Hieronymus Bosch, Chris Berens and Oss

The southern Dutch town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (or Den Bosch) there is currently a large exhibition of the work of the town’s most famous son, Hieronymus Bosch. Works have been gathered for around the world to be displayed in the Noordbrabantsmuseum to mark the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death. For Den Bosch the exhibition really is a big deal as there are normally none of the town’s hero’s works found there and for a few months at least they have been able to amass a considerable set .

Hieronymus Bosch is a much loved artist in art rooms around the world. His complex compositions are filled with endless detail, fantastic places, the most curious creatures, pleasure, suffering, heaven and perhaps most of all, references to hell.  There simply is so much to see and explore.

chrisberens

Den Bosch is about tens west of where I teach, in the small Dutch town of Oss. Our local museum, the Jan Cunen, is a whole lot more museum than you might expect to find there. They are savvy enough to know when there is an opportunity to ride someone else’s wave of publicity and that is just what they have done by choosing to align their own programming to a degree with the major event in the neighbouring town. They have even been able to do this by inviting an artist with his own roots in Oss.

The artist concerned is Chris Berens, and has been presented and promoted as an artist drawing on Bosch’s work from 500 years ago. Berens’ work uses some of the visual qualities found in Bosch’s work, an eye for detail and at times huge complexity, but in a more contemporary manner. I have visited the exhibition twice this week with the groups of fifteen and sixteen year olds that I teach. The work is rich in fantasy elements but misses the background religious messages that lie under the surface in Bosch’s work. Technically the work is also rather different being built up of multitudes of manipulated computer prints and hand applied ink work that bring a considerable intensity to the finished work.

For more of Berens work visit his website:

Chris Berens website

The link below gives a little insight into his working practice:


chrisberens2My pupils have enjoyed their visits this week and once again have been quite surprised at the cultural offerings that the local museum can offer. The complexity and rich fantasy element in Berens’ work is particularly engaging in the eyes of the pupils, at least when they pause long enough in front on a single work to give themselves time to unpack some of the riches to be found there. It is no secret that patience not the strongest point of an average fifteen year old!

Bosch’s work is accessible to children and young people on several levels and will continue no doubt to be drawn on by art teachers around the world. In this context, and as an interesting contemporary parallel, Chris Berens’ work is also worth a visit. The technical approach in his use of collage and mixed media is an aspect I will be drawing on in the coming weeks with my classes.

chrisberens3

 

 

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Lost Consonants, sayings and proverbs – Content and language integrated learning (CLIL)

A couple of weeks ago I published a post called One Letter Switch that involved a small switch of one letter in the title of an existing film to produce a new and very different movie name. I mentioned in the post that I would also explain a second variation that in some ways follows similar lines.

I should start by underlining that this idea has its root in the extremely quirky “Lost Consonants” images that artist and writer Graham Rawle published in the Guardian newspaper a number of years ago. Rawle’s work was published in the newspaper for its entertainment value and its humour with both a visual and a text-based edge.

Each image was created in a similar way. He took a sentence, like for example, “Every time the doorbell rang, the dog started barking”. He then altered the sentence by removing one single consonant from somewhere in the sentence. So the sentence could become, “Every time the doorbell rang, the dog started baking”. This new variation of the text would then be placed underneath a collage that Rawle made by cutting up magazine images and illustrating the new, mostly somewhat sillier version of the phrase………..

graham-rawle

How exactly to apply the core of this idea to the classroom was the first issue. It occurred to me that potentially any sort of sentence could be used. Because of this it also seemed to offer an excellent opportunity to shine a light on one particularly troublesome area of language acquisition. Sayings, proverbs and other ‘wise’ sayings have their place in all languages. When you stop to consider them carefully it becomes only too clear just how often they are used. They enrich a language, they give it a more playful complexity, they are also quite difficult to learn.  I know this last point from my own experience of learning Dutch. They are some similarities and even some sayings that are essentially the same. There are others that simply have no comparison and if you stop to translate them literally into a second language you often see just how odd they are, a fact that makes you very nervous about daring to use them!

I decided to apply the ‘Lost Consonants’ approach to sayings and proverbs in my lesson. The aim was essentially three-fold:

  1. To get my pupils reading English proverbs and sayings on websites that also provide an explanation of what they mean and how they should be used.
  2. The get the class playing with the language and interpretation possibilities if just one letter was dropped from the proverb. The new version needed to have a linguistic logic, even (and hopefully) if the result was actually a rather crazy literal meaning.
  3. The new version had to work in such a way that it could result in an entertaining and engaging photographic collage put together from diverse sources (it is, after all an art lesson!)

Providing pupils with examples of sayings to look through was easy enough, there are plenty of sites available that offer lists:

www.phrasemix.com

www.smart-words.org

www.knowyourphrase.com

www.englishclub.com

Then the word game starts of experimenting with the possibilities. Just one consonant to be removed, no other possibilities allowed. Some of the sayings offer little or no options for adjustment, but there are plenty that do. Having experimented with this assignment with a couple of classes in the last week, I think it is also important to get the pupils sharing not only their new variations with each other but also the original version and explaining the contexts to one another when it might be used.

Most pupils were quite easily able to come up with three or four possibilities.  Often though the final decision of which one to work with was simply down to which one would make the best Graham Rawle-like collage with the most surreal visual qualities. Below are a few examples from my third years (14-15 year olds).

missingconsonants2

If you would like to see more of Graham Rawle’s work in this area it can be found here:

www.grahamrawle.com

Learning through not understanding? – CLIL (content and language integrated learning) art project

Yesterday I worked together with twenty three twelve year old pupils and two of their teachers (thanks Roderick and Wap!) on an long (8 hours!) and intensive art and language workshop day.  For the children this was just the start of their second week at secondary school and perhaps more significantly the start of the second week where these Dutch school children are getting most of their lessons taught to them in English.

This was the reason that I was brought in to lead the workshop. As a native speaker of English I can provide a kind of immersion day where all the pupils hear is English.  It’s a big language challenge for the children, and for me something of a challenge too as I try to hold back from allowing a single word of Dutch to slip out!

cuijk2

We hear a lot about short spans of attention in the children of today and such a day as yesterday kind of puts that theory to the test a little. The children are more used to switching from one activity, subject, teacher or classroom at regular intervals, how will they cope with being in one room, with one project and one project leader (supported by a couple of others)?

Well on the experience of yesterday I would say just fine.  Yes the overall project was broken down into a number of smaller parts.  This is important for boosting and re-boosting the energy and focus of the class. Also important is that they could see what they (as a group) were achieving, this is undoubtedly a luxury of an art project, but a quality that surely can be simulated in other subject areas.  But above all, the opportunity not to be continuously interrupted by the school bell announcing that the class must clear up and move on to their next lesson offers new chances for ambitious work and prevents so much time being wasted in the day.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should do away with the fragmented timetable of ten or twelve different subject areas, but I would certainly be a fore stander for more occasional project days, as long as the lesson material, plans and teaching are strong enough to maintain a greatly extended lesson.

cuijk1

Another interesting point of reflection after a day like yesterday is the question of what exactly is going on in the heads of the pupils on such a language ‘immersion’ day.  I think that the results that the group made yesterday show that the group as a whole understood the project pretty well.  But I am realistic enough to acknowledge that these twelve year olds in their first week of lessons that are being taught in their second language are likely to struggle at times. Yesterday I translated nothing into Dutch to make it clearer or easier to understand. This approach forces a couple of things to occur:

  1. They have to listen hard, probably harder than they have listened to a teacher before
  2. They have to learn to cope with missing or failing to understand some parts of the instructions that I give
  3. They inevitably and importantly starting to ‘train’ their ear in the listening skills that are going to be crucially important in the coming months

Points one and three are obviously very desirable elements of this sort of teaching strategy.  The second one sounds rather less positive.  Although as an adult who has learnt to speak a second language since leaving school this kind of ‘joining up the dots’ in speech is a skill I remember being so important to me. It is about having the confidence to make little conceptual leaps to link up elements of content when sections of language interpretation are missed for whatever reason.  Put me in a noisy environment, where everyone is speaking Dutch and I still find myself having to consciously try to do this.

Matisse in the Stedelijk

The Dutch museum goer has had to be patient over the last decade. So many of the big museums have been closed or offering greatly reduced collections during rebuilds and renovation. But that period seems to be passed now and the Stedelijk and Rijksmuseums in Amsterdam and the Mauritshuis in The Hague are open and better than ever. The last months have also seen some major exhibitions of painting at these museums. We have the Frick Collection in the Mauritshuis, Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum and Matisse at the Stedelijk, all currently open, not to mention the major Rothko exhibition that has just finished at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. 

 The Matisse show at the Stedelijk is an interesting exhibition, very different to the large retrospective that was seen in Paris a couple of years ago. The Paris show was an extensive retrospective charting many areas of Matisse’s work. In a way the Amsterdam exhibition does the same, but in a rather different way. We are taken through all the stages and periods of the Frenchman’s work, maybe with a few less examples. But these are accompanied by the work of others who were experimenting with similar ideas at the same time. So we see a Matisse street scene hanging next to a Vlaminck street scene, a Matisse nude next to a Picasso nude or a striding figure painted by Malevich next to one by Matisse. 

  

 In this way you find yourself journeying through twentieth century art history and simultaneously following the development of the bearded Frenchman. The later stages of the show bringing you into the large, upstairs gallery spaces of the Stedelijk and rooms full of exclusively Matisse work and in particular his paper cuts, both the large scale pieces and the pages of his Jazz publication.

Colour is pretty much everywhere to be found in the work of Matisse whether it’s in an early figure painting or portrait, or later in the interior paintings with their decorative details. In the later collages the colour sweeps across you, it’s what you expect from a Matisse exhibition. 

  

 But sitting watching the film of Matisse working with his young assistant to arrange collage elements and freely cutting his paper shapes with his large pair of scissors the role of line in his work is emphasized. I guess that in my own work line and drawing is generally more important than colour. Maybe this makes me a little more receptive to the quality of line in Matisse’s work. But retracing my steps back to the earlier work it becomes still more evident. 

The looseness and economy of the line in the portrait chalk drawings or pencil figures, they all seem so carefree and confident. Picasso is often talked about in terms of his interest and relationship to the creative confidence that young children have. But Matisse has that too, there seems to be a certainty that he will be able to make every line and form work for him. The teenagers I work with seem often to be the absolute opposite of this, the wave of uncertainty that engulfs them when confronted by a sheet of white paper.

It would be interesting to bring them here. I know that they would be troubled by the simplicity of the collages, it all looks too easy. But there lies the crux, they are ready to appreciate the creative ease that Lionel Messi shows us when passing a defender to score for Barcelona and they recognize that they don’t have such an ability. However, show them an artist with a pair of scissors and they are a lot more suspicious. How can such simplicity be good, when in so many other areas we acknowledge complexity?

Some of my older pupils at school are currently working on an assignment that I have, perhaps slightly mischievously, given them. It asks them to consider the qualities of all the various artistic and cultural disciplines. I’ve asked them to choose to present a discipline (say film or architecture for example) that is in a state of progression with the most modern and up to date being the high point of achievement. A second one has to be picked where they feel the quality is in regression, where the work being produced now is inferior to that of the past. In both cases they have to choose examples to argue their case.

In truth this assignment is a bit of an experiment, I’ll be curious to see what they make of it. I suspect some may well feel that the history of painting is in regression. Teenagers are indefinitely impressed by the technical skill of the past and struggle with more abstract or work that is visually reduced to simpler forms. In this context Matisse’s work may well make an appearance, which would probably be reason enough to give them some coloured paper, a pair of scissors and an invitation to have a go themselves.

The Dutch museum goer has had to be patient over the last decade. So many of the big museums have been closed or offering greatly reduced collections during rebuilds and renovation. But that period seems to be passed now and the Stedelijk and Rijksmuseums in Amsterdam and the Mauritshuis in The Hague are open and better than ever. The last months have also seen some major exhibitions of painting at these museums. We have the Frick Collection in the Mauritshuis, Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum and Matisse at the Stedelijk, all currently open, not to mention the major Rothko exhibition that has just finished at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague.

Manipulated landscape

There can be few more manipulated landscapes in the world than the Dutch landscape.  There is constant construction and reconstruction, rearrangement and quite literal landscape creation as land is reclaimed from the sea. There is a constant tension between man and nature in this densely packed land.  My work as an artist has grown increasingly to focus on these tensions and what the natural world around us means to us and how we respond to it.

Image

Today we walked through a small section of the landscape of the central Netherlands. As I often do on such an excursion I made a small watercolour sketch, in this case of a the linear geometry of a recreated piece of nature, a pool for wading birds.  Further on we encountered a selection of other newly created pools of a various of forms for a variety of nature.  I was reminded of my own pools I created in my work a few years ago.  Manipulated nature of a slightly more extreme form.