The American Dream – Drentsmuseum, Assen

Is it a sign of the times, is my perception of the land across the Atlantic shifting? I was brought up on the art world of the U.S. It was a constant point of reference during my years at art school. For me it was, and still is, the abstract art that was the focus, large scale, often very lean and reduced. But the exhibition The American Dream spread across the Drentsmuseum in Assen, the Netherlands, and the museum in the northern German city of Emden, the focus is on figuration. Assen has responsibility for the twentieth century up until 1965.

The title The American Dream makes use of an often heard phrase, a dream, or an ideal perhaps. Either interpretation hints at a positive view of America, its people and way of life. From a distance I have often viewed this as maybe a bit brash, larger than life, a very ‘in your face’ view of the reality being depicted. However, and this may be being influenced by the current political and social shifts going on, the feeling I gain from seeing this exhibition is one of melancholy. This doesn’t feel like a land of hope, possibilities and of dreams, it’s just as much about suffering, disappointment and often loneliness. There seem to be figures adrift in the world, or at the very least, adrift in a sort of introspection and battles with the city, the landscape and nature.

 

Even when an image of a brash, attractive surface is to be found, in this day and age it seems only too inviting to prick through its shiny surface and ask what is the reality playing out beneath. Is it a world that we might aspire to be part of? Is it a dream or is it even a dream that is sliding into something closer to a nightmare.

Melancholy can certainly be found in the single or isolated figures that people many of the pieces but at times it seems to take on an almost David Lynchian menace, with concealed narratives seeming to be lurking in the background. A link that is never any clearer than in Catharine Murphy’s painting In the Grass. In this case the snake that is approaching from the top left. But the hose pipe takes me in this context instantly back to the opening sequence of Lynch’s Blue Velvet and it’s tale of what lies beneath the tranquility of suburban America.

Even Roy Lichtenstein’s Crying Girl seems to have become charged with a sorrow that I haven’t ever felt before!

The star turn of the exhibition is Edward Hopper’s painting Morning Sun, a painting modeled of the artist’s then 68 year old wife. It’s a beautiful, serene image, but as with many of the artist’s works there hangs a series of questions. What are the thoughts being contemplated? Has something happened? What is playing out just beyond the frame of the painting? The very same questions I find myself asking about multiple artworks in the exhibition.

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The day I met Anselm Kiefer – Using narratives and personal history for getting attention in class

“Look at me, listen to me, be quiet, this is important” thinks the teacher quietly to themselves at the start of the lesson. Yes, that’s what you want, but anyone who’s tried starting a lesson like that will know that it doesn’t often work, certainly not on a week to week basis. So how to start?

In his book, Oops! Helping children learn accidentally Hywel Roberts talks about the importance of the lure….doing something to draw children into learning. A kind of educational strategy that grabs the attention of the pupil and leads them towards the intended learning experience, maybe via a roundabout route, but by using a successful ‘lure’ you capture the attention, imagination or focus of the learner.

‘Tell a class a story’ you are often advised during teacher training. Yes, kids live a good story. For me it’s often a chance to sneak a bit of art history into my practical art lesson, a real or made up story connected to a theme being studied works fine. But I would go one step further, the best lures or educational hooks at the start of a lesson are the ones with a strong narrative line, but the very best ones are the ones with a personal narrative line.

The natural inquisitiveness of a class can be unlocked by a teacher seemingly opening up a little personal history to them. Discovering the teacher has a life outside of school seems to me to be the ultimate lure, the challenge for the teacher is to link something out of their own biography to the lesson material.

I certainly wouldn’t claim everything out our personal lives can be used! But carefully thought out small doses can work fantastically well. We all have incidents and encounters that make for an engaging storyline. A few of my personal favourites that regularly find their way into my lessons are:

  • My brush with the immigration authorities and foreign police when moving to the Netherlands and what I did when told that I would have to leave the country very soon
  • Being first on the scene of a fierce house fire at midnight
  • Going to the cinema and being completely alone in the auditorium
  • Rolling my friends glasses up inside our tent and stuffing the tent into my rucksack at the start of a month long holiday…..with the worst results
  • Meeting world famous artist Anselm Kiefer and discovering after one sentence I had no idea what to say next
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Anselm Kiefer, Zweistromland (1986-89)

I could go on, each one of these basic storylines in a lesson situation can be built into the most captivating and lesson related narratives. Yes, with a bit of extra embellishment from time to time, but does that matter? It’s all about bringing the class to the point that you want them to be so that the most effective learning can take place.

I would also add that a little bit of metaphorical undressing of your personal biography rarely does you any harm in terms of a good working relationship with a class.

More on getting the attention of a class can be found here.

Bouncing off the work of others – Tim Walker and Loving Vincent in the Noordbrabantsmuseum

There is a very strange double bill of exhibitions in the Noordbrabantsmuseum in Den Bosch, the Netherlands. Both, in their different ways, lean heavily on the artworks of Dutch masters from the past. British fashion photographer Tim Walker presents a series of larger than life photographs that take as their reference point Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. Meanwhile, in the neighbouring galleries there is The Loving Vincent exhibition, a display of a cross-section of the thousands of paintings made for the Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela film of the same name. To say that these lean heavily on the work of Van Gogh, would be a massive understatement.

Art in general rarely escapes referencing the past in one way or another. All of those who have any form of creative or artistic practice have their own influences that touch and inform their own production. Having said that though, these two particular exhibitions are extremely explicit in their referencing of influences and acknowledging the creative forces that lie behind their projects.

Let us start with Loving Vincent. I’m used to seeing museum spaces filled by paintings made by Van Gogh. I’m a regular visitor to both the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and my local museum the Kroller Muller in the central Netherlands. Both have excellent collections and both have galleries filled with both the Van Gogh’s art and crowds of visitors. From a distance the experience in Den Bosch looked similar, walls filled with vibrant, loosely painted images and crowds of people. There is though a difference, here there is not a single painting made by the famous Dutch man. It is a strange experience. Like the film itself it is rather a strange experience. If there ever was a painter whose work seems, through its inherent vibrancy, not in need of being animated it is surely Van Gogh. Yet the film does have a sort of hypnotic attraction. The relatively course animation techniques seemingly allowing the paint to flow across the cinema screen. Some parts work better than others and shear visual experience does tend to occupy your attention, at the expense of the narrative that the filmmakers were also trying to present.

The whole project is a Labour of Love. An infatuation with these iconic images. With this as a backdrop, and with the film in the back of my mind, the technical process is kind of interesting to see. But does it all warrant a place in a museum. Is it more than an advertisement for the film? I’ve always maintained in my teaching, even to the youngest pupils that art is about the ideas. Are there ideas here on display here?

There is clearly an audience for the exhibition, but I have to confess to feeling strangely perplexed by the visit. What are we actually looking at here? A series of paintings made by artists, or are they illustrators, who are all working in a style that is as close as possible to the way the Dutch master handled his paint 125 years ago.

Tim Walker’s exhibition in the same museum in Den Bosch is rather different. He too reaches back into art history. This time though, to a single work, The Garden of Heavenly Delights by Den Bosch’s most famous citizen, Hieronymus Bosch. Walker acknowledges in the forward to the display that he has always had a fascination for this particular painting. Is it an image of “naïve joy and freedom” or “playground of corruption and sexual deviance” is one of the introductory questions.

Having seen the work in the show I definitely feel that Walker comes down heavily on the latter choice. These are disturbing images. Staged photographs with a painterly quality, figure compositions that ooze a depraved sexuality and nightmarish menace.

Coming as he does from a fashion industry perspective with its slick images of perfection this does come as something of a contrast. Yes there are certainly elements of his fashion roots to be found. Overly theatrical….perhaps, but the photographs in the Noordbrabantsmuseum make for uncomfortable viewing, for me at least. It begs the question, would Bosch’s original work have offered still more uncomfortable viewing for its original audience? Being as it is, a warning of the hellish world that could be waiting for these original viewers back in the sixteenth century, in the afterlife.

Related post:

Hieronymus Bosch, Chris Berens and Oss

Don’t change a winning team…..a classroom film project

Or if you prefer, ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’. There is a great deal in education that is in a constant state of flux, we hear much about the atmosphere of constant change in our schools. There are many good reasons to remain critical of our classroom practices, to improve and refine. Maybe as a result of this situation is comes as something of a relief when you have a lesson element, or in this case a series of lessons, that works so well within its aims that you feel little need to adjust it.

This is very much the case with the ‘remake’ project that use with our film module that we teach to our fifteen and sixteen year olds. This practical assignment follows on heels of a more theoretical part that has involved discussing various film making practices and skills and watching a movie in class together. In recent years we’ve spent time in class discussing the boundaries of truth and fiction in movies and have made use of films such as:

But to get back to the film making practical, the set up is simple and involves taking an existing short film as the basis and dividing it up into short fragments of, say fifteen seconds. Each group involved is then asked to analyse the fragment that they are allotted, with particular attention being given to what exactly the camera is doing. Are we talking about a zooming or panning shot, a close up perhaps or a birds eye view and how long does each shot last exactly? Having recorded all the camera work detail in a storyboard the groups get down to filming the action as precisely as they can (quite a challenge for some groups!).

This year we’ve been working with one original film, five different classes and something like 120 pupils. 18 groups were formed and each had to deliver just 13.5 seconds of edited film that remade a section of Love Sick, our original short film by Kevin Lacy. Love Sick is very well suited to the project because the storyline is simple and very visual. The that fact that all our actors involved in the remake change every 13.5 seconds can potentially produce quite a lot of viewer confusion, but given this simplicity I think the result still bridges these continuity problems quite well.

Once I have all the fragments, I put them in the right order, take the original soundtrack and add that to the pupil version. Normally there is a little extra editing needed at this stage to try and make sound and image match up as well as possible, but I try to keep that to a minimum. Using the original sound sidesteps the thorny problem of pupils trying to record sound with their mobile devices and in practice works as a sort of glue in holding all the fragments together.

To say that the pupils are keen to see the film at the end of the production is a bit of an understatement! They are desperate to see it! And it provides an entertaining and often very funny element of a diploma presentation evening that we have with the classes at around the same time that the project reaches its conclusion.

Last year’s project

Winning an award….well, nearly

Awards and prizes in education should be taken with a pinch of salt. How can you possibly choose a teacher of the year? Even it was possible to for one organisation to actually somehow consider them all, what criteria could you use to say, this particular one is the best. I don’t dispute that the teachers who win such prizes are indeed very good teachers and worthy of being allowed to stand in the limelight and enjoy the recognition. But singling one out as the ‘best’ seems a little odd.

Having said all that, it didn’t stop me entering a competition a while back for innovative approaches to language teaching here in the Netherlands. Together with Pasi Kirkkopelto, my online art teacher collaborator (who up until now I have never actually met), I had worked on a project last year that seemed to fit the criteria of the competition rather well. It’s a project that I’ve posted before about:

Stating the obvious – language as a tool of communication

Photography, language and communication (a clil assignment)

I filled out the application form, without even mentioning it to Pasi. I was uncertain, it fitted the criteria in my view, but would it do so for the judges? It was a competition that seemed more geared up to full blown language teachers, rather than art teachers who squeeze language education into their lessons on the side.

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Two weeks ago, I received a mail to say that our project had been shortlisted and would have to be presented to jury and public at the National Conference for Language Education. Presentation is something that I do feel at home with, so two weeks later I found myself with a stand at the conference with our ‘Photographic Exchange’ project presented as stylishly as I could, given the fact that I had only very limited time to plan how to do it.

Maybe I’m just a bit shy, but I did feel a little like a gatecrasher……as an art teacher at the languages conference.  Perhaps I’ve never quite got over just how bad I was at languages at school, and here I was presenting a project for innovative approaches to language education at a national conference. It’s funny how things turn out!

Anyway, to cut a day long story of conversations with a great many visitors short, the project that we had put together last year was awarded second prize in this competition for good educational practice.

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I still think that educational competitions should be taken with a pinch of salt. I know full well that there are other excellent projects out there that for countless reasons never even got as far as being sent in for consideration by the judges.  But what I do know is that we had a good project, one that we as teachers and our pupils worked well with. I also have to say that having your moment on the stage in a huge theatre in front of your peers is, well kind of fun.

The things they didn’t mention during teacher training – No.2, sugar and its effect (or not) on children

I’m not a scientist, I’ve done no research into this area, but for me, the facts of sugar on the behavior of children could hardly have been more visibly seen than it was last week.
I was traveling on a school trip with a group of 115 twelve and thirteen year olds and eight colleagues on a five day trip from the Netherlands to Swindon in the UK by boat and bus. This meant two days of travel and three days of activities in England.

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Generally it was a successful week, not without its incidents, but everything we wanted to do has been successfully achieved. However a recurring discussion amongst the teachers team was around the amounts of sugar, sweets and soft drinks that the children had brought with them, purchased during our day out in Oxford and were consuming relentlessly every time that they returned to their rooms.
Children always are boisterous and excited on trips like these, it is a trip that we have done many times before and we are more than familiar with such behaviour. But this year seemed different, they were so hyper at times, pumped up almost tangibly by the sugary rush that many seemed to giving themselves throughout the day.
As I write this it seems almost naïve of us to allow them free reign with their sugar enriched diet. It does look sometimes like the inclusion of a large bag of sweets is an almost obligatory part of any Dutch school outing. Parents seem more than happy to facilitate this and we regularly see children arrive with a suitcase that has obviously been packed by a parent also being a suitcase that is overflowing with packets of sweets, biscuits and chocolate just to get them through the five days away!
Having got back home I have done a little research into scientific evidence of ‘sugar highs’. Surprisingly, although I could have found articles of support, the majority of the articles talk of ‘sugar highs’ and ‘sugar rushes’ being something of a myth. My evidence is very much of the anecdotal type, but it certainly felt like a pretty real thing last week. Yes, the kids were wound up by the general experience of being away, but somehow something more seemed to be going on!
For me and my colleagues a limit has been reached this week, absurd amounts of calories have been consumed with apparently resulting sugary kicks. We have agreed that the time has come to enlighten the parents on the problems we face when trying to calm and slow the children down at the end of the day at bed time. It may or may not help us in future, but there are of course numerous other extremely valid reasons for trying to reduce the intake of sugar in or young people.