papier-mâché bust of the boxer Emanuel Augustus by Jose Lerma and Hector Madera, and Jessica Jackson Hutchins's Couch for a Long Time, which features the artist's own beat-up family sofa upholstered in articles torn out of newspapers about Barack Obama.
Over all, the show has received mixed reviews, but Kevans' little dictators feel fresh, especially in light of another battle raging just across the English channel – a legal war over history's most famous war child: Anne Frank.
The court dispute centres around a large selection of family notes, archival documents and photographs that were lent in 2007 by the Anne Frank Fonds (the organization that has, since 1963, managed the copyright to Anne Frank's diary) to Anne Frank House, the Amsterdam museum housed in the very building where Frank and her family hid for two years from Nazi occupiers. The Fonds wants its archive back but the museum insists it was a gift. The matter is before the Dutch courts with a verdict expected some time this summer.
While both organizations were close to Otto Frank, Anne's father, a non-practising Jew and Holocaust survivor who died in 1980, they have since become severely divided over ideological and cultural issues. Both organizations claim they are acting according to the wishes of Frank's father, but they are increasingly at odds on how his daughter's image should best be represented. The Fonds has accused the House (most recently in The New York Times) of idolizing Anne as a kind of "child saint without context," by failing to sufficiently emphasize her Jewish heritage and death in the Holocaust in its permanent exhibit. The House, according to its executive director, Ronald Leopold, wants to use Anne's image to spread a more accessible and universal message of tolerance – one that is not bogged down in cultural or religious identity.
While I'm all for the idea of universal tolerance and the dissemination of Anne Frank's message to the widest possible audience, it's hard to see how one can deny the relevance of identity politics when dealing a victim of religious persecution, which Frank undoubtedly was. Also, the fact that the Anne Frank House expressed nothing but delight at Justin Bieber's recent visit (during which he commented that Frank "would have been a Belieber") does give me some pause.
But no matter which version of Anne Frank you cleave to – the angelic, perma-smiling child saint or modern history's most famous victim of anti-Semitism – it's her image that haunts us more than anything else. That beaming little girl with the buckteeth, dimpled chin and wild dark hair has become, for better or worse, a symbol of the worst wartime atrocity in human history, a girl-shaped mascot for what genocide actually robs us of as a society.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, it is Frank's face I think of as I stare at Kevans' gallery of tiny despots – their chubby cheeks and searching eyes looking wounded in the way that all children do when staring seriously at the camera. Interestingly, though, with the exception of Hitler, Nicolae Ceausescu and Saddam Hussein, Kevans' portraits are all painted from her own imagination – archival childhood photographs of the world's cruellest men being surprisingly hard to locate.
What is it, then, about the faces of children linked to genocide? Can we gain any further insight into the horrors of the Holocaust from staring at an image of the young Hitler than we can from staring at a similar image of Anne Frank? I think we cannot, and that is also why we can't stop looking. These little faces are indescribably fascinating, whether they are the victims or the perpetrators of the terrible crimes that made them famous. They are the faces of our innocence – and all that we have lost with it.