The frustrations of an art teacher…seeing it for real

You hear it often enough, ‘You have to see the real thing, it so different’. As an art teacher you know this well, the days of scratchy slides in a half darkened room may be long gone, replaced now by large scale digital screens at the front of the classroom.  The possibilities on offer to an art teachers (and all teachers of course) have improved enormously during the last decade. But still, the chance to see art, design, architecture, theatre, dance, music and other cultural forms for real, first hand, offers so much more.

A fabulous case in point is an exhibition of the Dutch fashion designer Jan Taminiau that I have visited today.  I’ve referred to his work in my lessons at school in the context of a fashion design assignment that I use with my groups of 15-16 year olds. Examples and cultural references are important in my work as a teacher. Not in the sense of showing pupils what I expect them to do. It is more a question of firing the imagination and showing them the possibilities; possibilities that often go way beyond their wildest imagination. There is so much that I’d like to show and share with them.

But the limitations of the classroom, even with its generous display screen at the front and pupils with tablet, laptop or phone screens available to them, can’t match seeing the real thing.  What it would mean to be able to bring my groups of budding fashion designers to the Centraalmuseum in Utrecht to see Taminiau’s exhibition?

The exhibition oozes qualities that grab your attention. The elegant silhouette’s that he creates, the rich use of colour and the, quite literally, dazzling textures and structures of the surface of the fabrics. This would have been the most amazing teaching aid to the above mentioned assignment.

I have photographically documented as much of the work as I can.  I’ll be using it next school year I’m sure.  Teaching fashion design is just a little outside of my comfort zone, but I do like to do it once in a while.  But oh, how I would like to let the pupils see such an exhibition. But then the same is true of so many of the shows that I see.  The museum world in the big cities, certainly in Europe, is booming. The challenge is finding a way to be able to get pupils to visit them in the context of the educational programs that they are following.  More often it seems to  happen in a rather detached sort of day out to the city that often seems to have rather vague educational aims……the fully focused and contextualized field trip is a sadly underused and rather squeezed out aspect of contemporary education. But the detail of that is a post for another day.

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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.