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Making mayhem form its own balance

''A School for Boys and Girls'' has been described rather ponderously as a ''moral lesson on the evils of inattentiveness.'' But this didactic intent, if it was indeed Jan Steen's primary purpose, is put across with such a vivacious love of details, with such comicality and humour, that it is difficult to take it all too seriously.

Doubtless, among the wonderfully observed accumulation of bits and pieces strewn about the place in this classroom-to-beat-all-classrooms, there are numerous symbols of neglect and disarray, apart from the obvious mischief of many of the children, and the laissez fairem attitude of the schoolmaster himself , oblivious to the mayhem he ought to be controlling. He is absent-mindedly sharpening a quill pen -- perhaps he is more of a preparer than a doer -- apparently so used to the chaos that he is no longer aware of it. He is something of a stock figure, the comedian who appears in many different guises in Steen's pictures of everyday life. The artist sees these scenes as theatre, with the people in them playing roles. Each of the children here is acting out something: the little girls absorbed in some important business of their own, coloured pictures of animals scattered around them; the boy asleep on the floor; another lad struggling so hard to write something on a piece of paper that he almost buries his head in it. Then there is the one behind the schoolmaster's back, mocking him, and the child who holds up a pair of spectacles, like the master's, to the owl perched near a lighted lantern. This illustrates a Dutch proverb: ''What profit candles or spectacles if the owl will not see?'' Other children in the background gesticulate, scrap with each other, or sing loudly.

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The cage hanging from the roof is unoccupied -- the bird, if there was one, has flown. An hourglass on the wall makes its own ignored comment on time-wasting. A climbing plant trails unchecked, half obscuring a notice whose instructions or admonitions have obviously not been heeded for a long time. Doors are open, containers empty, books and papers, quills and slates are abandoned carelessly. All this quite evidently results from the apathy of that great dunce of a schoolmaster in the midst. It is this fellow, rather than his charges, who is to blame.

Steen observes with something approaching enjoyment the way in which children ''will be children'': this kind of anecdotal abundance of activity is the stuff of his art, reminiscent of Bruegel. He also clearly loves painting objects for their own sake, and this particular painting affords him ample opportunity for that pursuit.

However, he does not show only this amusing (or devastating) confusion in the classroom. He also, centrally, presents a contrast of industry, neatness, eagerness to learn and dedicated teaching. The master's wife is helping a puzzled infant to read; an older boy, cleanly dressed with closecropped hair, holds up his slate, a keen pupil; and a tidy and proper-looking girl stands, back to us, waiting patiently for help, her book under her arm. This is where the moral is pointed, where the anarchy is confronted by regularity, the waste (to a degree) retrieved.

Steen himself seems to observe both sides of the question impartially, an artist rather than a moralist. He apparently can't help appreciating the children on their own various terms, and has a good (and impressively unsentimental) understanding of both their play and their work, their seriousness on the one hand and their silliness on the other. He tells a balanced tale. We, the viewers, are left to draw the conclusions. Or simply to enjoy the picture.

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