Mark Rothko in the ‘side chapels’ of Gemeentemuseum in The Hague

I studied in London and as an art student made regular trips to the Tate as it was then known, before the setting up of the Tate Modern and Tate Britain. On these trips I became only too familiar with the brooding presence of the large dark reddish canvases of the Seagram murals made in the late 1950s. These are I think the only examples of Rothko’s work that I have seen clustered together in a group, otherwise it has generally been just isolated artworks that I have come across in various European museums and galleries. So the chance to see a whole show of his work in the Gemeentemuseum, alongside the paintings of Piet Mondriaan, an artist who in many ways paved the way for Rothko and the other abstract expressionists, has been noted down in my diary for some time.

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The Tate paintings ooze a depth in their mood and indeed in their colour. I am very familiar with Rothko’s work from secondary sources such as the internet and books. I knew that there are plenty of paintings that make use of a higher range of palette, and yet, this was still the surprise in The Hague exhibition.  Often there is that familiar depth in the tone and the colour, but layer on top of this is are second or third colours that deliver a feathery intensity shimmering in the indistinct ground colour.

Also included in the exhibition are a number of works on paper made close to the end of the artist’s life. One in particular that catches the attention is an untitled work from 1968. It’s a relatively large piece, on a sheet of paper that is maybe 140×100 cm and shows a ground of two deep shades of blue, part of which edges towards black. The second quarter of the painting moving downwards glows an almost golden yellow. It’s a composition that seems to sum up so much of Rothko’s work, a deep, almost menacing depth, complimented so often with areas that lift themselves out, calling for our attention. The painting has a quite heavily worked surface, and in some ways gives away more of the artist’s process than many of the larger canvases do, we clearly see the traces of the artist’s brushes as he works across the surface. This particular work, hangs near a doorway, not necessarily in a space that lends itself to catching the museum viewer, yet it is fascinating to watch it do just that as visitors move from one space to another.

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The spaces of the Gemeentemuseum lend themselves enormously to the show.  There are rooms that display the work in groups, with uncluttered space to move around in, the classical museum experience if you like. But there are a number of spaces that function almost as a side chapel in a cathedral and have been given a single large Rothko canvas, with a seat in front of it, an ideal space for contemplation.

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What is art for?

My previous post dealt with quite simply what placing a piano in a railway station can offer us. As a kind of extension to this comes a follow up, a short animation film from the Guardian newspaper and an animation film in which Alain de Botton puts forward five ideas about why art is, and should, be important to us.

You might not agree with absolutely everything, but there’s a lot to think about in this short and to the point film, click on the link below.

What is Art for?

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So what was it a again that cultural life gives us?

On my way backwards and forwards to my work I pass through the Dutch town of Nijmegen. On this journey I don’t normally see much of the town, it is simply the place where I normally change trains, each time having just five to ten minutes to make my way from one platform to the other.

A couple of weeks ago a piano was positioned in an open space on one of the platforms where there is a high roof above. An invitation was placed next to the piano inviting anyone who wants to, to take a seat and play for the passers-by. It is an approach to public performance that I have seen elsewhere, but here in Nijmegen it has certainly been an instant hit. Even when I pass through the station at 6.50am there is almost always someone playing, and in the afternoon it is often a lot more than just the piano, just now it was piano, double bass, guitar and accordion all playing together.  And it was also plenty more just passer-by that they were entertaining, they had a whole audience.

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What is it that culture gives us is a question I often enough have to field from pupils at school. A quick look across the platform in Nijmegen certainly gives one answer, joy, pleasure and a tangible lift in emotion, that is certainly what I experience as I move by. There’s not even an open guitar case on the floor for loose change to be thrown into, this is about sharing and coming together, be that the players themselves or the ever changing audience.

Others have certainly also been noticing the performances in Nijmegen as this film shows:

iPad classroom experiences and digital art

We are now a couple of months into the iPad driven educational new dawn at the school where I work. It shouldn’t really come as a surprise to hear that there are a variety of experiences from the very good to the very bad so far. Colleagues who love the change, some who are keen but struggle and others who feel that the familiar educational world around them is sliding rapidly sideways.

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The pupils too also display a huge range of ability. Some are incredibly savvy about their new digital learning friend, others struggle to find their way. Possibly the two biggest problems we’ve encountered are simply making sure that everyone’s iPad is set up correctly so that the necessary apps and networks can be used effectively and with the publishers of our familiar educational text books. These publishers have been rushing to make iPad compatible versions of their material and the experiences with simply the delivery, but also the quality hasn’t been anywhere near as good as we would have liked.

But we are moving forward, and despite plenty of contact with other schools, Apple experts and courses it is clear that there is a huge amount to learn and orientate yourself towards. Much of that work simply has to be done by the teachers themselves or within small groups in school.

On the short to medium term teachers are going to have to take a serious look at their lessons and ask themselves what new options are on offer and how can I integrate them into my lessons?

As an art teacher I too am discovering the new challenges and opportunities. I have always written my own lesson material (as do most art teachers I know) so you are to a degree always on the lookout for developing and refining it. That is what I am now in the process of doing. My previous printed booklets are being transformed into iBooks readable formats complete with links to films, websites and apps. This is an obvious development I suppose, but as you do it you look carefully at the existing material and reflect on its strengths and weaknesses. The new possibilities seem boundless and I do sometimes wonder if there is enough time to fit them into the lessons!

I have also been experimenting for the first time with the use of the iPad as a creative tool in the classroom. Our iPad classes are just our first years (aged 12) at the moment, so it has been quite a modest beginning. Working with the free version of Bamboo Paper (chosen for the simplicity of tools that it offers) they classes have been making a rapid digital variation on an illuminated letter painting that we have been working on. The painted version has been produced over a number of lessons, but the digital version was a much speedier affair. I’m not unhappy with the results and suspect that this might be a route I go more often. The finger on the glass screen, with the possibility of an instantaneous undo button delivers a freedom that is difficult to achieve with this age group on paper. When it comes to the use of colour I can see that some are still very much using the app like they would with coloured pens and are colouring in areas. Others though have discovered the way that there can mix and combine colours in a way that really only the digital form allows. As a teacher these are the areas that I want to explore in the coming months!

A museum in place of the last lesson of the week

Friday afternoon and what better way to end the week than a quick trip with sixteen of my fourth years (15-16 year olds) to the local museum to see a little art first hand. The town where I work, Oss in the south of the Netherlands, is not that big, but it is lucky to have an excellent small museum, the Jan Cunen museum to give it it’s full name. At least is lucky to still have one for the time being, as the council are busy with plans that is likely to end with the museum being a significantly less interesting and educational place to visit. But for now though on this sunny Friday afternoon I have been able to visit a fantastic exhibition of photographs by the Dutch photographer Gerco de Ruijter. De Ruijter is a landscape photographer although not really in the usual sense. First of all most of his work is made using a camera that is attached to a kite that is being flown above his subject. We are of course more than a little used to the idea of viewing the world from above, be that from a plane or by using Google Earth. What makes the work more interesting is the choice of the specific sorts of landscapes he chooses. They are most often landscapes where the effects of man are quite evident and have resulted in an exposure of geometric quality in the composition of the photographs. The results are often stunningly close to the appearance to certain kinds of abstract geometric painting, a fact that the photographer is more than happy to acknowledge.

blog Gerco de Ruijter Untitled 2009 Dubai  (l. de Ruijter, r. Mangold)blog imageshandler  (l. de Ruijter, r.Marden)

It’s interesting to watch the pupils respond to the work. They see the abstract qualities in the design, a circle carefully positioned in a square in a fashion that to me is clearly reminiscent to the paintings of Robert Mangold, but in de Ruijter’s case a roundabout framed sharply be the edges of the photograph. Or perhaps it’s Brice Marden, Sean Scully or Agnes Martin that comes to mind when seeing a composition of rectangular geometry. Such references are of course lost on my fifteen year olds (although it will certainly be a subject in a forthcoming lesson). However they do often get to an appreciation of the abstract qualities via a different route. The photographs offer a high level of fine detail and you find yourself drawn into looking ever closer in an effort to decipher exactly what it is that you are seeing.  That might be irrigation systems in the U.S., a frozen lake that has been ice skated over or countless rows of small trees or saplings in a plant nursery. The pupils found themselves searching and enquiring as to what each photograph was showing. Once it became clear what exactly they were looking at, the next question was, ‘how do these small details come to combine to form such a pattern or design?’ and one that dominates the photographic composition. This in turn leads to a greater appreciation of the order (imposed or not) that we encounter in the world around us. It was a short but very good visit, the pupils left having had a break from regular lessons, but they also left with a new enthusiasm for a photographic form of art that probably quite surprised them.  I head for home with the feeling that eyes have been culturally opened just that little bit more.