Rineke Dijkstra, Rembrandt, Night Watching and our pupils in the Rijksmuseum

dijkstra1It is a strange experience to arrive at the iconic façade of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and look up and see the faces of pupils you have taught looking out from the huge banner promoting the museum’s newest exhibit. But there we were, just over six months on from the start of this unexpected artistic journey. Dutch photographer and video artist Rineke Dijkstra had completed her work and turned the many hours of film that she and her team had shot after closing time back in the winter, in front of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, into a finished artwork. The result, a three-screen video work, condensed into around half an hour and is now being displayed in the gallery of honour, next to Rembrandt’s masterpiece.

For the official presentation afternoon our group, made up of art department colleagues, the girls involved in the filming and their parents were joined by various clusters of others who had been filmed. We all crowded into the museum’s auditorium where, after a short introduction, Rineke Dijkstra came to the stage. She thanked all the participants and went on to explain a little about the process and the intentions she had had when constructing the final video arrangement. In truth there was little explanation needed, certainly once the presentation of the artwork itself began.

Anyone who has ever eavesdropped on the conversation of other visitors in front of a famous artwork in a museum will understand the principle. The viewing of such a work unlocks all sorts of opinions and personal narratives. In the artist’s film we see a range of people offering their own lines of thought. These are sometimes very considered or opinionated, others are quite light-hearted or simply funny. It is into these areas of reflection that Rineke Dijkstra’s work, entitled Night Watching takes us. The girls from our school who participated provided the voices and faces of high school age. Other groups included supermarket personnel, art students, university students, Asian businessmen, younger school children and pensioners.

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The visual arrangement of three screens is not overly complex, but allows fascinating combinations to be made, viewing the same speakers from different angles, close-up shots and groups arrangements. All the figures participating were filmed against a stark white background. Our attention is fully focussed on the faces involved as one group fades out and another appears. This reduced format keeps us visually interested but also gives every chance to focus on what is being said. This in turn leaves you adding to your mental picture of Rembrandt’s masterpiece which, in the film, is never actually displayed.

Although the Nightwatch itself is never seen, it is hanging only a few metres away and you leave the video work wanting to check and reflect on these new observations and insights (both the credible ones and the less credible ones!)

As a teacher involved in teaching one of the groups who were filmed it is of course fascinating to see how your pupils are presented. In the case of these teenage girls the image is surprisingly studious and serious. Elsewhere in Dijkstra’s film there is a considerable amount of humour. Often, we are laughing with the subjects, but on odd occasions it feels more like we laugh a little at them too.

It is surprising just how open and forthright Rineke Dijkstra was able to get her subjects to be, but this is the charm of the project. Whilst the visual arrangement was carefully constructed and controlled, the reactions are anything but that. The gallery of honour in the Rijksmuseum is generally a busy but also a fairly serious sort of place. It will be interesting to see and if the regular visitors and tourists experience the humour as tangibly as my colleagues and I did.

The story of how we became involved

Rijksmuseum podcast with Rineke Dijkstra talking about the work (in Dutch!)

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Brexit….three years on and three years back

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This is generally not a political blog but………..I wrote the text below relating to my post-Brexit referendum views more than three years ago. I never imagined that three years on the whole debate would have reached the point that it has. Reading it again I despair, but I still stand completely by what I said:

June 2016

I left The UK more than twenty years ago. Not because I didn’t like it there, but because I had had a Dutch girlfriend, the Maastricht treaty had just been signed and this interesting opportunity just came along. It wasn’t always easy, certainly dealing with the bureaucracy in the early years was complex and at times, less than a pleasure. But now, all that time later, I have absolutely no regrets. I have, for as much as it matters, dual nationality and I feel integrated into Dutch society. If you asked me if I feel more British than Dutch, then I would still say yes, I feel more British. Your formative years as a child, teenager and young adult, are it would seem, just that, very formative.

Working in education it is a privilege to play your small part in helping steer young people through these influential years and giving them some extra baggage and vision as they step out into the adult world. At the school where I work, we make great efforts in broadening the international perspectives of our pupils, helping them see and understand wider contexts. We organize trips abroad, exchanges with other countries and work experience placements that sometimes take the pupils quite literally to the other side of the world. This is my Dutch educational context, but there are educational institutions all over Europe working along the same lines. The message is very much, ‘the world is your oyster’. With this as background it is very easy to see why the younger voters in Britain have been so despondent about the result of the referendum.

This week I have been asked so often for my thoughts on the whole Brexit debacle. I have watched from a distance with increasing disbelief. On Thursday night I was genuinely starting to believe that the remain campaign had done just enough. But no, headed by a group of opportunists behaving like secondhand car salesmen throwing their promises around a Pandora’s box has been levered open. What were the voters hoping that they discovered inside, a sort of nostalgic 1950s view of the country that never really existed?

There is clearly a very long way to go in this complex situation, and it does seem apparent that the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove might just be starting to realize just how complex. A poison chalice? Maybe, time will tell.

This week, when I get back to school, I will doubtless be asked again for a perspective as one of two token ‘Brits’ on the teaching staff. I will talk about my bafflement at the behaviour of the politicians and my feeling of despair at the outcome. But above all the insular, inward turned message it gives. The world is a complex place, with difficult issues on any numbers of levels, it needs and requires cooperation and understanding, not distancing yourself when the going gets tough. My teaching I hope reflects this stance. I want my pupils to feel engaged and that they have a place and a constructive relationship in the broader world. Maybe if you plough through the statistics there are reasons for hope, a more open-minded youth vote may seem to suggest it. But departure from the EU restricts perspectives, limits choices and does little to help young people find their place and their voice in a broader world. I don’t want the opportunity that I had, and took, to belong to the past.

A secret art project…..and a unique opportunity

The post below was written six months ago. At the time it had to remain unpublished, an art related secret yet to be told. Things have moved on, I can now tell the story.

27 February 2019

I am writing this knowing that for the time being at least, I’m not going to be publishing this post. The reason for this is that it involves an artwork that at the moment is something of a secret and is related to the ‘Rembrandt year’ that the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is hosting to mark the 350 years since the artist’s death.

The story starts two and a half weeks ago. My colleague Caroline and I were at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. We had split our group of twenty-two pupils into two groups and were receiving a tour from two tour guides focussing on Dutch 17th century art. Such a tour inevitably stops off in front of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch. I was elsewhere in the museum with my group when Caroline was standing in front of Rembrandt’s massive masterwork.

While the group were answering questions Caroline noticed that the group was being very closely observed by another visitor. Moments later the same visitor came and introduced herself as Rineke Dijkstra, the Dutch art photographer who is perhaps best known for her photographs of teenagers, awkwardly posing before the camera on apparently empty beaches.

Dijkstra didn’t waste anytime in getting to the point, she had been commissioned by the Rijksmuseum to produce a new video work as part of the current Rembrandt year. It was going to be along the lines of the earlier work shot in Liverpool of British children talking and reflecting on a Picasso painting without the painting itself ever coming in shot. The new project was going to have its focus on Rembrandt’s Nightwatch though……and the bottom line was, that she wanted to use Caroline’s group of pupils as a part of the project.

Two weeks of organisation followed, permission from school to participate, permission from parents because the group was mainly made up of sixteen and seventeen year olds and the willingness fo the pupils themselves to be involved.

Two and a half weeks later we find ourselves, after museum closing time in the essentially deserted gallery of honour, with its collection of Vermeer, Steen, Hals and Rembrandt works. But in front of the Nightwatch a temporary studio has been errected for the film shoot. A white cube, bright lights and multiple cameras. It begins, I think, to dawn on the pupils that this is actually really quite a big deal! We are introduced to Rineke, she also seems quite excited about the work to be done that evening.

One of the Rijksmuseum tour guides take the girls off on a quick tour of some of the other paintings to settle nerves (yes, only girls, clearly a factor that made the artist pick Caroline’s group from the masses a couple of weeks earlier). A clear embargo was placed on photographing the set or any of the activities around the shoot. No images were to find their way onto social media!

Then it was down to work. Rineke sellecting clusters of girls to join her on the set that had been created in such a way that the pupils were issolated against an intensely lit white background.

I stood, a little out of view. Behind three monitors streaming the input from the cameras, not unlike the multiscreen effect that I had seen before in the Liverpool work. However, unlike that work, where the children involved were presented in a row side by side, this time the artist seemed keen to experiment with different approaches and compositional devices. The girls were arranged sitting on a bench together, but with the bench lined up in such a way that it was angled towards the camera. The result being that the faces of the girls appeared almost stacked up behind one another, way more dynamic and perhaps more in keeping with the work of Rembrandt himself. The girls were encouraged to talk about what they saw, what they thought, no script, just spontaneous reaction.

Dijkstra also asked a group of the girls to look at the painting and draw from it in their sketch books. After much careful positioning and repositioning of the girls, and laughter and a little bemusement from the young subjects, Rineke gave the sign, cameras rolled, silence decended. The girls drew, they looked, they drew again. This time the shoot ran for a considerable time, in fact it seemed to go on and on. The concentration was palpable. Were these really the same chatty, and often enough, distracted children that we see in class at school?

The material that was recorded was fascinating to see, as was the process of work of Ms Dijkstra as she cast her critical eye over the detail of the framing of each of the cameras. One of the later shots that was made reminded me more of Rineke’s well known photographic work of teenagers on the beach and a certain discomfort that creeps through in those images. A row of girls took up position against the white backgroud, the Rijksmuseum guide, just out of shot started to talk them through the painting, an extensive and detailed monologue which went on for quite an extended period. The girls focussed on the image of the painting, following the guides descriptive speech. You saw their gaze move around the image. They remained standing and looking. After a while you saw an ocassional adjustment of balance, a dip in concentration, a momentary distraction. Suddenly you observe that ‘not completely relaxed’ mark that is present in so much of Dijkstra’s work. Simply by filming for just long enough that lapse in focus starts to show itself, both physically and mentally.

23 August 2019

At the time of writing we had no way of knowing how much, if any, of what was filmed would in the end be used in the film work. We’ve reached the point now though that there is a finished work that will shortly be unveiled in the Rijksmuseum. The presentation of the work Night Watching in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is a couple of weeks away and the group of girls and us, their teachers, have been invited to the preview at the beginning of September.

End of year…..jobs you just don’t get to the rest of the year

The last weeks of the school year have arrived.  The pupils are intermittently at school for tests, a few last appointments and finally the picking up of reports.  Apart from a huge amount of clearing up, once this stage of the year is reached there is generally time at last to spend a little while working on a task that has been continually pushed to the side throughout the year.  That being presenting the work of pupils on the walls and in the glass cases around school.

It is an important job, at least in terms of raising the profile of the art department in the school as a whole, both for pupils and staff.  Some great things do get made in the art department, we produce good final exam results, but still the importance of a bit of PR work is never wasted. Colleagues from other subject areas are generally pleased and interested to see the creative work that pupils produce. But undoubtedly the most important thing is building the interest of the younger pupils to potentially choose the creative subjects as an exam subject in our upper school.

From a personal point of view, I do also get a sense of satisfaction in seeing the pupils’ efforts presented clearly and well.  This is especially true for the larger group projects that I have carried out with whole classes during the last months.

 

Absence, presence and Johannes Vermeer

In the early nineties I produced a series of work based on the art of Johannes Vermeer. It started with a piece entitled The Absence of a Vermeer, a play on the phrase often used when describing great art that it has a ‘presence’.  The piece was a three centimeter slice through a reproduction I made of a painting by the Dutch master that hangs in the National Gallery in London.

The Vermeer series progressed in various ways and included a series of three paintings I made of Vermeer rooms, but with figures and furniture removed. The series of work as a whole referred to the nature of reproduction, what exactly we are seeing when we see an image, or an image of an image and how reproduction effect the encounter with the original.

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I was reminded this a couple of weeks ago of all this older work when I came across the news that the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden are busy with the restoration of their Vermeer, a painting entitled Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window.This isn’t a normal cleaning up or varnish and grime sort of a restoration though.  They are removing a layer of paint too, paint that has been discovered to have been added after Vermeer’s death by an unknown person.  Underneath the layer of paint is a painting hanging on the wall of the girl’s room.  The painting shows a standing cherub figure with a bow in its right-hand.  I’m very familiar with this particular cherub having painted it myself when making one of my own ‘Vermeer pieces’.

The museum has made the unusual decision to pause in the process of restoration and display the half-finished result.  It is a strange sight and brings with it questions of presence and absence of its own. A familiar image is suddenly, and rather strangely, looking rather over full.  It begs the question as to the motivations of the person or people who made the change to Vermeer’s original.  Did they too feel it to be overcrowded, or were they offended by the nakedness of the cherub painting that is now revealed?

Favourite app of the week…Folioscope

It’s heading towards the end of the year.  Sometimes you have to work a little harder to hold the attention and keep the motivation in the classroom.  H2Q are such a class.

I see them for just 60 minutes a week.  They are chaotic, at times noisy, very socialable and generally very likable bunch.  But given the right challenges this group of twenty five 13 year olds can be focused and engaged with what they are doing.  Sometimes this year I’ve been spot on with an assignment, and at other times less so.  It is often difficult to predict what will hit the mark.

The last couple of weeks we’ve been working on an animation project.  The iPad’s that I have at my disposal certainly help here and the app Folioscope is great in offering enough possibilities without the kids becoming overloaded and confused by the choices on offer.

We took our inspiration for the project from Rhubarb and Custard, and old BBC animation that made use of a fairly course, but extremely lovable, drawing style.  Apart from that though it was an open door, the pupils could approach it how they liked.

The result, two lessons later, apart from a whole set of animations similar to the two below, was a surprisingly quiet classroom.

Geometry, grids, rows and long walks – De Pont, Tilburg

It’s a bit of a trip for us to get the De Pont in Tilburg. Half an hour on the bike, ninety minutes in the train and fifteen minutes walking from the station in Tilburg. But such expeditions are peanuts in comparison to Richard Long, who is currently exhibiting in the museum. 586 miles (943 km) in eighteen and a half days across Southern France and into Italy, between Bordeaux and Turin was one such outing. Various text installations documenting Long’s walks formed a significant part of the exhibition, but the major spaces were dominated by the geometry of his stone installations, with crosses, circles and columns of raw or cut stone stretching out over the museum’s cool white spaces.

Long’s work has a longer history in De Pont and fits in well with the curatorial style of the museum. Geometry and a certain leanness visually are often returning features in the exhibits. A fact seems particularly underlined at the moment by a number of other works on display, repetition, grids, rows and symmetry abound. It is very much an aesthetic that appeals to me and I don’t hide the fact that I myself often work in series producing rows of variations on themes. It is simply my way of doing things and so a visit to De Pont always recharges my own visual batteries and leaves me ready to work again, this time sent on my way by the likes of Gerhard Richter, Roni Horn, Ann Veronica Janssens, Jan van Duijnhoven and Sean Scully.

Art in unusual places – Ely Cathedral

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first manned landing on the surface of the moon Ely cathedral had organized a science festival. I made a rapid visit to the UK this weekend and had a chance to take in a concert at the cathedral and see Luke Jarram’s installation work (it would have been very difficult to miss it).  An approximately 1:500,000 scale replica of the moon, lit from the inside was suspended in the nave, just short of the central space under the cathedral’s octagon. The seven meter in diameter inflatable made for a very still but hugely eye-catching intervention in the space.

 

 

The eyes have it, in the history of art and in teenager art

The human eye has always had a prominent role in the history of art. A statement of the obvious you might say. The tradition of the portrait has been such a prominent feature in art for so long and can indeed be traced back to ancient Egypt. The eyes of a subject are more often than not the focus. The eyes are, as they say, the windows on the soul. The arrival of photography brought new challenges for artists, but even within the modern chapter of art history it has remained relevant and extensively explored.

But here I am less interested in the tradition of portraiture, and more in the eyes, or maybe even ‘an eye’ when it is taken in isolation. The singling out of the eyes, or a single eye, reached something of a peak in the art of the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century and the work of the Surrealists in particular.

Odilon Redon was more than happy to remove the eye from the human face, to isolate it or combine it with other objects or contexts. Rene Magritte and Man Ray also produced work that see a one-eyed stare coming out of their canvases. And then there is the unforgettable eye sequence in Un Chien Andalou, the film made by Luis Bunuel & Salvador Dalì, a reference that is certainly not for the squeamish.

The eye, as a sensory organ, is of course a crucial to the artist both in terms of perceiving the world around them and realising their own creative work. Without vision, the artistic practice becomes massively restricted. Added to this, we experience our eyes as both tremendously fragile and vulnerable in comparison to much of the rest of our body. These sorts of reasons contribute perhaps to the eyes place in the history of art.

Having made these observations I’m not altogether convinced that these are the motivations why the eye in the drawings of teenagers is at times so extraordinarily prevalent. I have just finished an extensive session of marking of final school exams, where candidates (18-year olds) have documented their working process and drawings that have moved them towards final pieces of work. What has undoubtedly caught my eye is just how many eye paintings, drawings and doodles I have seen.

Maybe it’s not that surprising that YouTube has rather more films about drawing eyes than they have for drawing ears. But what is especially noticeable in the exam candidates’ works is how often the eyes are isolated from the face, so not as a form portraiture, indeed very often they are just a single eye.

Have I got some great theory forming here? Well no, not really. More likely just more questions relating to the subject. Is this more prevalent amongst girls than boys? Is it connected to a fascination in Manga and Anime illustrations with their enlarged eyes? Or is it simply because it is relatively easy to do in comparison to a complete portrait? Do these eye drawings carry some form of symbolic meaning for the young artists involved?

One thing is for sure, they don’t seem to be being made with any great knowledge or insight into the artists’ work that I mentioned earlier, which is a shame, because a little more development of an idea around such a motif, can make it a great deal more interesting, certainly when it is the 137th exam candidate that you are marking!

The homework issue

Some of my first years (aged 12) have truly transformed their artistic ability this year. It is almost like they’ve developed a completely different artistic soul……which may well turn out to be an extremely accurate evaluation of the situation.

The pupils concerned handed in a homework project yesterday that they had been working on for the past month or so. I was an assignment that involved a little internet research, writing a short text and producing two drawings.  I flicked through the folders afterwards and two in particular caught my eye.  I’ve watched the two boys concerned struggle with their drawing capabilities over the last year.  I’ve pushed and encouraged, there has been some progress, but generally quite small steps. Below are two drawings that the pupils made while we were working on a monsters and gargoyles project earlier in the year.  The paper is filled, the drawings quite unrestrained in their character and the shading is, well lets be positive, quite expressionistically done.

Perhaps I should also mention that the drawings were done in class.

So back to the project.  The main drawing assignment was to take a flower or small branch from a tree and lay it on a sheet of white paper and make a pencil drawing of the plant form and shadow.  We didn’t spend time practicing this sort of observational drawing in class, although I did give a little instruction about filling the sheet and trying to make full use of the range of greys that your pencil offers.

The same to pupils from the drawings above produced these drawings:

Something quite remarkable seems to have occurred.  As the art teacher, I would like to claim that my pupils have suddenly become so much more sensitive in the use of their materials.  But the truth is of course, these drawings are not made by the pupils concerned.

Now there is nothing new in parents or older siblings helping with homework.  Generally, a parent who helps and explains with a difficult piece of maths should be applauded.  It is also true to say that the same parent who goes that little bit further and fully solves that especially tricky equation for their child will generally pass by unnoticed. But with art homework it is all rather easier to see.  The question to those who have helped here is simple, do they really think that I can’t see this?  I feel a comparable drawing assignment that we will work on in class may be the way to resolve this, maybe there will be a third pair of drawings added to this post later……….