Fashion and storylines

Having visited two fashion exhibitions in the last couple of months (which if I’m honest is quite unusual) I find myself reflecting back a little on what I have seen. What has engaged me, what has caught my attention?

The two exhibitions were one that took a look at nineteenth century fashion and linked it with a number of contemporary designers at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague and The Future of Fashion is Now at the Boijmans van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam.

den haag

In short the show in The Hague focussed on the developments and progressions through the nineteenth century, the silhouette, the fabrics, the under garments and the history and romance of the designs as the title Romantic fashions indicated. The Rotterdam exhibition had a perspective of looking ahead, exploring new materials, functions and the practicalities and impracticalities of things we might wear.

Future-of-Fashion-is-Now-3In the Boijmans show in Rotterdam there certainly were a number of examples of designs that were, in practical terms, difficult if not impossible to wear. Having mentioned this though, I can’t say that I am particularly bothered by such a detail. I am only too happy to walk through a painting exhibition without needing a function more than an aesthetic one or just intellectual stimulation, so why should clothing not also occasionally offer the same?

In this way I might say that the Future of Fashion is Now exhibition was actually closer to that areas of art and culture that I might usually engage with, yet looking back I feel that the display I saw of nineteenth century fashion actually drew my attention more. So why was this, what was it that the exhibition in The Hague had that wasn’t the case in Rotterdam?

What I am left contemplating is not only the historical perspective that the older clothes have, but also the sense of narrative. The clothes come from a period past, they connect with stories and lives that once occurred and are, to a small degree, captured in these items of clothes that have passed through time. They have a story to tell, a sort of historical authenticity. Maybe this is what I missed in Rotterdam. The clothing there was a look towards the future and so inevitably missed some historical baggage.  Maybe that as I get older I myself am more able to look back and appreciate and contextualize this more. I am able to link the nineteenth century clothing with what I know of the period through its art, form the photographs I’ve seen of distant relatives wearing similar clothing or from books that I have read.

Both exhibitions of course have their own merits, but in order to engage, appreciate and understand maybe I need a little more of a storyline (even if it is one I construct myself) to be able to find my way.

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Is fashion becoming my thing?

Fashion design is not my specific area of specialization. I was trained as a painter and that remains my man focus of interest. Having said that, one of the great luxuries of my education job here in the Netherlands is that I get to teach the subject known as Culturele en kunstzinnige vorming (CKV), which roughly translates as artistic and cultural education. It is a fantastic subject that takes me and the fifteen and sixteen year olds that I teach into the broadest range of cultural disciplines such as film, theatre, dance, music, photography, architecture, applied art, design and visual arts. Over the fourteen years that I have now taught CKV it has lead me to widen my own cultural knowledge base into many new areas.

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It is with this process of continual self-education I travelled to The Boijmans van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam to see The Future of Fashion is Now exhibition. As I wrote earlier fashion design isn’t specifically my thing, although I have to admit to a growing interest and have just completed writing a module of lesson material for my CKV lessons that I’ll be working with after the Christmas break. The exhibition today was an opportunity to top up on ideas that I might be able to make use of in my lessons.

A particular challenge in this area is to break through the inherent conservatism in the pupils’ view of the world. So many of them in their approaches are anything but radical. IMG_0427 (1)They like what they know any they know what they like!  Forcing them to consider things outside of their normal range of experience is the challenge here. I want them to think creatively and experimentally, the idea will ultimately to produce a design idea, although I should add, not and actual item of clothing.

Partly inspired by another recent exhibition in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague entitled Romantic Fashions my idea is set the challenge of producing a hybrid item of clothing that combines the clothes of today with elements of fashion from the nineteenth century. There are examples of designers who have done just that already, people such a, Vivian Westwood and Jan Taminiau. But in taking these frames of fashion reference I am attempting to reduce the over whelming range of references that are potentially on offer to the pupils.  They will learn a little about the cultural world of 150 years ago and they will relate it to the world that they know today.

It is at this point that the exhibition in Rotterdam today will be useful. Pupils know what to expect in the high street in 2014 generally, they might even know a little about what appears on the catwalks of Paris and Milan, but much of what was visible today was altogether more experimental and will challenge them to think further and hopefully creatively when combining the designs of the past with the sensibilities and materials on offer today.

Peer Instruction, a first experiment

After writing enthusiastically last week about the presentation by Eric Mazur that I had attended in Utrecht I thought a follow up was necessary. I couldn’t possibly leave it at just an interesting and new bit to the selection of ‘activating lesson forms’ that I and every teacher walks round with. It was an idea to be used and experimented with.

Mazur is a physics professor and the example he used last week in his presentation was a real physics one, with hard and definite answer.  That was my first slight concern, would this peer instruction approach work so well in the more subjective and opinion based nature of my arts subject area? With this in mind I set about earlier in the week trying to formulate a series of questions that generate discussion in my class and initially at least not simply lead all the pupils to pick the same answer.

What I came up with was a lesson plan for my third years (14-15 year olds) that was intended to launch a series of lessons with theoretical and practical assignments all based around the central theme of war and conflict as it is presented in art and the media.

The basic approach was as follows; I would start by showing an image of conflict from the history of art and ask the pupils to consider the following question, “what is the most significant aspect of this artwork?”

They could choose one of five possible answers:

a)  To document an incident or event from history

b)  To show the dangers of war

c)  To show technical skill

d)  To make us feel sympathy for the victims of war

e)  To show the participation in war as a kind of heroic act

Using the pupils’ smartphones and the Socrative app they were able to vote for their chosen answer. Thereafter I gave three or four minutes for discussion and persuasion of each other, before allowing a second round of voting.

This process was repeated for three images, the Bayeux Tapestry, David’s painting of Napoleon and Goya’s Third of May, all three are shown here below.

war and conflict

The basic idea of the lesson was to illustrate to the pupils that both the motivation for making the artworks and what they actually show us has changed during the course of history. In the five answers they could choose from there are no definite right or wrong answers, it is all a little softer than that. However I think that it is fair to say that there are perhaps more prevalent and active answers from our 21st century perspective, and it was those that I was hoping the pupils would move towards after discussion.

I was generally relatively satisfied about the way the lesson proceeded, the technology worked well in recording the voting and I really only had to add extra instruction to one small group who seemed to think that winning a discussion was simply about shouting “answer c is the best answer”, “no, answer d is the best answer”!

The results

The three ‘dominant’ answers I was hoping beforehand to see coming out were the following:

Bayeux tapestry – answer (a) to document an event or incident from history

David’s Napoleon – answer (e) to show the participation in war as a kind of heroic act

Goya’s 3rd May – answer (d) to make us feel sympathy for the victims of war

As I said earlier I see these as the ‘dominant’ answers, not the only possible answers, but nonetheless I was extremely curious as the conclusions my class would come to.  As it turned out, after the first vote (with absolutely no discussion beforehand), all three of my dominant answers were the most selected, although it should be said that for the Bayeux tapestry there were three answers that all gained a similar number of votes.

The results of the initial vote were kept secret, and a second vote was conducted after the pupils had discussed amongst themselves their own answers (and without me, the teacher, giving any further input).

Mazur’s theory is that the pupils with the strongest insight, understanding and backup ideas to support the right or dominant choice will win out in the discussion phase and lead to an increased support for the best answer. What did I see?  Well I saw exactly that, a strengthening of the support for the perspectives I outlined above. The instruction the pupils had given one another had focussed attention and paved the way towards a discussion around the differences in motivation for making artworks about conflict through the centuries, but also artistic developments and our emotional involvement with what is shown.  Mazur’s other point, and that is the most important one, is that pupils will be more engaged in learning if they are being challenged to think about their own position in relation to material, rather than simply ‘receiving’ material in lecture form.

But she’s got no clothes on!

It was an unexpected and entertaining end to a Thursday afternoon with my first years (12 year olds). I’d asked one of them to give a one minute presentation on Matisse’s painting The Dance. As soon as I put the painting on the screen at the front of the class I could feel a twitchy unrest spreading round the class, particularly amongst the boys. The reason was the nudity of Matisse’s five figures dancing in a ring.

300px-Matissedance

You can’t teach art and support the practical work with a bit of art history without occasionally showing an unclothed body, I’ve done it often enough, normally with nothing more than an odd snigger. I’m still not sure what caused this particular class to find it all, well, so exciting!  Not being one to shy away from a discussion I decided to try and contextualize the place of the nude in the history of art.  The more I explained, the more interested they were becoming. It was kind of a mixture of twelve year old fascination mixed with a kind of perplexed disbelief.

Then finally came the inevitable question, “Sir, have you ever painted a lady with no clothes on?”

I wondered for a moment whether to carefully move the attention onto other things, but decided instead to explain that in art schools students are often given the chance to draw from the model, and that I too had done that in the past. In fact when I had first started I had produced one painting that had taken six weeks and the model, Jenny, had sat in the same pose every day. At this point you could almost see the minds of the class ticking over as they worked out some of the practicalities for themselves. A whole series of questions followed.

“How many hours a day did she sit?”

“How did she know she was sitting in the right way?”

“Did she take breaks?”

“Wasn’t it cold for her?”

“Did she get paid for just sitting there doing nothing?”

“Isn’t it a bit of a funny thing to do?”

“Did she wear shoes?”

But perhaps the funniest part of the discussion was as the pupils pictured the model’s breaks,

“Did you talk to the model during the breaks?”

“Did you get to know her a bit?”

And then…..

“Wasn’t it a bit funny talking…..er……to someone…..er….with no clothes on?”

….er no, she put her clothes on then I replied. You could almost see all the little pictures being drawn in their minds!

Like I said, it was a funny and quite entertaining way to end the day. There was an atmosphere of excited disbelief running around the class….especially amongst the boys.  Only time will tell if it will increase the number who apply to go to art school in five years time!

I have an over optimistic view of time – until I discover how long things take to do

I have a very positive, some might say over optimistic, view of time. This is particularly true of making things myself or getting others to be creative in my role as a teacher.  I always underestimate the time it takes to do practical tasks. Generally I’m really pretty good with my hands, I do work fast, in the kitchen, when painting the stairs or making a drawing. But if I’m pushed to pin down how long a given task is going to take I almost always under estimate.

This is also true when planning practical art assignments for the various groups I teach.  The initial idea might have been for say six one hour long sessions. We get that far and the task simply doesn’t look finished to me. Do we stop and move on, well no, almost never. One of the most important lessons I learnt from one of my lecturers at art school was simply that too many good ideas weren’t ever pushed to a conclusion they deserve. So with this in mind the project invariably gets extended. One of the advantages you might say of the art teacher, time has a more elastic quality in my planning, but so does the curriculum.

double portraits

The pupil work shown here is a good example of work time extensions being necessary. Yes it was a fairly complex assignment for my third years (14-15 year olds). Yes I like to push them hard and to build up an image of complexity and yes collage is a working method that kind of invites dithering and hesitation at times. But still I imagine each time that they can do the work in half the time it actually takes!

Manipulated Nature

manipulated natureI’ve been working on a series of drawings and digital works that for now are entitled Manipulated Nature. They all involve the alteration of situations and views that I come across in my surroundings and relate to how we view and adjust the world around us, sometimes for practical reasons, sometimes for aesthetc and sometimes it would seem, for little reason at all.  The way the Dutch landscape in particular is used and abused is maybe particularly extreme in the area of manipulation.

The drawing shown here is one of a series of tree images that hopefully with time may become paintings, although I suspect before we get that far there are som technical issues to be addressed as to how to make something that works well as a drawing, also work well as a painting.

If you are interested enough to see a few more pieces of my work click on the ‘paintings’ link above.

School Cultural Newsletter December 2014

It is the start of a new month and time again to send out a cultural newsletter to my pupils and colleagues at school in the aim of keeping the cultural profile and interest levels as high as possible.  Sharing it with the online world is of course good also to do.

cult.nes.dec 2014

To read the full version click on the link below:

dec 2014(blog vers.)

If anyone is interested in making use of the idea in their own educational environment I would be only too happy to share my material and format with them, don’t hesitate to get in touch if you would like to.