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!

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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?

Reality, what was that again?

A sunny day in Rotterdam and three different exhibitions that connect in an interesting way by asking questions about our perceptions and understanding of the world around us and the differing realities that we experience in our minds.

Gek op Surrealism‘ (Mad about Surrealism) in the Boijmans museum in Rotterdam was the first port of call, followed by ‘Hyperrealism‘ and ‘ Human/Digital‘ across the park in the Kunsthal.

The Surrealism show featured work from the museums own collection and from several private lenders. Dalí, Ernst, Miró and Magritte were all well represented in the three hundred plus works on show. Seen as a group the exhibition presents an extensive and at times confusing collection. Maybe this is inevitable and not entirely inappropriate for an art movement made up of individuals with such diverse approaches.  Paintings, drawings, collages, film, photographs, poetry and texts all feature.

It was principally the work of René Magritte that I wanted to see. His simply executed paintings have always drawn my attention, particularly the ones where he seems to be questioning our interpretation of what we see and what we experience as real and as image.

Then it was on to the Kunsthal for the Hyperrealism show with the seventy, other quite large scale, works from the early days of the photorealists through to the present day.  Chuck Close and Audrey Flack amongst others representing the ‘old guard’ along with a selection of more recent followers of this tradition.  Photorealist work is a bit of an island in contemporary art.  In many ways, the development in terms of subject matter and content doesn’t seem to have changed so much.  Artists still seem drawn to the reflective qualities of shiny materials and light sources.  They also seem often to continue to be captivated by the otherwise rather insignificant apertures that they open on everyday life.  This might be a contemporary still life of bottles on a restaurant table or children’s toys.  Equally it might be a light reflected in the polished body work of a car or reflected neon in a wet road surface.

There does seem to be the challenge of creeping towards a better sense technical excellence, but whether this ultimately brings us towards anything more than an increasing ‘wow’ factor is the question.

Don’t get me wrong though, I did enjoy the exhibition. Yes, there is that constant feeling of a double take as you approach these images that lurk somewhere between a painting and a photograph. Ultimately though, what I find most interesting is the way that all the images seem to force us to stop and consider the reality of the familiar world around us.  The trivial, the unnoticed and yet constantly present, thrown into quite literally sharp focus, in these often incredibly polished works.

Downstairs in the Kunsthal is the ‘Human/Digital’ exhibition. An exhibition of recently produced digital artworks.  Here too we are often forced to consider and reconsider the reality around us alongside digitally created realities. These can be places that may or may not actually exist, but through the ever-improving technical advances challenges us, like the Surrealists and the Hyperrealists to ask questions about the world around us and the layers of perceived reality in which it is built up.

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