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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Danish visitors

From time to time I am asked to give presentations to and yesterday I did in The Hague so to a group of Danish teachers and head teachers who were interested to hear more about the form of bilingual education that we offer in our schools in The Netherlands.

I’d like to thank them for their active participation in my part of the day. I enjoyed the chance to share ideas and discuss future possibilities.

I promised to make my presentation material available as a reminder of some of the teaching activities I touched on.  The PowerPoint itself is quite brief, so also feel free to take a look elsewhere on this blog and in particular at the CLIL link higher up the page.

Click on the link below for the presentation:

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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.

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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.

Is fashion becoming my thing?

Fashion design is not my specific area of specialization. I was trained as a painter and that remains my man focus of interest. Having said that, one of the great luxuries of my education job here in the Netherlands is that I get to teach the subject known as Culturele en kunstzinnige vorming (CKV), which roughly translates as artistic and cultural education. It is a fantastic subject that takes me and the fifteen and sixteen year olds that I teach into the broadest range of cultural disciplines such as film, theatre, dance, music, photography, architecture, applied art, design and visual arts. Over the fourteen years that I have now taught CKV it has lead me to widen my own cultural knowledge base into many new areas.

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It is with this process of continual self-education I travelled to The Boijmans van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam to see The Future of Fashion is Now exhibition. As I wrote earlier fashion design isn’t specifically my thing, although I have to admit to a growing interest and have just completed writing a module of lesson material for my CKV lessons that I’ll be working with after the Christmas break. The exhibition today was an opportunity to top up on ideas that I might be able to make use of in my lessons.

A particular challenge in this area is to break through the inherent conservatism in the pupils’ view of the world. So many of them in their approaches are anything but radical. IMG_0427 (1)They like what they know any they know what they like!  Forcing them to consider things outside of their normal range of experience is the challenge here. I want them to think creatively and experimentally, the idea will ultimately to produce a design idea, although I should add, not and actual item of clothing.

Partly inspired by another recent exhibition in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague entitled Romantic Fashions my idea is set the challenge of producing a hybrid item of clothing that combines the clothes of today with elements of fashion from the nineteenth century. There are examples of designers who have done just that already, people such a, Vivian Westwood and Jan Taminiau. But in taking these frames of fashion reference I am attempting to reduce the over whelming range of references that are potentially on offer to the pupils.  They will learn a little about the cultural world of 150 years ago and they will relate it to the world that they know today.

It is at this point that the exhibition in Rotterdam today will be useful. Pupils know what to expect in the high street in 2014 generally, they might even know a little about what appears on the catwalks of Paris and Milan, but much of what was visible today was altogether more experimental and will challenge them to think further and hopefully creatively when combining the designs of the past with the sensibilities and materials on offer today.

High heels and creativity

High heels and creativityThe kunsthal in Rotterdam has been experimenting with audience participation in its exhibition planning. What would you like to see as a theme for a future exhibition? That was the first question. Shoes, Victor Vasarely and dinosaurs were the options on offer. Perhaps not surprisingly, shoes came back as the popular choice, although I dare say that the under twelves voted differently!

Subsequently, further choices were offered that related to the presentation of the shoes, pr and advertising issues were also open to a degree of consultation. It is not so very different to an assignment I might offer the older pupils I teach (16 year olds) in their cultural education lessons. Choose a theme for an exhibition, research the artworks that you want to include, plan a layout for the exhibition and design the advertising campaign with a poster or a information folder.
The end result in Rotterdam is very good. In dimly lit spaces created in the basement hall of the Kunsthal close on five-hundred shoes are displayed. Exclusively women’s shoes, and as my wife pointed out, almost exclusively high-heeled. There is huge variety, from the familiar and practical, to eccentric and surely unwearable.
Though I am unlikely to be able to take my own pupils to see the exhibition, the costs involved and the cancellation of too many lessons, stand in the way of that. It is the sort of display I would like them to see. There are a number of reasons for this, reasons such as:

  • The familiarity of the objects on display. We all buy and wear shoes and are used to the selection criteria we impose on them when choosing.
  • The shear quantity on display, it’s a chance to see an impressive variety.
  • The pupils are perhaps more ready to come with their own opinions and evaluation than with some other areas of the arts where they perhaps feel confused or pressured by the opinions of others to like or value something they struggle to understand.
  • But perhaps the nicest aspect of hundreds of shoes placed side by side is insight into creativity it gives when working within a restricted frame of reference, in this case a pair of shoes.

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Let me expand on this last point a little more.
We all like to have choices and it is not different in education. Teachers are encouraged to built elements of choice and differentiation into their lessons. As an art teacher we can offer choices of two-dimensional or three-dimensional, traditional materials or digital media, painting or drawing, collage or printmaking techniques, large or small, the list goes on and on. The choice of how exactly, and with which material, to develop an idea can definitely be an integral part of the creative process. But it can at times be an awkward distraction as a pupil struggles to choose and maybe struggles also to fully explore the numerous creative possibilities a material or process offers.
We want our pupils to be creative and we want to give them the chance to be creative. The shoes exhibition provides an excellent contained frame of reference of creativity. Everything in the exhibition is a shoe, to be worn on a woman’s foot. That’s the frame of reference, but within that frame there is huge variety and examples or designers stretching the creative possibilities. Just how far can you in being creative with a sole, a heel and upper of the shoe. Some of the results border on the sculptural while others seem quite conventional, but the interesting dimension here is the range.
Back in the classroom, by offering pupils endless diversity in the choices on offer you don’t necessarily extend the creativity in the work they attempt. My experience is often quite the opposite, they become restricted by the choices.
We hear often enough that children and young people like to know where the permitted borders lie. The challenge for the art teacher, and maybe others too, is to set the frame of reference wide enough to offer challenges and choices in finding creative solutions, but not so wide that it ultimately inhibits the very creativity that you what to stimulate.
It’s a long while since I did a shoe design assignment with one of my classes, maybe it’s time to have a go at it again.