A secret art project…..and a unique opportunity

The post below was written six months ago. At the time it had to remain unpublished, an art related secret yet to be told. Things have moved on, I can now tell the story.

27 February 2019

I am writing this knowing that for the time being at least, I’m not going to be publishing this post. The reason for this is that it involves an artwork that at the moment is something of a secret and is related to the ‘Rembrandt year’ that the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is hosting to mark the 350 years since the artist’s death.

The story starts two and a half weeks ago. My colleague Caroline and I were at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. We had split our group of twenty-two pupils into two groups and were receiving a tour from two tour guides focussing on Dutch 17th century art. Such a tour inevitably stops off in front of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch. I was elsewhere in the museum with my group when Caroline was standing in front of Rembrandt’s massive masterwork.

While the group were answering questions Caroline noticed that the group was being very closely observed by another visitor. Moments later the same visitor came and introduced herself as Rineke Dijkstra, the Dutch art photographer who is perhaps best known for her photographs of teenagers, awkwardly posing before the camera on apparently empty beaches.

Dijkstra didn’t waste anytime in getting to the point, she had been commissioned by the Rijksmuseum to produce a new video work as part of the current Rembrandt year. It was going to be along the lines of the earlier work shot in Liverpool of British children talking and reflecting on a Picasso painting without the painting itself ever coming in shot. The new project was going to have its focus on Rembrandt’s Nightwatch though……and the bottom line was, that she wanted to use Caroline’s group of pupils as a part of the project.

Two weeks of organisation followed, permission from school to participate, permission from parents because the group was mainly made up of sixteen and seventeen year olds and the willingness fo the pupils themselves to be involved.

Two and a half weeks later we find ourselves, after museum closing time in the essentially deserted gallery of honour, with its collection of Vermeer, Steen, Hals and Rembrandt works. But in front of the Nightwatch a temporary studio has been errected for the film shoot. A white cube, bright lights and multiple cameras. It begins, I think, to dawn on the pupils that this is actually really quite a big deal! We are introduced to Rineke, she also seems quite excited about the work to be done that evening.

One of the Rijksmuseum tour guides take the girls off on a quick tour of some of the other paintings to settle nerves (yes, only girls, clearly a factor that made the artist pick Caroline’s group from the masses a couple of weeks earlier). A clear embargo was placed on photographing the set or any of the activities around the shoot. No images were to find their way onto social media!

Then it was down to work. Rineke sellecting clusters of girls to join her on the set that had been created in such a way that the pupils were issolated against an intensely lit white background.

I stood, a little out of view. Behind three monitors streaming the input from the cameras, not unlike the multiscreen effect that I had seen before in the Liverpool work. However, unlike that work, where the children involved were presented in a row side by side, this time the artist seemed keen to experiment with different approaches and compositional devices. The girls were arranged sitting on a bench together, but with the bench lined up in such a way that it was angled towards the camera. The result being that the faces of the girls appeared almost stacked up behind one another, way more dynamic and perhaps more in keeping with the work of Rembrandt himself. The girls were encouraged to talk about what they saw, what they thought, no script, just spontaneous reaction.

Dijkstra also asked a group of the girls to look at the painting and draw from it in their sketch books. After much careful positioning and repositioning of the girls, and laughter and a little bemusement from the young subjects, Rineke gave the sign, cameras rolled, silence decended. The girls drew, they looked, they drew again. This time the shoot ran for a considerable time, in fact it seemed to go on and on. The concentration was palpable. Were these really the same chatty, and often enough, distracted children that we see in class at school?

The material that was recorded was fascinating to see, as was the process of work of Ms Dijkstra as she cast her critical eye over the detail of the framing of each of the cameras. One of the later shots that was made reminded me more of Rineke’s well known photographic work of teenagers on the beach and a certain discomfort that creeps through in those images. A row of girls took up position against the white backgroud, the Rijksmuseum guide, just out of shot started to talk them through the painting, an extensive and detailed monologue which went on for quite an extended period. The girls focussed on the image of the painting, following the guides descriptive speech. You saw their gaze move around the image. They remained standing and looking. After a while you saw an ocassional adjustment of balance, a dip in concentration, a momentary distraction. Suddenly you observe that ‘not completely relaxed’ mark that is present in so much of Dijkstra’s work. Simply by filming for just long enough that lapse in focus starts to show itself, both physically and mentally.

23 August 2019

At the time of writing we had no way of knowing how much, if any, of what was filmed would in the end be used in the film work. We’ve reached the point now though that there is a finished work that will shortly be unveiled in the Rijksmuseum. The presentation of the work Night Watching in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is a couple of weeks away and the group of girls and us, their teachers, have been invited to the preview at the beginning of September.

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My colleague says she loves her job……

My colleague app’ed me the other day to say that she loved her job. I love my job too. We both work in the art department. This admission came in the context of a particular assignment that we are working together at the moment.

The project is part of a street art related theme and is centered in particular on the Little People Project by the British street artist Slinkachu.

Slinkachu’s own website

We were preparing the figures, similar to those used by Slinkachu to give our pupils the chance to work in a similar way when they visit The Hague for a day in a couple of weeks’ time. We were both doing the preparation work simultaneously on a Saturday afternoon apping photos of what we were doing to each other.

littlepeople

We’d sourced our own simple plastic figures and had them mailed from China. We wanted to deliver our fifteen year old pupils high quality painted figures with which to work and had decided to do the painting ourselves.

Why were we enjoying the preparation so much? Well, it was fun to do. Slinkachu’s art has a childish playfulness to it. Having presented the idea of the assignment to our pupils this week it is clear to see that they too recognize the element of childish play that is involved here.  Even fifteen year olds love the chance to play…..sometimes there almost seems to be a nostalgic view back to their own childhood activities! If I ask them to bring in the LEGO from in the box under their bed for an animation project, they love to do just that, and the excuse to play.

Picasso once said:

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

In this regard our assignment certainly seems to connect with Picasso’s thought.  But I think that it also relates strongly to why my colleague and I enjoy our work.  All creativity involves an element of play and experimentation.  An open minded involvement to our activity as art teachers has a free wheeling playfulness to it. When, as a teacher you are able to awaken this sense of playfulness in your pupils, the rest generally takes care of itself.

 

Museums in alternative locations – La Piscine, Roubaix

I’ve visited a fair few museums over the years. The purpose built museums and the museums in spaces that have been transformed into display spaces whilst retaining elements of their previous use. This second category always has an extra level of interest, whether the buildings were, in previous lives factories, power stations, railway stations, shops or churches. But this week I have visited one that displays its heritage to sensational effect.

The ‘La Piscine’ museum in Roubaix, just north of Lille in northern France is housed in a swimming pool that opened its doors for the first time in 1932 before finally closing for the final time in 1985.

The building reopened in its new role as a museum of art and industry in 2001.

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The previous life of the building is present throughout with details such as the corroding water tanks in  the space next to the shop, and a stylish, but now disused entrance from the street. But the central space has an undeniable ‘wow effect’. Stretched down the middle is a pool area with sculptures and casts also displayed in this sunken part of the main hall. The decorative tiled edge of the pool is visible throughout and beyond this edge you wander through intimate exhibition spaces housed in the former changing cubicles that surround the pool. Alongside these are the foot baths that bathers would have passed through before reaching the pool area. The original tiling and decorative details have been retained wherever possible, both on the ground floor and the two levels of balconies around the pools.

But the real pièce de résistance are the way the semi-circular stained glass windows at either end of the building illuminate the space and are reflected in the water below, completing the circle as it were. It all works to stunning effect.

 

The collection itself is diverse, a few well-known names, Vlaminck, Dufy, Vuillard, Bonnard and Picasso plates and vases. But essentially it is work by lesser known artists (for me at least), mixed with applied arts in the form of textiles, fashion, glassware and ceramics. It’s variety is its strength and there is much to see that grabs your attention, even with a backdrop that is constantly calling your attention.

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.

I have an over optimistic view of time – until I discover how long things take to do

I have a very positive, some might say over optimistic, view of time. This is particularly true of making things myself or getting others to be creative in my role as a teacher.  I always underestimate the time it takes to do practical tasks. Generally I’m really pretty good with my hands, I do work fast, in the kitchen, when painting the stairs or making a drawing. But if I’m pushed to pin down how long a given task is going to take I almost always under estimate.

This is also true when planning practical art assignments for the various groups I teach.  The initial idea might have been for say six one hour long sessions. We get that far and the task simply doesn’t look finished to me. Do we stop and move on, well no, almost never. One of the most important lessons I learnt from one of my lecturers at art school was simply that too many good ideas weren’t ever pushed to a conclusion they deserve. So with this in mind the project invariably gets extended. One of the advantages you might say of the art teacher, time has a more elastic quality in my planning, but so does the curriculum.

double portraits

The pupil work shown here is a good example of work time extensions being necessary. Yes it was a fairly complex assignment for my third years (14-15 year olds). Yes I like to push them hard and to build up an image of complexity and yes collage is a working method that kind of invites dithering and hesitation at times. But still I imagine each time that they can do the work in half the time it actually takes!

Is that my work in a museum?…

gemeentehuis

Mostly pupils’ work lives in a drawer at school.  Sometimes the better pieces are mounted on a piece of coloured paper and taped on a wall somewhere around the art department. Very occasionally a particularly impressive piece of work might make it into a frame elsewhere in school.  We all like a little recognition for our best efforts and achievements. My pupils are no different and like to see their work appear elsewhere around school.

It is extremely rare that pupil work makes the jump from the confines of the school building to a truly public space. On the part of the teacher this always involves extra work and organisation. As a teacher I am prepared to make that extra effort but with two criteria that I feel make it worth the extra effort.

  • it must be a location where the work is actually going to be seen by a broader public
  • it must be a location where the work can actually be nicely presented in a space where it looks good

These two criteria don’t sound too complicated but are actually in practice fairly difficult to meet.  But knowing that I had some good work from a group of classes I set out looking for a suitable venue. The local museum of the town where I teach (Oss, in the Netherlands) was for a time an option. Highly suitable, but at present they are going throughout a process of reorganization and so that possibility fell by the wayside. However, with the help of the museum’s excellent education department I was put onto the town’s council offices. The modern architecture of the building offers a very good exhibition space in its foyer that with, not too much imagination, could easily pass as an gallery space in a museum of modern art….a fact that I feel sure won’t be lost on my pupils when they see the exhibition of their work that I have set up this afternoon.

The exhibition is small, showing just three works. All three are group projects made by a total of seven different classes over the last three years.  All three relate to war and violence and how it is represented in art and the media. The works make use of references to Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s 3rd May and the piles of discarded shoes from the victims of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

It’s all quite heavy material, but the new presentation of the collages and sculpture give an extra credibility and one that gives me a sense of satisfaction and the pupils too it hope.

War and conflict project

As a follow up to my previous post I thought perhaps a little more documentation of the There they stood…. project would be good. Firstly the the installation of the work as it is at school at the moment. Trapped behind the glass at eye level does seem to work well for it.

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Discussions with the local museum are ongoing and hopefully with time it will be exhibited there I would fantastic for the pupils involved to see their work displayed alongside the work of others in such a professional context.

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The close up work shows a little of the process involved in the project and in particular the poems written by the pupils about the likes of Picasso and Goya, whose work we have studied during the course of the project. It is worth remembering that the poems are being written by fifteen year old Dutch pupils who are writing in their second language.

If you haven’t watched the video documentation in my previous post, do take a moment to do so.