When you think of Street Art, protests will likely come to mind. After all, painting in the public square is the art of public speaking. You certainly don’t expect images that cover the sides of buildings to be dewy-eyed or otherwise untouched by the darkness of the world today. But on Nov. 30, the Guardian announced a new book by photographer Lou Chamberlin called “Burn City: Melbourne’s Painted Streets,” and even at a glance, two back alley murals of sublime innocence pop out at you.

Awesome Aussies

“Burn city” refers to a Melbourne street art term “burner,” meaning art so hot, it sizzles.

But the two age-of-innocence murals I’m thinking of – both of children -- are strong in another way, a quiet way. In one there’s no color, only monochromatic grays that impart a sweet nostalgia for a past that has ceased to exist. What you see is a slight of a girl holding a hummingbird in wonder. Given the moonstruck air of the painting, the name the artist goes by – Manofdarkness – is downright paradoxical. And while the other mural by an artist named Adnate is a full color rendering of a small child's face, the open-mouthed sense of wonder also speaks of a fond memory – the marveling of the very young.

Picturing innocence

The last time the art world saw a painting of such guilelessness was probably back in 1785 when the English portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds pictured “A Little Girl” later called “Age Of Innocence.” It had such impact that Edith Wharton named her Pulitzer Prize novel after the painting; except that she meant the title as a sarcastic take on the superficiality of New York society.

But there’s nothing ironic about Reynolds’ portrait. He meant the little girl to be the face of childhood.

Pomp and circumstances

And while Reynolds’ portraits of society types show themselves to be ridiculously glorifying, he preferred picturing kids without affectation; although the pink cheeks, blond curls, and white clothing in “The Little Girl” border on idealization – as if he were pushing the point of purity.

But art historian Allan Cunningham attests to Reynolds’ sincerity about depicting children free of frou-frou: “It was one of his maxims that the gestures of children are dictated by nature. He liked to observe children who came to his gallery mimicking the airs in the adult portraits.”

‘The Ugly American’

Like Reynolds and Wharton, Mark Twain was also taken with the notion of innocence, but more like Wharton.

His “The Innocents Abroad” was a scathing comment on American tourists: “The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate a** he can become until he goes abroad.” Shades of The 1958 political fiction “The Ugly American,” in which novelists William Lederer and Eugene Burdick dramatized the mistakes we made in Southeast Asia. We’re still making them, and when you consider all the ugliness in headlines lately, pictures of past innocence can seem like hallucinations.

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