Yesterday, while he was off sick from school, my oldest nephew, aged seven, made a picture which he had already made once before. The picture was of a castle consisting of three parts – two towers and a main section. The main section had turrets and a door (the towers had no turrets). The outline of the castle was filled in with a number of flags from around the world, which the boy had looked up himself on the internet to copy (his birthday present from a short while back was a tablet laptop).
Now, the child had spent a great deal of time on this drawing, so it was not without significance for him. When he finished, he proudly displayed it to me and then went through naming all the countries represented by the flags. He had a perfect recall of which flag was from which country and he displayed a fine memory for his age.
Today, I looked at the picture in more detail, with all my experience of art and the visual, a subject which is of deep academic interest to me. The first significant object seemed to be the castle. Now, the castle was acting as a ‘frame’ or overall structure in which all of the flags of the world were contained. Here, it is worthwhile remarking on the threefold division of the castle into the main section and the two towers on the left and right. What was the significance of the number three in the composition and how was this related to the concept of the castle? This association was lost in the translation – I, at any rate, could not think of anything other than the significance of the number three in mythology and religion, for example in the notion of the holy trinity (and note the significance of the number three in psychoanalysis itself). Yet the child was too young to have come upon the ubiquity of the number three in narrative discourse (although he has read The Three Little Pigs, for example).
The question then remained, what of the structuring device of the castle and its frame? The child had experience of building sandcastles on the beach – perhaps they represented order itself: an imposition of architectural order on the sand, or the earth. More speculatively, perhaps, the castle represented the self and the child identified with the castle as himself. Here, one could add that castles have kings and princes as their owners. Perhaps there was an implicit association with the king of the castle or the prince. Maybe the castle represented the concept of ‘home’, the king or prince’s home. Without the further associations of the child, further speculation was unjustified.
Now came the significance of the flags. Here it is worth noting that there were no structuring concepts such as symmetry in composition: on the towers, for example, there were different numbers of flags in a column. In the middle of the composition, there were no columns, but rather a haphazard design of flags. There didn’t appear to be any apparent order of flags: England, Great Britain and India, the three privileged sites of personal identity, didn’t figure in any special relation to the castle or the other flags.
The one clue as to significance was in a small, but repeated detail: the drawing of the flag of Great Britain. In both the pictures, the same incompleteness was performed. The red lines of the flag had been drawn in, but the colour blue had not been coloured in, nor had the white stripes been drawn. Yet the child had been satisfied that the picture was finished in both cases, and had abandoned it with finality.
Now, what was the significance of this incomplete colouring? One could suggest that the flag of Great Britain was the hardest to represent in technical terms, therefore the child had merely abandoned the effort. Yet I do not think this is the case. He had laboured for some time on the composition: why would he abandon the effort for a flag which represented his own identity and home? If the castle really represented the concept of home, and the flags were being related to this concept, then, why was Great Britain’s flag left unrepresented?
If the child’s drawing is seen to be a reflection of the simple view that nationalism is somehow natural, that nations are naturally our homes, and attempts to put this naturalisation into the act of representation: i.e. that the world is naturally divided into nations and homes, the unrepresented flag could be a symbol of unconscious hostility to this idea. Or, on another reading, the unfinished flag could represent its special nature: it is not just another picture in the frame, but is unique with all the connotations and meanings attached to it and the concept of home, and therefore belongs to another order than the realm of the mere visual and the representable. Perhaps it is too complicated, too unique.
If an image produced at the age of seven is thus so hard to interpret, especially in its relation to nationalism and identity, then how much harder is it to interpret the images produced by adults, with even more abstract principles? The world of the image is a complicated world. I don’t think we have yet come to terms with the complexity of ourselves and our images.