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……….

 

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.