Matisse in the Stedelijk

The Dutch museum goer has had to be patient over the last decade. So many of the big museums have been closed or offering greatly reduced collections during rebuilds and renovation. But that period seems to be passed now and the Stedelijk and Rijksmuseums in Amsterdam and the Mauritshuis in The Hague are open and better than ever. The last months have also seen some major exhibitions of painting at these museums. We have the Frick Collection in the Mauritshuis, Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum and Matisse at the Stedelijk, all currently open, not to mention the major Rothko exhibition that has just finished at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. 

 The Matisse show at the Stedelijk is an interesting exhibition, very different to the large retrospective that was seen in Paris a couple of years ago. The Paris show was an extensive retrospective charting many areas of Matisse’s work. In a way the Amsterdam exhibition does the same, but in a rather different way. We are taken through all the stages and periods of the Frenchman’s work, maybe with a few less examples. But these are accompanied by the work of others who were experimenting with similar ideas at the same time. So we see a Matisse street scene hanging next to a Vlaminck street scene, a Matisse nude next to a Picasso nude or a striding figure painted by Malevich next to one by Matisse. 

  

 In this way you find yourself journeying through twentieth century art history and simultaneously following the development of the bearded Frenchman. The later stages of the show bringing you into the large, upstairs gallery spaces of the Stedelijk and rooms full of exclusively Matisse work and in particular his paper cuts, both the large scale pieces and the pages of his Jazz publication.

Colour is pretty much everywhere to be found in the work of Matisse whether it’s in an early figure painting or portrait, or later in the interior paintings with their decorative details. In the later collages the colour sweeps across you, it’s what you expect from a Matisse exhibition. 

  

 But sitting watching the film of Matisse working with his young assistant to arrange collage elements and freely cutting his paper shapes with his large pair of scissors the role of line in his work is emphasized. I guess that in my own work line and drawing is generally more important than colour. Maybe this makes me a little more receptive to the quality of line in Matisse’s work. But retracing my steps back to the earlier work it becomes still more evident. 

The looseness and economy of the line in the portrait chalk drawings or pencil figures, they all seem so carefree and confident. Picasso is often talked about in terms of his interest and relationship to the creative confidence that young children have. But Matisse has that too, there seems to be a certainty that he will be able to make every line and form work for him. The teenagers I work with seem often to be the absolute opposite of this, the wave of uncertainty that engulfs them when confronted by a sheet of white paper.

It would be interesting to bring them here. I know that they would be troubled by the simplicity of the collages, it all looks too easy. But there lies the crux, they are ready to appreciate the creative ease that Lionel Messi shows us when passing a defender to score for Barcelona and they recognize that they don’t have such an ability. However, show them an artist with a pair of scissors and they are a lot more suspicious. How can such simplicity be good, when in so many other areas we acknowledge complexity?

Some of my older pupils at school are currently working on an assignment that I have, perhaps slightly mischievously, given them. It asks them to consider the qualities of all the various artistic and cultural disciplines. I’ve asked them to choose to present a discipline (say film or architecture for example) that is in a state of progression with the most modern and up to date being the high point of achievement. A second one has to be picked where they feel the quality is in regression, where the work being produced now is inferior to that of the past. In both cases they have to choose examples to argue their case.

In truth this assignment is a bit of an experiment, I’ll be curious to see what they make of it. I suspect some may well feel that the history of painting is in regression. Teenagers are indefinitely impressed by the technical skill of the past and struggle with more abstract or work that is visually reduced to simpler forms. In this context Matisse’s work may well make an appearance, which would probably be reason enough to give them some coloured paper, a pair of scissors and an invitation to have a go themselves.

The Dutch museum goer has had to be patient over the last decade. So many of the big museums have been closed or offering greatly reduced collections during rebuilds and renovation. But that period seems to be passed now and the Stedelijk and Rijksmuseums in Amsterdam and the Mauritshuis in The Hague are open and better than ever. The last months have also seen some major exhibitions of painting at these museums. We have the Frick Collection in the Mauritshuis, Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum and Matisse at the Stedelijk, all currently open, not to mention the major Rothko exhibition that has just finished at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague.

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Educational babies, bathwater and standardized testing

They say that every day in education is different. Generally that’s fairly true, but at the moment it doesn’t really feel like it. Alongside particularly packed timetable at the moment I am ploughing my way through my usual April extra task of being an examiner for the visual arts International Baccalaureate diploma exam. In the course of a month I mark seventy candidates.

The work is all done online and involves a long sit in front of my computer screen at home. Each candidate presents a 10-15 minute interview film where they talk about an exhibition of their work, a 300 word statement, documentation of 20-30 pages of their research/note books and 12-18 images of their main studio work. On the basis of this I have to give an overall grade ranging get from 1 to 20 and write a short report explaining the strengths and weaknesses of the work and justifying how I have applied the marking criteria. All in all, about a forty to forty five minute block for each pupil.

150925_510252105673439_1120982677_nAs I said earlier it’s a long sit. But it is actually, as marking of tests and exams go, it’s a really rather interesting test of endurance. The main reason for this is that the IB visual arts exam is perhaps one of the best examples of non-standardized testing. At no point in this exam are candidates tested on predetermined hard information/facts/skills that the exam board passes down as a requirement.

Let’s be clear here, we do examine on technical skill, sensitivity, creativity and imagination in the practical work candidates present, and we also examine on their research and knowledge of their ideas and how they apply them to the practical work. Alongside this we also look that the contextual, art historical and personal references in their work. Not only is the finished product evaluated, but also the working process that leads up to the work being produced.

The fact that this is all examined with a non-standardized test is absolutely right and correct, how else could you examine such a two year process of artistic development? Well there are of course other ways to do this, you could standardize large amounts of the curriculum and also of the test. Tell the teachers and pupils which parts and details of art history they must learn about in order to be able to have a central test for it. You can also have standardized testing for practical work too, I remember doing a, I think, four hour drawing paper at school in the UK and an even longer painting paper spread over a number of days, all based on a series of standardized questions.

The Dutch educational system where I teach uses the variant where the subject teacher in the school examines the practical work and there is a national written paper for the (very specified) art and cultural history syllabus that has to be followed. I have two main issues with this approach, firstly the balance of theory and practical, it’s about 50:50 but I know the pupils end up feeling like the theory work is in the ascendancy. Secondly, and hugely important, the theory and the practical are way too detached.

This is where the IB non-standardized approach shows its strength. Instead of detachment, the art and cultural context MUST be integrated with the practical work. Exactly how, or what, is not specified. If, for example, a particular candidate is particularly interested in environmental issues and has decided to make artworks about such a theme, they are expected to carry out research into this area, the issues involved and other artists who might be making work related to this field. This is all with the aim of stimulating the pupils’ interest by letting them seek out themes that are interesting and relevant to them. Yes, this might mean that they may never stop to study the work of Rembrandt. But does that matter? If a young person and their creativity can be engaged and nurtured into a love and appreciation of art and culture they’ll find out about Rembrandt soon enough.

As I work my way through all my exam candidates (from all over the world) there is great diversity. Diversity in work process, themes and quality. The quality of teaching is important, possibly even more important in this non-standardized approach, as I should perhaps also point out, is the quality of the examining! But the gain is, and it’s a big gain, that candidates have a focus and ownership of their work that is different from a more standardized approach. The creativity, insight and self-motivation that is asked of them is also of huge relevance to them as they continue into higher education, whether that is in an art and culturally related field or not.

Struggling to extend the teenage world view

The teenagers that I teach grow up in a relatively small provincial Dutch town or the villages in the fields around it. It is essentially, and for most, a very secure and familiar background. The task of showing these young people that they have a place in a bigger picture, a global village if you like, is at times a difficult challenge. A colleague put it something like…”it’s difficult to take our school into the big wide world, but maybe we can bring the world into the school”.

I would definitely connect with such an aim. As a visual arts teacher I see my function to stimulate the pupils’ enthusiasm for art, develop their practical abilities and to show how art and culture has a contribution to make in helping us to engage with important issues around us.

20110427-immigrationIt is with these sorts of thoughts in mind that I have been designing and teaching a series of lessons to my 15 and 16 year olds about how the subject of how illegal immigration has been dealt in the arts. I make use of the work of two Dutch visual artists, the excellent huge scale drawings called Faith, Fear, Face by Carlijn Mens and the photographs Henk Wildschut. I have written about the relevance of their work before on my blog.

For more about Mens and Wildschut click here:

https://petersansom.wordpress.com/2014/05/15/illegal-immigration-and-art/

This year though I have also added the film The Visitor, written and directed by Thomas McCarthy

All three in their various forms give us insight into the lives of illegal immigrants in European or American contexts. All three are fine examples of how various cultural disciplines can engage us with important social and political issues of our time.

I feel very confident of the quality of my examples and indeed of my lesson material. Yet somehow, this year perhaps more than in previous years, I don’t quite feel like the message is getting through. When I reflect a little on this situation my conclusion is that perhaps for too many in my current groups the intellectual and emotional step that they must make to reach an appreciation of the plight of illegal immigrants is just too big.  They’re aware of the problem, they’ve heard it mentioned in the news, but it’s just not their issue. It all seems a million miles away from their daily bike ride to school, the hockey club and shelf stacking in the local supermarket.  I am asking them to be ready to make that conceptual leap and to tune in to the bigger picture. There are a few in the groups I teach who are ready and willing to try to do this, but I have to be honest, I feel with plenty of others I am struggling to help them make this switch. At times there almost seems to be a pride in some in choosing to not engage. They simply don’t feel it is a world that has anything at all to do with their existence.

The truth is, that in some ways they are right. At the moment the connection is slight, an article on the news, a film in a lesson at school. And yet, for some the possible moment when they are confronted with the laws and issues of immigration could be closer than they think, as I’ve been trying to make clear this week. Most of the same pupils out of my classes will, in three or four years time be safely embedded in University life. Many are likely to find themselves doing courses that offer the chance to do placements or work experience in some pretty exotic places. I also know, from my own experience, that such trips can also, from time to time, result in meeting new people and forming emotional relationships that will take them to areas where the state might start to have something to say about the way they want to live their personal lives.  My own story of immigration from England to the Netherlands grew out of exactly this sort of scenario and had its own moments of difficulties and frustration, but these were not nearly so complex as those experiences encountered by a friend who met his wife whilst on a visit to Peru and ultimately wanted to return to the Netherlands with his new partner. Their situation turned out to be a much longer and complicated affair.

As a teacher you dip into all these sorts of personal resources to try and make your point when teaching. But the simple truth is that so much can happen, and so much has to be learnt as an adolescent becomes an adult. Mainstream education has a part to play, you try to lodge some useful baggage in the back of the minds of your learners, to give them some perspectives and insight that might be useful to them in the future. But as a teacher, you also have to accept that it is often a case of planting acorns and hoping for oak trees, you might, but perhaps more likely, you might not be there to see it happen.

Two months later I wrote the following post reflecting on what I wrote above:

Immigration – Pupil work and feedback