A Curious Expressive Juxtaposition

Intentional or not, there is a strange coming together of art at the Fundatie Museum in Zwolle in the Netherlands. Two quite separate exhibitions, one of Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter the German movement of expressionist art from the begininning of the twentieth century, the second by the Dutch artist Rob Scholte create this contrast.

imageThe display of the German expressive paintings from a century ago features many of the names that you might expect, Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, August Macke, Franz Marc and Max Pechstein are all to be found. The museum website documents the show well as does the second link here on Wikipedia:

Museum de Fundatie

Die Brücke

The paintings displayed have many expressive hallmarks. Free and aggressive use of the brush and the marks it can make for example. There is also an abundant use of non-naturalistic colour and a freedom in the way the creation of form is approached and faces and figures are manipulated, stretched and adjusted to fit pictorial purposes.
It is all very much what you might expect from expressionistic art, a cutting loose from the art that had gone before that had become too self conscious of itself.
With this as a visual background it is interesting to then move on to the Scholte exhibition. The display of many hundreds of embroidered artworks is undoubted a creation to the Dutch artist, however the individual artworks themselves technically speaking aren’t. Spread out in expansive clusters are embroidered artworks that the artist has been collecting over the years. Picking them up from flea markets, jumble sales and second-hand shops.

imageSome of the groupings are of rather kitsch hunting scenes, flower arrangements and the like. Perhaps the most engaging collections are the embroidered versions of icons from the worlds museum collections. Multiple versions of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Fragonard and Millet can all be found. It should be underlined just how many of these images that there are to see, spread across the museum walls in loose grid arrangements.
The variations in the various version of the same base image is one of the engaging aspects of the exhibition. These variations are rather greater than you might expect, you might think that one embroidered version of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch would be much the same as another, the whole point of this form of embroidery being to meticulously execute the sewn version of the original and as accurately and evenly as possible.

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imageIt is here that Scholte provides the twist, by displaying the reverse sides of the embroidery rather than the front sides. The variations and irregularities are fascinating to see. It is also here that a surprising parallel with the German expressionist work arises. These painters from the beginning of the twentieth century were interested in a looser and less self-conscious approach to there image making, less lethargic and more expressive. When you look at the reverse sides of the embroideries you are struck by the “unselfconscious” way many of them are made. This is of course hardly surprising when the makers’ attention has been so fully engaged with the other side of the image. Many of the resulting images have an extremely expressive quality as abundances of loose threads cross cross one another leaving an often chaotic, reversed and yet recognizable end result.
It is tempting to describe the work as being almost accidentally made, but that is to go a step too far, for in most cases it is functionally that governs. The loose threads are knotted off and twisted away. It is how this is done that creates the expressive and loose qualities. Although even here there is the extra variation in the way one work rapidly secures loose ends, whilst another applies a rigorous system of neatness to the back as well as to the front.

Is this the most difficult art assignment of the year?

I can’t speak for everyone of course, but for my pupils this is the most challenging assignment I get them to attempt. The challenge comes not in the technical skill, knowledge of materials or pure facility to draw but because it requires a sharp combination of text and image, maybe humour and above all a good idea.

 Essentially it is an advertising assignment, but an assignment that I also relate to surrealism and tend to focus on examples from advertising that could be said to have a surreal quality to them. The assignment I set is to design an advertisement for one product from a list that I provide and that could be used in a magazine, on a billboard or in a newspaper. Alternatively it could be a storyboard for a TV, cinema or internet advertising film.

 I start by showing them a whole series of examples. One or two or the examples are quite complex and might need a bit of an explanation, but by and large these groups of mostly fifteen year old are well able to follow the line of thought in the advert, make connections to the product, or see the joke if there is a joke to be seen. More broadly, they are perfectly able to spot the really good adverts and explain why they are so successful.

 But then comes the hard bit. Try coming up with your own idea. Be original, think outside of the box, take an oblique angle. Ask yourself what your product is all about, what are its characteristics, what can you focus on and start to build an idea around?

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It can all be so simple. An example like the one above makes use of an existing image or situation and by careful placement of the product name and slogan the image and text come together to form a delightful whole, with a real feeling for humour. The pupils see this, they understand it, they laugh. But trying to get them to think beyond the “Buy our chili sauce because, well, it’s very hot…” level is so difficult.

I tell them they have to turn every idea and product over in their minds, look at it from different angles, bounce ideas off each other. But this is so different to most other school work, where you are generally rewarded to grinding away at assignments or preparations for tests. It is about being open and ready for that idea to come.

 It’s still early days with this assignment, if anything memorable, the good, the bad or the ugly comes up, I’ll post for feedback. 

But I already know what I want to make……

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As a footnote or extension to my previous post concerning creativity within a limited range of possibilities another art room assignment comes to mind and one that touches on many other subject areas within a school. This being a poster design assignment.
The presentation of information has changed a lot in recent years, particularly in the increasingly hot area of info-graphics. The prevalence of digital technology within the school setting offers the possibility of teenagers producing work of near professional quality. Yet when the pupil sits down at the computer and opens up the design software they are so often overwhelmed by the choice, quite simply almost anything is possible. So many interesting effects and layouts are possible.
The idea that it might actually be a good idea to pick up a pencil first and produce a few thumbnail design layouts of extreme simplicity is important but at the same time, in the eyes of many pupils, an unnecessary waste of time, when they either “know what they want to do” or simply want to sit do at the computer an start to fiddle around the possibilities.
I have found that a more “dirty fingers” approach can work well in establishing an initial design idea. Giving the pupils the following for instance:
A white A4 sheet
An A5 sheet of coloured paper
A piece of imagery printed out in two different sizes
A title text printed out in two sizes
A couple of blocks of text simply cut out of a newspaper or magazine
The assignment is, within these extremely limited means to produce an interesting and dynamic layout design on the A4 sheet.
Allow a whole class to try this assignment it can be surprising what they come up with. Lay all the designs out on a table at the end of the session and the pupils will see for themselves just how creative the solutions can be, particularly with the possibilities offered by a simple sheet of coloured paper. These rough collages can of course then become the springboard for the digital work that may come later.
This is another simple but clear example of an assignment framed up with quite tight restrictions that can successly encourage the creativity of pupils or students in a wide range of age groups.