A treasure hunt, art history and language (CLIL assignment)

When you make an artwork, I’ve always felt that you need to create some sort of hook of fascination in the work that the viewer latches onto quickly and that will hold them long enough to take a proper, more considered view.  Good lesson material is similar, in that you need to catch the learner’s attention, once you have that you then take them to the content that you want them to encounter and understand.  Below is an example of such an approach.

Over the years I have written a large amount of lesson material, my OneDrive and the various websites that I have created are full of it.  One of the problems that arises with this is that you sometimes forget or overlook something that you made at some point that was good material and worked well.  I rediscovered this week exactly such an example.

With the twelve-year-olds that I teach I include a series of lessons that are centred around Renaissance and Northern Renaissance themes.  For our practical lessons we look at one-point perspective and we make a clay monster inspired by Hieronymus Bosch.  The “forgotten” lesson material though was a little art history lesson based around the Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder from 1563.  I´m not required to teach anything about this particular painting, it certainly isn’t in a fixed curriculum.  This is simply about encouraging pupils to look and to think carefully about pieces of art, trying to show them that art history doesn’t have to be a dry and stuffy place.

The Tower of Babel is great for this.  It has a simple story that is not difficult to understand, it is painted in a very realistic way, but above all, it is packed full of action and detail.  It is this level of detail that is the vehicle for this simple language and art history assignment.

Basically, my aim is threefold:

  • Get the pupils to look carefully and in detail at the artwork
  • Ask them to create language output inspired by the discoveries they make in the artwork
  • Create a fun and playful way of learning that has a gentle form of competition to it using a sort of scavenger-hunt principle

The whole lesson is hung up around the availability of extremely high-resolution photographs of artworks that can be found at various online locations.

Tower of Babel high/resolution image

I ask the pupils to get this image open on their laptop screen and first have a good look round the picture, zooming in and zooming out, taking a good look at everything that is going on.

Then I start my PowerPoint up at the front of the class.  Each slide shows a very zoomed in piece of detail from the painting, along with an arrow pointing above, below or to a side of the detail.  There is also a word, maybe `climbing` for example.  The idea is simply to±

  1. Find the detail in Bruegel´s original work
  2. Look just beyond the detail in the direction of the arrow
  3. Describe or explain what is going on in this `beyond` area, but the sentence that you form MUST include the given word in exactly the form it is given

Returning to this assignment for the first time in a few years it was great to see the pleasure that was had by this particular group of twelve-year-olds, They were searching around a nearly 500 year old painting, laughing at some of the more quirky discoveries they made.  They were enjoying looking at and exploring for themselves a jewel from art history.  Added to this they were also constructing often quite complex English sentences in what is their second language.

I´ll be doing my best not to overlook this half hour activity again next year!

For anyone interested in trying the assignment, my PowerPoint can be found below.

An ex-pupil, art history and medical observation

It is always nice to run into an ex-pupil. It doesn’t normally make much difference whether they were a model pupil in the classroom or not. It doesn’t take long for enough water to have gone under the bridge to allow a nostalgic reflection on school or even individual lessons to be easily shared.

A while back I ran into Philippe, an ex-pupil from four or five years ago. Philippe always enjoyed being creative in the art lessons at school and indeed probably most other things that she did at school. After graduation she headed off to medical school.

As an art teacher you hope that you have given such a pupil some cultural baggage that will in the future be relevant or maybe even useful to a young person as they grow up. In the case of Philippe I don’t think I ever really doubted that. She was serious, curious and creative in class. Things would undoubtedly fall in place in the years ahead.

Even having said all that, when I ran into Philippe in the train a short time ago, I was still surprised and interested to hear a connection between our art and art history lessons at school, that we were reminiscing about, and her medical studies. She had been returning to looking at art as a part of her course. This might seem a little unexpected but there are precedents for it at Stanford medical school and others.

On her course, like at Stanford, art history was being used to hone and focus cognitive and observational abilities.

Sarah Naftalis, one of the art historians involved at Stanford outlines a few of the key points of this interdisciplinary overlap and how the “productive ambiguities of art,” as well as the benefit of engaged, close looking without “rushing to assign meaning to what we see.”

Topics of the course included narrative, body in motion, skin and tone, and death, with doctors from the fields of family medicine, orthopedics, dermatology, pathology and anesthesiology leading each session.

“Bringing medicine into the space of the museum was a great aspect of the course — simply allowing different bodies of knowledge to exist under one roof. The medical students would sometimes use clinical vocabulary or concepts to describe works in the gallery, making for an interesting range of language in our discussions.”

Contributes Yinshi Lerman-Ta, another art historian involved in the program.

One important takeaway for him from the course, was learning to observe without jumping to interpretation. “I was surprised at how strong the impulse was to interpret the work, before I had actually observed the entire piece,” he said. The exercises the instructors led us through, describing what we saw objectively without commentary, really forced me to slow down and really see what was in front of me, without jumping to conclusions or interpretation.”

Sam Cartmell, medical student.

Sections above from:

Stanford medical school article

These sorts of medical/cultural overlaps are further explored in this Artsy.net article (along with broader discussions related to other medical benefits an involvement with artistic and cultural practices bring:

Artsy.net article

As an educator, and in particular as an arts educator, you never quite know where the cultural foundations you are laying may take your pupils to and what future relevance may be found. Once in a while though, like with my discussion with Philippe, you catch a glimpse.

Avoiding a cultural backwards step

A few weeks ago I posted about the British government’s plan to scrap Art History as an a-level exam subject for eighteen year olds:

Culturally stepping backwards

I would like to claim that my post made all the difference to the debate. But the truth of course is that the likes of Simon Schama and Anish Kapoor weighing with their hefty opinions has led to a rethink. Surprising? Well yes, in the world we seem to be living in of intellectual dumbing down. But good news non-the-less for the British cultural climate.

Art history a-level saved

img_3026

Culturally stepping backwards

img_2314I view the UK, my home country, from the short distance across the North Sea from my home in the Netherlands. Geographically it is a small distance and yet somehow it seems to be drifting slowly away, certainly in a cultural dimension.

Yesterday it was announced, in changes set in motion by former education secretary Michael Gove, that art history, as a so called ‘soft’ subject, was to be removed from the national A-level exam programme for eighteen year olds. It is not an announcement that is going to directly affect tens of thousands of teenagers, it is indeed a subject that is only chosen by relatively few students. But the numbers involved aren’t the reason being given for the scrapping of the subject. A spokeswoman for AQA, the exam board, was quoted as having said,

“Our number one priority is making sure every student gets the result they deserve – and the complex and specialist nature of the exams in this subject creates too many risks on that front. That’s why we’ve taken the difficult decision not to continue our work creating a new AS and A-level.”

It would seem that the priority is the grading of the exam is more important rather than the actual content of the programme itself. It is a perspective that those who work in education have heard often enough before. Babies and bath water seem immediately to spring to mind.

This is one more drop in the increasing filling bucket of news stories that reflect a shift in perspective and hardening of attitudes that is increasingly effecting the cultural fabric and riches in the UK.

There is irony here in the outrage shown in the destruction of world heritage sites and cultural history in Syria during the last few years, and yet we seem to be offering reduced perspectives for those who actually want to contribute to understanding why these high points of human creativity are actually important to us.

On a more contemporary note art history and a deep understanding of the cultural world is perhaps more important than ever. The modern world is increasingly one that is driven by a visual culture and art historical perspectives have an important part to play in developing a visual literacy that is needed to engage and understand.

For a more background on this backward step see:

Last art history A-level

Last art history A-level II

 

Fashion and storylines

Having visited two fashion exhibitions in the last couple of months (which if I’m honest is quite unusual) I find myself reflecting back a little on what I have seen. What has engaged me, what has caught my attention?

The two exhibitions were one that took a look at nineteenth century fashion and linked it with a number of contemporary designers at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague and The Future of Fashion is Now at the Boijmans van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam.

den haag

In short the show in The Hague focussed on the developments and progressions through the nineteenth century, the silhouette, the fabrics, the under garments and the history and romance of the designs as the title Romantic fashions indicated. The Rotterdam exhibition had a perspective of looking ahead, exploring new materials, functions and the practicalities and impracticalities of things we might wear.

Future-of-Fashion-is-Now-3In the Boijmans show in Rotterdam there certainly were a number of examples of designs that were, in practical terms, difficult if not impossible to wear. Having mentioned this though, I can’t say that I am particularly bothered by such a detail. I am only too happy to walk through a painting exhibition without needing a function more than an aesthetic one or just intellectual stimulation, so why should clothing not also occasionally offer the same?

In this way I might say that the Future of Fashion is Now exhibition was actually closer to that areas of art and culture that I might usually engage with, yet looking back I feel that the display I saw of nineteenth century fashion actually drew my attention more. So why was this, what was it that the exhibition in The Hague had that wasn’t the case in Rotterdam?

What I am left contemplating is not only the historical perspective that the older clothes have, but also the sense of narrative. The clothes come from a period past, they connect with stories and lives that once occurred and are, to a small degree, captured in these items of clothes that have passed through time. They have a story to tell, a sort of historical authenticity. Maybe this is what I missed in Rotterdam. The clothing there was a look towards the future and so inevitably missed some historical baggage.  Maybe that as I get older I myself am more able to look back and appreciate and contextualize this more. I am able to link the nineteenth century clothing with what I know of the period through its art, form the photographs I’ve seen of distant relatives wearing similar clothing or from books that I have read.

Both exhibitions of course have their own merits, but in order to engage, appreciate and understand maybe I need a little more of a storyline (even if it is one I construct myself) to be able to find my way.