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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Why do I have the feeling that not everyone in the English department is going to approve of this art inspired (clil) writing assignment?

Surreal poetry assignment

This might not be a lesson idea for language purists, but in my defense, I would say that encouraging learners to play with language can be an important aspect of language acquisition. I remember the satisfying buzz I started to get when my mastery of the Dutch language reached a level where I could crack a joke or maybe use a little irony. It makes the using of the language more pleasurable and dare I say it, more fun. So if my surreal poetry assignment takes us into areas of confusing and sometimes conflicting interpretation….well…..that is actually the point of it.

If you would like a little more context and history on the Surrealists, their forerunners the Dadaists and how text and language featured in their work a good place to start is the excellent The Art Story site through the links at the bottom of this post.

So how does the assignment work? I should start by saying that there are plenty of variations on these poetic themes to be found on a variety of websites. The one that I sketch out here is based on an idea from one on a wikihow.com page.

The initial task is to find an existing poem; this could perhaps be one that has been made use of in an English lesson or one that you as a teacher feel is particularly appropriate. Alternatively, allow your pupils to search for a starting point themselves in books or on websites, one that they themselves find interesting…..reading a bit of poetry can never be a bad thing!

Once a suitable poem has been found ask the pupils to identify the nouns, verbs and adjectives in the poem by underlining them with three different coloured pens. Again, this is a useful language exercise for pupils of any level to try to complete.

Then comes the creative part, ask the pupils to replace the existing nouns, verbs and adjectives with new ones of their own choice. It helps if they have already grasped the fact that in the world of the Surrealists not everything is quite as it seems. To make this point clear the paintings of Rene Magritte are my own favourite.

The challenge is to create new poetic lines that are grammatically correct, but have an intriguing and perhaps perplexing connection…..complete randomness though, doesn’t seem to engage the writer or the reader in quite the same way.

 

The examples below illustrate the process:

 

Is the Moon Tired?

By Christina Rossetti (1830-1994)

Is the moon tired? she looks so pale

Within her misty veil:

She scales the sky from east to west,

And takes no rest.

Before the coming of the night

The moon shows papery white;

Before the dawning of the day

She fades away

 

Is the (noun) tired? she looks so (adjective)

Within her misty (noun):

She (verb) the sky from (noun) to (noun),

And takes no (noun).

Before the (verb) of the (noun)

The moon shows (adjective) (noun);

Before the (verb) of the (noun)

She (verb) away.

(Noun – Verb – Adjective)

 

A new version might go:

Is the ink tired? she looks so weak

Within her misty streak:

She swims the sky from pen to book,

And takes no second look.

Before the consuming of the text

The moon shows uncertain perplex;

Before the burning of the hay

She withdraws away.

 

Two possible extensions to this project could be:

  1. Ask pupils to try to produce an illustration based on their own new version of the poem
  2. Give pupils an example of a surreal artwork (such as one by Magritte) and ask them to write a poem about the painting from scratch. The visual material that the painting offers provides a clear direction and material enough for an interesting exploration and simultaneously requires them to look long and hard at an image from art history.

The story of Dada

The story of Surrealism

Wikihow page used