I came home one evening to find the apartment bedecked with paintings. The walls were covered in pieces of paper with scores of hand prints smudged in red paint. It was like walking into the depths of a cave and discovering some long-lost prehistoric art. In fact, Astrid had finished her first painting session. Surrounded by her creations, she had the air of a stereotypical artist. Her clothes were paint-spattered. Her hair was sticking out wildly. Her crawl had developed a touch of swagger. Most of all, she seemed intrigued - perhaps proud is projecting too far - by her works displayed on the walls.
She kept crawling over to them, staring upwards and pointing. At times, she let out a joyous screech and clapped her hands. For one reason or another, her interest was piqued. Being able to see beyond a distance of half a metre was no doubt an important factor. After all, it is easy to forget that vision is, for the most part, learnt. Babies are born able to see, but their eyesight is poor. Various experiments over the past 20 years have determined two things that newborn babies focus on: one is the human face; the other is stark contrasts, such as black and white lines and shapes with clearly defined edges.
Focusing on faces is imperative for survival. Babies need to recognise their food source pretty quickly. The reason for seeing bold patterns and edges is less clear. Some people think it could be linked to the focus on faces: the whites of eyes contrast sharply with the dark of pupils and irises. Others believe it is simply because stark contrasts stand out in a baby's hazy world. The world is gradually coming into focus during Astrid's first year. The fuzziness is sharpening up. Objects are becoming more distinct. The smeared lenses are being slowly polished clear. By the time she is one year old, her vision will be similar to that of an adult.
That does not mean she will see like an adult. Seeing a flat area with legs and knowing it is a table is more about mental leaps and connections than technical faculties. The shortcut delineation of objects is something that can only come with language, but the physical ability to see is nevertheless in place by a year old. A few months ago we saw a book called Art for Baby. It is a collection of black and white paintings by artists such Bridget Riley, Damien Hirst, Keith Haring and Takashi Murakami. It is art backed by science, a book of paintings sold on the back of that neurological finding that babies have a predilection for high-contrast images.
Some of the pictures happen to be quite beautiful. When we flicked through the pages in the shop, Astrid seemed to quite like them, honing in like a hawk on one or two. We did not buy it straight away. We decided to think it over. In the days of deliberating, Astrid found her own alternative source of visual stimulation. The Mothercare catalogue, crammed full as it is with faces of babies and adults, became a source of endless fascination. It rendered Art for Baby redundant. In the first year, specious distinctions between art and commerce are refreshingly superfluous.
After months of muffled clairvoyance, hit-or-miss parental guesswork, hunches and theorising to determine Astrid's wants and needs, we have made progress. The reason for this change is that Astrid has developed the ability to point and shake. She points her finger at things that she wants and shakes her head if the wrong object is offered. Eventually, by a process of elimination, she ends up with what she was after - most of the time.
It is not always straightforward. She has not yet mastered the art of nodding. As a result, her take on semaphore can become quite confusing. Often she shakes her head at things which she actually wants. All in all it can seem quite a negative process. At times it tests my patience. Nevertheless this nuanced feedback is more rewarding than the blunt instrument that is crying. Crying is like only being able to communicate using a fire alarm. There may be room for some variation in expression, but the range is limited. The sound alone imparts a sense of emergency to even the most mundane situations. Perhaps that explains why point and shake is such a relief. It means crying is reserved for real emergencies.