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.

 

 

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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……….

 

All the Rembrandts

Rembrandts paintings are such big statements. Last week I was in the Mauritshuis in The Hague showing the pupils I teach The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. Today I’m in the Rijksmuseum with it’s Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild, the Jewish Bride, the portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit and of course also the Nightwatch. All familiar images that I regularly see on my visits to these museums. 

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But today it has been slightly different, for alongside the big statements there are images of such delicacy, intimacy and plain and simple smallness.  For its exhibition Alle Rembrandts the Rijksmuseum has pulled everything out of their storage depot, all the paintings, all the drawings and all the prints.

The drawings in the exhibition are often quite limited in their format, a page from a notebook perhaps, but the etchings, peeping out from their little windows cut in the generous mounts are something else. 

Rembrandt captures a look, a glance and a mood, often in little more than a square centimeter of surface on the etching plate given over to the subject’s face. A individual peers out from amongst a tangle of the most finely scratched lines.  Faces lit by the combination of the blackest of black printmakers ink and the raw bloom of the slowly discoloring paper.   Never mind the impressive clothes and stature of the full size, full figure painted portraits, these are openings into the lives and world of emotion, concentration, activity and sometimes, apparent boredom.  

And then after this simplicity and intimacy, you enter the last rooms. These are spaces packed with drama and spectacle. Rembrandt sets to on the big Biblical themes; the crucifixion , the entombment, Christ presented to the people and Christ preaching. They’re bigger prints than earlier in the exhibition. They bristle with action, the handling of tonal work is, well, as you might expect from Rembrandt, dramatic. I haven’t seen some examples of Rembrandt’s crucifixion series for a while, it is spectacular and fascinating to see different stages of the printing process alongside one another.  Having seen Grunewald’s huge crucifixion not so very long ago, I do find myself wondering how a Rembrandt painting of this subject, based on his etchings, and of Nightwatch scale might have been.

Goodbye to an old friend…..at least for the time being

I first visited the Boijmans van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam early in 1989. The occasion was a cultural visit to the Netherlands with a group of college friends from Wimbledon School of Art where I was studying at the time. We couldn’t afford to join the official college trip to Madrid and Barcelona, so we put together a cut price excursion of our own, visiting the nearer to home delights that the Dutch museums had to offer.

Over the years I have returned to the Boijmans on countless occasions to visit the permanent collection and a variety of temporary shows. But today’s visit on 2nd May 2019 is going to be the last for quite some time. The museum is about to undergo a major renovation and refit that is scheduled to take seven years. Such projects though do have a tendency to run out; just how long was the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam closed for for its rebuild?

It is a slightly odd feeling that a museum that I know so well is simply going to be unaccessible for so long. But if I’m honest, maybe it really is time to bring the museum up to date. Museums have moved on a lot in the last twenty years. How they look and what they offer as an experience has changed and the Boijmans has perhaps got a little left behind.

The museum has a large and diverse permanent collection. It perhaps deserves an updated space to be displayed in. One of my own personal favourites certainly could do with a new home. I remember the two interior curved and slightly rusting steel arcs by Richard Serra from my early visits to Rotterdam. They slice through the space of a street level gallery. Nowadays these industrial scale interventions feel more like part of the interior design of the café with which they have to share the location.

So as the museum draws towards its temporary closure it ends with an exhibition about the Bauhaus. A celebration of the 100 years since the influential German school was set up and the ways it connected with the Dutch art and design world of the time. Presumably the museum won’t be reopening with a show celebrating 107 years of the Bauhaus or worse still 110 years. But that does some how put into perspective, just how long the museum is closing for.

The loneliness (and rewards) of the long distance examiner

Around April and May each year I am reminded of a stressful few weeks I endured in my last year at school as an eighteen-year-old doing my final art exam. A three-hour drawing paper and a twelve or fifteen hour painting paper that came on the back of two weeks preparation time if I remember correctly. The end result was C grade, it was OK, but it wasn’t the A or B that I hoped for.

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One of my own drawings from around the time of my A-level art exam

Now, quite some time later, I’m an examiner for the visual arts exam of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma program. I’ve done it for years (and they don’t seem to mind my C grade a-level!). It used to mean that each April I would go and visit a couple of schools, interview eight or ten pupils per school, be wined and dined at the school’s expense when necessary. Each pupil mounted an exhibition of their work, presented their work books and I would interview them for thirty to forty minutes. It was all very interesting and enjoyable, and also, it has to be said, quite an experience for the candidates.

All this changed a few years ago when the IB switched to a fully digital examination system. Nowadays, for each exam candidate I am supplied online with an eighteen-page digital dossier to mark that documents the creative process of their work and the cultural research that they have done.  There are plenty of images to look at, but it can also turn into quite a wordy document!

This year I have 100 candidates to work my way through, mark and write a short report about. That is quite a few days staring at the computer screen. But on the positive side, working as I do in a secondary school in Western Europe, it is incredibly interesting to see work made by pupils from all corners of the world and based in quite different cultural backgrounds.

Although I don’t actually teach the IB Diploma course myself I am a pretty big fan of the possibilities it offers, in particular the way it interweaves the practical work the candidates have made with their art historical and contextual studies. It is interesting to see what the candidates have produced during the two years that the course takes, but it is almost as interesting to read a little between the lines and see how different teachers in a variety of countries approach the curriculum.

Yes, there are definitely positives about doing this examine work, but it is something of a relief when you reach the end of your allotment of candidates, at this point I am well underway towards that point.

Daytime watch, by Rembrandt

There is no intention to intimidate, but I do kind of like having Rembrandt keeping watch from the back of the classroom.  Better still that these are the very pupils who painted the portrait.

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Click on the link below to read more about how the painting was made.

https://petersansom.wordpress.com/2019/04/01/sworn-to-secrecy-in-rembrandt-year/

How did this happen?

I rounded off my attempt at language learning at school with an O level English (GCSE) grade C. I always enjoyed my English lessons, it’s just that I never felt very good at them. I was a slow learner, didn’t read a novel until I was nineteen and often muddled up words. With that in mind, that grade C perhaps wasn’t too bad.

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Yet, through the course of the years I have ended up becoming a language teacher through the back door as it were. First and foremost, I consider myself an artist and art teacher, but increasingly I realize that my engagement through language, via the artistic route in a playful and creative way has rather become my thing. Could it be that my earlier struggles with English at school, followed by my struggles to learn Dutch when I moved to the Netherlands has actually made me a better language instructor? Maybe, it certainly gives me an empathy and understanding of how my pupils must, at times, feel.

But perhaps more significant is the robustness and self-belief that it has built…..a kind of ‘the things that don’t kill you make you stronger’ philosophy. I notice it in my pupils. Teaching them through immersion in the target language, especially at the phase when they are struggling to keep up with the language being used, isn’t a comfortable feeling.  At times it is well outside of the comfort zone. But it is getting past this and the feeling of achievement that accompanies it that is, the not insignificant by-product of learning language through immersion. With it comes a new found confidence and belief.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I presented a workshop about innovative approaches in content and language integrated learning (CLIL) situations. Much is said in education about the search for teaching methods and practices that challenge our pupils. The argument being that challenge the pupils and they will respond with an increased motivation to learn. It is a compelling argument, especially when you see just how much of a language a 12 year can master in the course of a year of bilingual education.

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Maybe, just maybe, if I had had the luxury of a bilingual education in my teenage years, I might be a little less surprised about having become, rather accidentally, a language teacher of sorts myself.

Cartoons: Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

An app as a serious story-telling device

Screenshot 2019-04-11 at 07.01.31Today, for the first time ever in one of my lessons I had a whole class active on their phones, headphones on and experiencing a piece of serious thematic lesson material. We were using an app that connected strongly with our current lessons based around how artists and other creative people tackle subjects such as immigration and refugees in their work.

For more than half an hour there was silence in the room and eyes were fixed on the small screens as the pupils were challenged to make decisions for an imaginary refugee fleeing persecution in Malaysia.

The app that we were using was ‘Finding Home’ made by the UNHCR a couple of years ago to give users insights into how the life of such a refugee is and their dependence on the communication opportunities offered by a smartphone.

It is an interesting approach and engaged the pupil’s attention fantastically well.  The app, in effect, takes over the phone of the user and makes it work like the phone of the refugee in the story.  The app presents a story in which there are choices to be made by the user that will alter what happens and the course of events.  In a sense it is not unlike some forms of literature that offer the reader the chance to make decisions and choices as the story progresses.

The app goes a step further though in that it also offers access to the photos, video and phone calls of the user, thus making it a much more immersive experience, one that continually engages you with choices, new developments and lurking in the background a constant feeling of danger.

The reaction of the pupils at the end of the lesson was positive.  The narrative that drives the storyline that the app develops was engaging and held their attention. There was even a suggestion I feel that they would actually have liked the app to have had even greater complexity and length, a positive, I think.  It will be a while yet before I ask the class to make a comparison between the various cultural media used to deal with these sensitive political issues.  It will be then that truly find out what the whole class thought of the way we spent the lesson and how the experience weighs in against immigration narratives developed by filmmakers, writers and visual artists in the other examples that we will be looking at.

 

Sworn to secrecy in Rembrandt year

Sometimes the strangest things at the strangest time simply happen…..and in this case might result in a rather unique experience for some of the art department pupils at my school. An interesting story to tell? Well maybe, although at this moment I am rather bound by a kind of pact of secrecy. But I feel I can share just a little of the story and will do in a moment.

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First though a bit more about the Rembrandt celebration that are rather sweeping through the Dutch cultural scene this year. It is 350 years since the artist’s death. The Rijksmuseum has taken the lead and have mounted an extensive exhibition of the Rembrandt’s paintings, drawings and prints. There is a tv show where amateur artists are competing against each other to produce the most accomplished Rembrandt inspired paintings and there is a planned exhibition of Rembrandt related work made by artists (amateur and professional) from across the globe.

If you are interested in art and living in the Netherlands, it really is quite difficult not to be swept along a little in the hype.

I have also made a slight adjustment to my usual planning to make space for Rembrandt. He has provided the content for a group transcription project that I often do with my first year (aged 12-13) pupils. So, this year it was 45 pupils, 48 squares of card and only black and white paint (to draw extra attention to Rembrandt’s use of tone). Our starting point was a close-up image of one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, which once dissected into smaller, provided some pretty abstract looking details for each pupil to tackle. The question was, would this image have enough structure to hold the overall portrait together in the hands of my pupils, and could they be precise enough in their mixing of greys?

As things turned out, I didn’t have to worry. Once all the white of the paper had been painted away, the pupils themselves were able to see areas that needed extra attention generally, and once the total image could be seen from a distance for the first time there was undoubtedly a sense of pride from the group. Maybe it’s not the most creative assignment that I do with the groups involved. But it certainly has benefits in the areas of mixing different tones and the effect of light and dark. Coupled with that comes the positives of producing a team work, and the challenge for everyone to up their painting performance to avoid their piece of the puzzle standing out for the wrong reasons!

The artwork has subsequently been entered at the last minute for the Rijksmuseum’s open exhibition. You must ‘be in to win’ of course, but with well over 8000 other entrants we won’t be expecting too much!

Which brings me back to that other project involving the pupils studying art as an exam subject at the school I teach at. They too have been involved in an art project that also has a Rembrandt and a Rijksmuseum connection, I hope to be able to tell a little more about that later in the summer.