Capturing the imagination – a photographic remake

It is normally a pretty good sign if some colleagues in the staff room know about a project that you are working on before you’ve told them about it. It means that pupils themselves are talking about it!

This was the case last week. I had taken my fourth-year classes (15-16 year olds) to our local museum, the Jan Cunen Museum, to see an exhibition by the Dutch photographer Micky Hoogendijk. Most of the work on display were quite large-scale portraits with varying degrees of digital manipulation often in the form of overlays of other imagery imposed over the head or face. Three works stood out though as slightly different. These particular photographs didn’t have the same manipulation, but they did have a historical resonance with seventeenth century Dutch art.


We talked about the set of photographs whilst at the museum, the clothing, the poses, the use of light and the restrained expressions on the faces. The linking with seventeenth century art was strong and something the pupils later explored in a homework assignment.

Whilst the Hoogendijk works don’t seem to have been based on specific images from the past they offered the pupils a contemporary route back to artworks that they often pass quickly over in other circumstances.

The photographs also offered me a chance to make use of a practical assignment that I have used in the past. This involves a photographic remake of an art historical portrait where the pupil plays the part of the subject of the portrait. It is a relatively straight forward assignment to explain, and maybe this helps in the way that it seems to have captured the attention of my pupils in the last couple of weeks.

I provided a large selection of images for the classes to search through to find something that they thought that they could work with. I gave strict instructions for the photographs that they were going to take, and these were going to become my marking criteria when evaluating the work:

  • The pupil really has to play the part, the expression involved and displayed was important
  • Composition and the arrangement of figure and attributes were important
  • The use of light in the painting had to be followed as much as possible in the photograph
  • The pose of the figure should be used as a basis in the photograph
  • The clothing can be updated but should show a relationship to the original painting   Providing the framework
  • Cardboard box office
  • Related posts:
  • All photographs shown above are included with the pupils’ permission.
  • Looking back on the results that were finally handed in, I feel that the effect of that having seen high quality photos in the exhibition had a positive effect. I feel that it made them approach their own work in a more ambitious way. It definitely seemed to help them in taking a step away from the idea that this was just going to be a relatively unconsidered snap shot, an approach that is the dominant feature of most of a teenagers photographic output.

Beyond these instructions I left my pupils to it. Sending them off with a two-week deadline to produce this practical homework assignment. Although I did also stress that this was perhaps not an assignment to work on in a hurry on a dark Tuesday night…..they were to try and make use the of the natural light that the weekend offers.


Looking back on the results that were finally handed in, I feel that the effect of that having seen high quality photos in the exhibition had a positive effect. I feel that it made them approach their own work in a more ambitious way. It definitely seemed to help them in taking a step away from the idea that this was just going to be a relatively unconsidered snap shot, an approach that is the dominant feature of most of a teenagers photographic output.

All photographs shown above are included with the pupils’ permission.

Related posts:

Photographic frames of reference

Cardboard box office


Are we all romantics at heart?

The exhibition ‘Romanticism in the North’ at the Groningen Museum in the north of the Netherlands presents an extensive collection of landscape paintings, mostly from the early nineteenth century, and features work by the likes of William Turner, Casper David Friedrich, John Constable and Johan Christian Dahl. It is a succulent collection of paintings that ooze technical quality and present, not unsurprisingly, a romantic view of, predominantly, the landscape. The effect of light and dark on our surroundings is a recurring theme as is the weather and in particular an inclination for the slightly threatening nature the weather can take.

But it is the locations that the paintings show and how they are framed up that catches the eye. There is beauty and drama, and it is all so carefully composed. I find myself almost wanting to be there. These are the sorts of places in the busier and more hectic moments of our day to day existence that we might wish to escape to.

Romanticism in art regularly encouraged a sort of reflective escape, an escape from the present and a look back to the past. A reaction to a period to change perhaps, the hints of a more modern world lay on the horizon.

Now, two hundred years later we can still relate strongly to these images. These are still the sorts of places we like to visit and document for ourselves, although nowadays that is more likely to be using a camera whilst on a day trip out or further afield on a holiday. We still love the landscape and still have a pretty romantic view of it. We like to frame up a photograph of a lighthouse in the breaking waves, a mountain stream or the descending sun that is turning the whole sky a burning shade of orange.  In these paintings human activity is held at arm’s length, we view any figures at a distance, there is little engagement. It all feels a little individualistic.

And yet in the romantic landscape there is an understated side dish, that takes us away from a sense of idealised tranquillity. This more unsettling edge comes in the form of weather at its more extreme. An impending storm gathers on the horizon, a lone figure battles with the wind, mist or darkness descend on the landscape, a ship is dashed on a coastline or a waterfall plunges from a dizzying height. All of these would have brought an edge of danger to the viewer more than two hundred years ago, a danger in these sorts of environment that they were maybe more familiar with than we are today. Yet of course, when viewed by way of a painted image then there is little actual danger involved. It was an experience more comparable perhaps with the way we approach, and love the safer sort of danger, as it is presented to us in an adventure or disaster movie.


One day I must do this in class…

It’s been a while since I’ve visited the Cardboard box office blog. For any film lover it is worth dropping by to Lilly and Leon’s site. Although, nowadays it is also Orson (yes really!) and from the most recent posts, also little Elliot. The new arrivals do perhaps give an understandable reason for rather less frequent posts than in the past.

Ever since stumbling on the site a few years ago I have been toying with the idea of how I might do something similar in a school/education setting with a heap of cardboard, some lamps and a whole load of duct tape. Maybe in some sort of a project week, because trying to build such scenery spread over twice a week art lessons for a number of weeks is one sure way to fall out with colleagues as they battle their way past all the cardboard in the store room!


Scan through the site, and you’ll soon find you’ll have your own few favourites. I think that my own personal favourite is King Kong, but there are so many others that catch the eye.

I think if I stop to analyse it a little there are two main things that I like so much about the ‘installations’ that Lilly and Leon construct. Firstly, there is just the lovable silliness of it all. They clearly love the film world and want to use their own creativity to engage with it in some way. And that leads nicely onto the second reason, that being the amount of creativity and inventiveness they show in making their ‘screen shots’.

As an art teacher creativity is an often talked about subject. We like to encourage our pupils to be creative with their materials, you try to design lessons and assignments that challenge your classes creatively. But Lilly and Leon’s installations display a visual inventiveness that requires a particular mindset that teenagers enjoy seeing but find surprisingly difficult to dare to explore in their own work.

I saw this inventiveness a little during an animation project that I did with groups of fifteen-year olds last year, once they realized that they had to go looking at home for suitable materials to animate, a bit of a creative lid did seem to come off.  I’m hoping to see something similar with a forthcoming project where pupils will be photographically reconstructing old master portrait paintings.

Visages Villages (Faces Places) – a film review….and educational possibilities

Agnes Varda film maker and JR the French photographer and installation artist make an unlikely couple. One is an 89 woman who originally made her name as a filmmaker during the French New Wave, the other a 34-year-old photographer/installation-maker with a well-established name in both the world of street art and the more conventional art circuit.


But in the film Visages Villages or Faces Places if you prefer the English title, a couple they certainly are, travelling around the French countryside in their van that is dressed up to look like a giant camera.  They visit a variety of places discussing, bickering and interviewing before getting down to the business of creating and installing a series of artworks using JR’s preferred installation method of pasting often huge scale photographs on exterior walls, sea-containers, trains and even a disused and crumbling relic from the second world war.

The film presents a fascinating insight into the working process.  JR largely takes the lead, but the constant input from Varda deflects and contributes to the creative development.  She brings the perspective of a long life, creative insight and a certain historical perspective that clearly fits well with the younger artist’s own interests.

The passage through the film builds a heart-warming picture of what seems to start with as a rather unlikely friendship.  There is a certain about of teasing that goes on between the two, but also a tremendous amount of respect and warmth as they discuss their work, their lives and their differences.

Technically the film is a documentary and has seen as that when it has won various film festival awards.  But it is also very much a road movie as we travel along with the leading characters on their journey of discovery.

As an educator I think that there is a good chance that I will be showing my older pupils this film in the future.  It gives a revealing view into the artistic process.  My pupils are interested in street art and the way it intervenes into the world around us.  Perhaps slightly unusually for this sort of public space work though, these are images that often provide us with a subject, an ordinary person, to look at and think about.  JR and Varda often choose the humdrum, the ordinary person and the elevate them to often quite huge scales.  Yes, I feel sure that this film and JR’s other work can be an interesting route to explore with my pupils.

There is also no doubt at all that I see possible practical assignments that may be possible to challenge my pupils with.  Certainly, photographic installations that we could make virtually on the computer, but who knows, maybe a few real installations could follow.

Related JR links:

JR Photographer

JR street artist

Previous street art related blog posts:

Street art and illegality

Street art in the classroom

Rotterdam is more like Dubai

I do like a good blog post title. Although I actually can’t claim this one to be one of my own. It’s stolen from a page on the travel section of the BBC website. The first line of the article is “Rotterdam is like Disneyland for architecture geeks”.


Last month I walked round Rotterdam with a few friends. Our guide on this tour was another friend, and someone who has lived his entire life in the city and has a history and arts related background and so was able to provide plenty of contextual background to the city sights we were exploring.

The residents of Rotterdam are proud of their city, and our ‘tour guide’ was day is no exception. There is a lot to see, as the BBC article explains, the city has quite literally, risen from the ashes of the war time destruction of the 1940s. Like in other cities, many of the buildings have been given names by the locals. We saw the Swan, the Pencil, the Whistling Kettle and others.

The combinations of the new and the old is often quite breath-taking but makes the view from street level all the more interesting. I’ve not actually been to Dubai, so it’s difficult to comment on the comparison of the Dutch modern architecture capital with that particular city. Although the cold winter winds that sometimes are channelled between the architecture of Rotterdam probably do give an experience somewhat different to the climate in Dubai!

The BBC article ends:

“Rotterdam is like Disneyland for architecture geeks. But it may be even more fun for the rest of us, who don’t usually pay attention to the buildings we work, play and live in, and who’ll go home and wonder why our cities can’t be a little more like Rotterdam”.

A sentiment I can certainly relate to.

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.

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

Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy, London

Jasper Johns’ work has always been an enigmatic presence at the back of my interest in painting. At the art school I attended (Wimbledon School of Art in south west London) he was a figure who regularly enough was referred to. But at the time he was also an artist who always seemed difficult to categorize and place in an art historical context. His early work was a reaction to and a moving on from, the abstract expressionists, taking painting into new areas. Yet in the art world of the sixties and seventies his work never falls easily into any of the dominant directions of the time. There are relationships to aspects of minimalism, conceptualism and pop art, but there are as many differences as similarities.

The retrospective show at the Royal Academy in London only underlines the slightly divergent route that Johns has taken throughout as he has built his own reference library of motifs and symbols that he draws on again and again in his work. Seen as a whole the work feels extremely autobiographical in the end, as he ends up almost coming full circle chasing his own personal and art historical story.

The title of the exhibition is “Something Resembling Truth“. In the early work it’s easy to see an observer at work, and one that questions the visual world around us. He asks us to reconsider the visual truths that we perhaps take for granted but are actually rather more layered and offer multiple interpretations, as in the early flag, targets and text work.

As you progress through the show that is arranged in a roughly chronological order you become increasingly aware that the visual symbolism and references that Johns makes use of are becoming increasingly personal. This might be in the form of being objects and items found around his studio, the trappings of his artistic practice as in the painted bronze that shows us a representation of his brushes. Or it could be the ‘devices’ that play a physical part in the manufacture of the image. Later it might be reference to his friend Merce Cunningham or is fascination with favourite artistic connections, be those Munch, Duchamp or Newman. The artist builds up a visual library that he continues to add to but he gets older increasingly dips back into, to reference himself.

In a sense it is the luxury of an artist of an older generation. Is there a continuing sense of visual exploration and discovery in the work? Perhaps not, or at least not as there once was. Previously the visual content had been refined to create full resolved and engaging pieces. Resulting in pieces, such as Between the Clock and the Bed, one of my own personal favorites, from the series featuring the crosshatching motif.


However what there is to see in the later work are paintings and prints that reference the artist’s own history, his own visual language and what it is to be an artist with such an extensive personal back catalogue. In that sense the exhibition is certainly offering something resembling truth.

From a personal perspective I do like the way Johns repeatedly explores a recurring motif for an extended period. It’s something I recognize in my own work and something I was encouraged to do back at art school in Wimbledon as a student by the then head of the painting school, John Mitchell…..John was, incidentally, another big Jasper Johns admirer.

Mail art…….a nostalgic return

When I was an art student back in the late eighties and early nineties artists’ journals and magazines used to be full of mail art projects. The need to connect was clearly there long before we all got online. Some of the projects were initiated by large and recognized arts institutions, others were very much smaller in ambition being the work of individuals.Looking back I can’t actually remember taking part in any of it, although I did find the idea of linking up with others in some artistic way quite attractive. I think the problem I had though was that it was all rather invisible and seeing and experiencing the results was always rather a weak link in the process.

Mail art rather faded away with the arrival of the internet. All sorts of online forums offered so many possibilities to share, collaborate and exhibit. This blog itself is of course a good example of this sort of development.

Yet here I am, many years later, in our digital world, enjoying being a participant in a mail art project with a group of creative people spread round the globe. The project involves a black hardback drawing book making a journey from one artist to another. Each in turn fills a series of pages with a documentation of a single day, in whatever way they choose before sending the package on to the next participant in the series.

I received the book earlier in the week with it already having passed through Australia, Vietnam, Poland and Sweden. When I’m finished I’ll be sending it on to the next participant in Canada. Today I’m traveling from my home in the Netherlands to visit my parents who live just north of Cambridge in the U.K. It provides an interesting day to document as I make the trip using buses, trains and the boat across the North Sea.

So what has lead me to participate in the project? Well, Margot, the organizing strength behind the initiative asked me, and others, directly to participate….that certainly helped! But things have changed from the old days of mail art, because the digital world enables us to follow the project, chart its development and in the end to witness the results. A very informal chat group around the project has developed and Margot has set up Flickr pages for the depositing of imagery. All this has undoubtedly helped us all feel an engagement in the project.

Having said all this I was kind of surprised this week by the pleasure of having the book itself drop through the letterbox at home. To sit down with a cup of coffee an read and look at the work of the others in the group and to consider the journeys that these pages, as a visual document, have already made.

I have been adding my experiences of a day as I have been traveling. It’s been interesting to participate, and who knows, maybe there will be some form of a follow up project. I have to admit to having one at the back of my mind.

Surreal sculpture and the challenge of being creative with language

Art teachers are interested in creativity. That’s no surprise really.  We’re interested in squeezing new things and creative approaches out of our pupils in their practical work. Well yes maybe, but even in the most creative of classrooms over-reliance on examples/predetermined models and the pupils’ sometimes insatiable wish to do things the ‘right’ way has to be fought. In this sense, my own classroom is no different.

Occasionally a lesson situation presents itself where the pupils are confronted with an almost infinite number of choices or variables on offer.  It calls for thought, reflection and a spark that might lead to the pupils coming up with something that is their ‘own’, something that is maybe a little more original or creative. It can be a struggle, and a surprisingly difficult situation to actually teach.

This has been the case in a recent assignment I have been working on with my third-year pupils (aged 15 years). It was an assignment that required some creativity in terms of practical activity when the class working with plywood. But actually, the creative core of the assignment was more one of creativity of thought.

The assignment was linked to a series of lessons about Surrealism and involved taking an existing object and combining it with a second plywood constructed object that interacted in some way with the qualities or characteristics of the first object to present a slightly surreal combination. The idea for the assignments stemmed from various artworks like those of Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Meret Oppenheim.



The idea of placing two objects together or combining them visually is not complex, and by and large the process of constructing the second object from plywood is not too technically difficult. However, the simple act of deciding what to do is surprisingly difficult. Analyzing the qualities of the first object, with a little encouragement generally works out reasonably well. If we take the example of a fork, the sort of which you might find in the kitchen drawer.

A fork is:

Metal, silvery, shiny, hard, pointy at one end, more curved at the other, the overall form is kind of wavy, it’s for eating, for spiking food, comes as part of a set called cutlery, four prongs, fits in the hand, etc, etc.

How then to choose a second object that in some way combines or contrasts with these existing characteristics? That was difficult. It requires something of a ‘eureka’ moment, just a single idea that was going to engage the viewer, like Man Ray’s nails under the iron. Here is the creative challenge. Often I found myself sitting round a table staring at an object with a pupil, waiting, coaxing, edging them towards some possibilities, but at the same time trying to hold back from offering solutions. Testing creativity of thought in this way can at times be something of a painful process to watch!

It the end, in most cases, an idea came. Some rather predictable, others surprising, smart or downright funny. In the case of the fork the pupil settled quite quickly on working with the wave-like form of the fork when seen side on.  He decided he simply wanted to make a ship with masts and sails that by inserting it between the prongs of the fork could ‘sail’ through the wave-like form.

wThe second creative challenge came in the form of dreaming up a suitable title, one that somehow locked in on the complexities of these combinations. Can you spend a whole lesson waiting and hoping that pupils come up with an engaging, perhaps two-word title? Will that flash of an idea come?

The language abilities of my pupils are good, even working as we are in English, their second language. But that is not to say that they are going succeed at this difficult challenge. This stretches their creativity and knowledge of often multiple meanings for words to the limit. In the end, the language component of this assignment is finding just a handful of words, but they are completely integrated with the practical content. It that sense it is a good CLIL (content and language integrated learning) lesson, although not an easy one.

For more of this sort of language assignment read this:

The most difficult assignment of the year?