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”.

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http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20171219-the-dutch-city-thats-more-like-dubai

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.

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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.

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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?

Sometimes you just don’t need to explain……

Yesterday I used a short film in my lessons that I had not used before, ‘Donkey’, from 2011 by Keri Burrows. I said virtually nothing to introduce the film to the two classes that saw it. It’s a quiet and stylish seven minutes in the form of a reflective monologue. Both times I watched a a hushed attention fell over the room. I watched as the class of often quite chatty pupils were drawn in and as the titles rolled at the end the silence hung in the room. There really was little I had to say, the movie’s message, and it does have a serious point to make, had reached them.

Watching this short film was a part of a brief film studies series of lessons for the classes of fifteen and sixteen year olds that I teach. It’s an introduction to basic filmmaking techniques and approaches. I usually begin with a series of short films that highlight various aspects of film craft such as the role of the speed of editing, sound and music, the positioning of camera and so on.

So why had this particular film carried its message so well to my audience? Well, yes it is a stylishly made and in a way quite elegant film. It’s performed in a form of low key realism that is very accessible. But most of all, and without giving too much away, in terms of content it takes the viewer into a world that is only too recognizable to pupils at a secondary school. For all these reasons it is a short film worth watching in class.

For further analysis of the film see the following link:

Donkey – film analysis

 

Surrealism, a sandwich and the start of the school year

One minute you’re in the deserted wilderness of northern Sweden, something of an ultimate of peace and quiet, the next you’re back amongst the heaving masses of pupils pouring into school for the first day of term.

Maybe the switch isn’t literally quite that quick, but still it is a fairly swift step from one to another and it does come as something of a shock to the system.  I move from the calm enjoyment of camping in a small tent in largely undisturbed nature to the rapid startup of a new school year. A moment for a deep intake of breath, head down and begin.

Naamloze afbeelding2

 

I’ve got a few new colleagues to get to know, but a whole lot more new pupils and class groups to familiarize myself with. New relationships have to be built and importantly groups have to be activated and switched on to my lessons, my subject and my style of teaching.  My third year groups (aged 14-15) normally require a little shaking to wake them up at the start of a new year.  I like to make that first lesson a little more memorable. A year ago I wrote about the educational reworking of a Robert Rauschenberg work that was aimed at doing this in the following post:

Grabbing the attention…..and making a point

It’s nice if you get the feeling that your art lesson has succeeded in being interesting and quirky enough to be talked about at the dinner table later that evening. In this case, first impressions are important and worth making that extra effort to grab the attention.

A series of lessons about Surrealism that I teach has offered a variety of contexts to do exactly this lately. I want my class, from the start, to start to understand something of what Surrealism is all about, an unexpected world where things can be rather different to how we might expect. I also want their full attention and I want discussion and engagement from the very start.

One way of doing this goes like this.

As the class are entering the room and sitting down I am busy putting a chair on a table. Without saying anything I climb up and sit down on the chair. The class at this point have often hardly registered that their teacher is sitting on a chair on a table and continue to talk. I reach into my bag and pull out my lunch box, open it and take out a sandwich. I inspect the sandwich carefully. The room starts to get quieter, pupils are nudging one another and starting to look my way. I reach back into my bag and take out a needle and reel of cotton. I carefully thread the needle without saying a word. The room gets quieter still. I then start to sew the two pieces of bread that make up my sandwich together. I continue as long as it takes for the first questions or statements come that I can use to pitch into my Surrealism theme.

The class have had a memorable and engaging start to the lesson, one that they will hopefully remember, but more importantly they are already starting to engage with the idea of what might be considered surreal, we are talking about it and the class are traveling with me into my lesson.

 I’ll be posting again in the coming weeks about what Hywel Roberts in his book Oops! Helping children learn accidentally calls ‘the lure’, the approach of beginning a lesson with an element that draws your class in, turns them on and engages their attention.

 

 

To bin or not to bin

Am I being over sensitive? It is the end of the school year, maybe I’m a bit worn out by it all, but this is a returning feature of the weeks leading up to the summer holiday.

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The scenario goes like this. After a year of working with the various classes that I teach the chest of drawers and the shelves where I keep their work are getting rather full. The last week of term big clear up is just around the corner and so it is time to return the fruits of our art lessons back to the pupils. We normally do this in a frenzied fifteen minute session during the last lesson but one of the year. Pupils wander round the room with armfuls of drawings, paintings and collages, handing them out to classmates while I take care of the fragile three dimensional work. At the end of it all, each pupil has a small stack of their creative efforts of the past year on the table in front of them.

When I was new to the teaching business I just waited for the bell to go and the class got up and left. I’d then look round to discover a number of rejected ‘artworks’ deposited in the bin in the corner of the room. Like I said at the beginning, maybe I’m just being too sensitive and suffering from end of the year fragility. But after helping and coaxing, maybe less that talented pupils, to produce the best they could, I can’t help feeling strangely let down by the drawings in the bin…….they hadn’t even got through the door of the art room!

I kept all my artworks when I was at school, in fact I still have many of them even now! Although, I should be honest, I didn’t keep my maths, chemistry or biology books!

I can’t make my pupils keep their artistically rejected creations, I realize that. I do try to point out that maybe a mum or a dad back home may be interested in at least seeing them once. Most of the class do depart quite happily and voluntarily with their work, but for those who do plan to bin it instantly, I do have one fixed rule now, they are not allowed to leave in the bin in the art room it has to at the very least make it to the container outside our school. This way, their (perhaps overly sensitive teacher!) doesn’t have to scoop it out of one bin and then put it in another himself.

Finally after seven years an exhibition

I don’t write posts often about the adult groups that I teach. I’m not sure why, it’s certainly not because they’re not interesting enough, on the contrary, they often throw up the most unexpected things as the very first post I ever wrote for this blog points out:

When the cat’s away…

Over the last few years I’ve taught one particular group that has grown into a very productive and sociable Thursday evening session.  At the moment, it is a group of around fifteen, ranging in ages from early twenties to around eighty. Many of the group have been following the lessons for six or seven years and in that time, have been open to trying any sort of assignment that I throw to them.

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We talk about art a great deal, I help them with technical and content challenges, we laugh a lot, especially when I stumble badly enough in a Dutch sentence…. yes, even after twenty-five years here that does still happen!  There is also something of a running joke about how I, once every couple of weeks, come with a new assignment, they all listen carefully and then they all go and do something else.

All in all it’s become a group of friends who paint together once a week. Each summer I make a book of photographs of some of the work that has been produced the previous season as a kind of record of where the group are at that moment.  The one thing that we’ve never done though, is to have an exhibition of paintings in a public space. Until that is, this week. Today I spent the morning with Nynke, one of the group, installing an exhibition of nearly thirty-five paintings in the exhibition space of our local library.

The exhibition includes a variety of paintings including a large group painting that marks a number of the recognizable landmarks from our town of Wageningen in the Netherlands.