A tale of two sketchbooks continued…..

An exhibition visit last weekend and a previous post about sketchbooks have prompted me to write this short extension to the A tale of two sketchbooks post of a couple of weeks ago.

Last weekend I visited the Mondrian exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague.  In the museum, as well as this blockbuster show there was a smaller exhibition of work by the Haagse School, a group of Dutch artists working in the Dutch capital at the end of the 19th century.  There was a good collection of interesting paintings but actually what caught my attention most were two walls in the exhibition that had been given over solely to displaying the sketchbooks of some of the artists involved.

These small, and very intimate glances into the working process of the likes of Breitner and Israels were quite captivating.  It is the sort of exhibition display that I would like to bring my pupils at school to see.  Direct, small scale and personal, these are visual documents that somehow bridge the gap between the artist and the finished work.  You see a visual connection with the finished paintings, but also, a much more apparent and obvious presence of the artist themselves.  These are after all books that lived in their pockets or bags, objects that travelled around with them and were a sort of personal forum for the development of ideas.

Sketchbooks are important, we can learn much from them.  In many ways, it is a shame that they are so rarely of display in our museum.  There are places online where examples can be found and pages turned through, such as here.

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There are also places such as The Sketchbook Project where the drawing books of lesser known artists and creative people are receiving an online place where others can turn through the digital pages.  I’ll certainly be drawing the attention of my pupils to this source of documentation of the creative process.

Mondrian and his edges

As someone who has always been interested in abstraction in the visual arts Piet Mondrian has continually lurked in the background and often enough forced his way forward into my own work. When I think back to my time as a student in London, he was one of the reasons that a few friends and I made a visit to the Netherlands. We visited the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague to see firsthand the works of this influential Dutch master. To be honest I can’t quite remember which works we saw, but it certainly wasn’t as many are as currently on view at the museum. To mark the centenary of the setting up of De Stijl the Gemeentemuseum has dipped deep into its collection and pulled out pretty much everything in order to mount a hugely extensive exhibition that gives a great deal of context and background to the work that brought him to the abstract images with which we tend to immediately settle on when thinking about Mondrian.

This framing of context of Mondrian’s work is further extended by the presence of a second exhibition, Rumoer in de Stad (Tumult in the city), in the museum that focuses on the Dutch artistic world from 1880 onwards, and in particular around The Hague itself.  It features work by the likes of George Hendrik Breitner, Isaac Israëls and Willem Witsen. It creates a clear image of daily and cultural life in Dutch society at the end of the nineteenth century. The paintings and drawings displayed ooze a spontaneity and a pleasure in the materials that the artists were using. It’s easy to allow yourself to imagine the world that these artists moved in and were recording in their work.

It is very much this sort of context that Mondrian was building on when he moved to the city to begin his artistic career. The Gemeentemuseum documents extensively this early work. There are walls literally covered in landscape paintings. To start with they are often painted in a quite restrained way. But sure enough, as you pass through subsequent galleries we see the familiar process of reduction, abstraction and heightening of colour start to take place leading us to rooms of archetypal ‘Mondrians’ from the collection and ultimately to the museums pride and joy, Victory Boogie Woogie.

Anything but graphic

The abstract paintings of the 1920s and 30s have understandably been responsible for securing the Dutch man’s place in art history. The countless reproductions and reusing of the black verticals and horizontals with zones of primary colour have become the something of a trademark. But they have also become way more graphic in our minds than they are. I’ve always been aware of the painterly qualities of Mondrian’s work, it strikes you immediately when you see the original work.

But when seeing such a quantity of paintings as are currently on display you become more aware than ever how important edges between areas of colour were to the artist. There’s nothing graphic or in any way hard.in the early work the edges are soft and defused.  As the world Mondrian chose to represent became more reduced the edges became areas of paint seeminly pushing together to create an edge with very much a manmade tension to it. Whilst drawing tends to focus on line, painting challenges to artist to deal with edges, edges where two colours come together, Mondrian understood edges and how often details occurring on a very small scale can carry important consequences.

6Throughout the whole exhibition you are constantly aware of the hand of the artist, decisions and refinements constantly being considered and worked.  An approach that is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the room with nothing on the pristine white walls, except that is, for the engaging presence that is Victory Boogie Woogie.

 

 

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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Alice Neel exhibition…. Portrait painter

Let me start with a confession; the paintings of Alice Neel had largely passed me by until a few months ago. My attention was then drawn to them by an image that was sent to me by my colleague artist and art teacher, Pasi, in Finland.  We’ve been busy setting up a photography project between my pupils in the Netherlands and his in Finland. (For more information about this use the link below).

Netherlands-Finland photography project

One aspect of the project has involved drawing some comparisons of photographic portraits and painted ones.  Within this context Pasi sent me a collection images, including a self-portrait painted by Neel when she was in her eighties. It’s an unusual and somewhat eye catching representation of the elderly artist, sitting naked in a chair whilst painting her self-portrait.  It was this very portrait that you encounter as you walk into the extensive Alice Neel exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague at the moment.

img_3164The exhibition walks you through a large body of this relatively forgotten artist, an early life surrounded by revolutionaries and political activists before nestling herself amongst the cultural life of New York. Unusually for a portrait artist Neel didn’t document herself in her work until right at the end of her life, instead the focus lies on partners, lovers, children, friends and others she came across in the circles she moved in. The result is a fascinating journey through the muted early work into the increasingly colourful and expressive work that came later.

Constant throughout the exhibition is a feeling of focused intensity, both from the artist and the subject. The sitter often stares out of the image with large penetrating eyes.

I enjoyed the show hugely and found myself unusually reading everything on the gallery walls building up a picture of a very colourful and varied life. It’s clear to see how the artist drew on the work of Munch and Van Gogh for her inspiration. It is also evident why Dutch artist Marlene Dumas finds her interesting. Personally I see a strong connection to the work of David Hockney.

The texts that accompany the exhibition make much of a feminist agenda that perhaps caused Neel to be neglected. That may well be the case, but it also has to be said that when the artist was producing some of her best work, in the fifties and sixties she was close to where she needed to be, painting portraits of gallery owners and others within the cultural world.  Her fringe position within the cultural scene must surely also been down to the fact that the American art world of this period was pre-occupied by very different things. Yes, it was a very male dominated and macho place to be, but also one focusing on abstraction, minimalism, Pop art and conceptual art, there was little space for an essentially traditional portraitist, no matter how good and how intense her work was.

Ellsworth Kelly, at last, and a new Dutch modern art museum

Ellsworth Kelly has always been an important artist to me, ever since I first encountered his work as a student in London back in the late 1980s. His use of line and form, coupled with intense colour, drew me towards an interest in abstraction. His reduced artworks had a beauty that engaged my attention and helped me resolve how I could deal with abstract elements in my own work. Kelly’s work continues to be a touchstone in my own studio practice.


Despite this interest in his work I have never seen a solo show of his paintings or sculptures. I have regularly come across pieces in London, Paris, Amsterdam and Otterlo near where I live, but normally only one or two at a time. So it was with considerable anticipation that I arrived at the new Voorlinden Museum, on the outskirts of The Hague to see that elusive solo exhibition, ironically enough, just a few months after the artist’s death.
Kelly himself acknowledged the connection of his work with nature and the world around us. The Voorlinden museum in this regard presents a fantastic context. The architecture itself is reduced and and lean, no decoration here, less still in Kelly’s work. Always close by is the natural world, seen through the expansive glass walls of the museum.
The paintings are given the chance to breath their intense colour, the geometry of the forms cutting across the immaculate walls.
There is an attention to detail in Kelly’s work that is at once simple and fascinatingly complex. An edge that to all intents and purposes looks straight, but just by the smallest of margins isn’t, or one of his curves resting, and seemingly waiting to pivot, on the most fragile of points resting on the ground. But above all in the difusely top-lit gallery spaces of the museum it is the colour that captures the attention. Immaculately laid down surfaces with a rich intensity.

There are many other interesting pieces on show elsewhere in the museum, but in the context of he Kelly show, Open Ended by Richard Serra and Skyspace by James Turrell are particularly enjoyable combinations. Serra’s huge curving arcs envelop you as you walk through them, the rusting steel surface of his sculptures share nothing of the immaculate surface quality of Kelly’s work. However, for both artists the geometry of the edge is crucial. In that regard the edges of Turrell’s Skyspace installation work could hardly appear sharper. From the reclining benches around the sides of the room you look up through the sharp square opening in the roof to the limitless space of the sky above. The awareness you have of the surface of the canvas in Kelly’s work is replaced by an abiguous sense of surface that you know, in reality, is completely absent.. The slowly passing clouds so carefully framed up by the work taking on a feeling of the most full-colour projection possible.

The Voorlinden museum

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.

Mark Rothko in the ‘side chapels’ of Gemeentemuseum in The Hague

I studied in London and as an art student made regular trips to the Tate as it was then known, before the setting up of the Tate Modern and Tate Britain. On these trips I became only too familiar with the brooding presence of the large dark reddish canvases of the Seagram murals made in the late 1950s. These are I think the only examples of Rothko’s work that I have seen clustered together in a group, otherwise it has generally been just isolated artworks that I have come across in various European museums and galleries. So the chance to see a whole show of his work in the Gemeentemuseum, alongside the paintings of Piet Mondriaan, an artist who in many ways paved the way for Rothko and the other abstract expressionists, has been noted down in my diary for some time.

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The Tate paintings ooze a depth in their mood and indeed in their colour. I am very familiar with Rothko’s work from secondary sources such as the internet and books. I knew that there are plenty of paintings that make use of a higher range of palette, and yet, this was still the surprise in The Hague exhibition.  Often there is that familiar depth in the tone and the colour, but layer on top of this is are second or third colours that deliver a feathery intensity shimmering in the indistinct ground colour.

Also included in the exhibition are a number of works on paper made close to the end of the artist’s life. One in particular that catches the attention is an untitled work from 1968. It’s a relatively large piece, on a sheet of paper that is maybe 140×100 cm and shows a ground of two deep shades of blue, part of which edges towards black. The second quarter of the painting moving downwards glows an almost golden yellow. It’s a composition that seems to sum up so much of Rothko’s work, a deep, almost menacing depth, complimented so often with areas that lift themselves out, calling for our attention. The painting has a quite heavily worked surface, and in some ways gives away more of the artist’s process than many of the larger canvases do, we clearly see the traces of the artist’s brushes as he works across the surface. This particular work, hangs near a doorway, not necessarily in a space that lends itself to catching the museum viewer, yet it is fascinating to watch it do just that as visitors move from one space to another.

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The spaces of the Gemeentemuseum lend themselves enormously to the show.  There are rooms that display the work in groups, with uncluttered space to move around in, the classical museum experience if you like. But there are a number of spaces that function almost as a side chapel in a cathedral and have been given a single large Rothko canvas, with a seat in front of it, an ideal space for contemplation.

Illegal Immigration and Art

Many years ago I gave a series of creative workshops to children of asylum seekers at an asylum seekers centre that is on the edge of the town where I live. I can’t remember a great deal about what I did with these groups of children in terms of activity. But there are a number of things I do remember about the experience.

I found it very difficult, they spoke many different languages, they were all very different ages and they weren’t (it seemed to me) used to someone coming to draw with them. All or these are very challenging factors to someone trying to give some kind of structured recreational/educative/creative activity. All the more so when, as was the case for me at the time, you have virtually no experience of teaching or group leadership.

But looking back these are not the things I remember most of the experience. What sticks in my mind years later is the feeling of “otherness” I had of the environment within the fences of the centre.

It wasn’t (and still isn’t) a closed fences centre, the people there are allowed out into the area and local town, I regularly see them still. But within the centre I felt that I was somehow in a sort of dislocated place. The building that these people lived in was unmemorable and grey, but it was set in the calm and tranquil beauty of woodland that stretches out beyond the centre for miles. This context was one that I felt very strongly, and it was coupled with an air of uncertainty in the future that you inevitably feel in such a place.

The experience as a whole was for me a relatively short one, lasting only a few weeks. But it was one that has stayed with me and has coloured and filled in my thoughts on the issues of asylum seekers and immigration.

Immigration is a theme that I have been working with in my art lessons during the last weeks, in combination with my social studies colleague who is dealing with the issue simultaneously in her lessons. It’s a major subject and one that is important to discuss.

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I do it using the excellent work by Dutch artists Carlijn Mens and Henk Wildschut. Both have produced work that deal with the subject of illegal immigration head on. The challenge for us as teachers is to try and open the eyes of our pupils to a subject that is so far from their world for virtually all of them as they make their daily bike ride through the countryside and town to school. Virtually all of the them, because I have also had young people from Iraq and Afghanistan who were still in the immigration process in my classes in the past.

To help bring the theme a little closer to home I am now sitting in a train, along with forty-three fifteen and sixteen year olds and three colleagues heading towards The Hague and the exhibition centre called the Humanity House. Here we will be participating in two activities aimed at engaging and confronting the visitor with the issues of refugees. The kids are excited about the day out it will be interesting to see their response to what we encounter.

 Six hours later

In the train again for the two hour ride back home with forty three generally very enthusiastic teenagers. Two activities completed, both engaging, informative and in their own ways entertaining in an enlightening sort of way.

The humanity game involved letting teams of pupils divide aid resources across scenarios based on real disaster situations.Volcanic eruptions in Indonesia, flooding in Pakistan, chemical poisoning in Bhopal and an abnormally cold winter in Mongolia all played a part. It was all about judging priorities, gauging what is most needed. Simple enough but extremely engaging.

 In the skin of a refugee took you on a journey through the experiences of a person fleeing a place for whatever reason. You pass through a series of alienating spaces that simulate the feeling of having to rapidly depart your home, to flee into the unknown. Interrogation, confrontation, questions of trust and loyalty all played a part.  Parts of the experience left you feeling uncomfortable, possibly scared, but also, greatly informed in an extremely activating and stimulating way. 

In the context our project at school we couldn’t have asked for more. For myself as an art teacher there is the extra layer that I’ll be talking about in the lessons later in the week when I refer back to the work of Mens and Wildschut. Their work deals with a tremendously serious social issue, and in the case of Mens, one with tragic consequences. Showing pupils how art can be relevant and a carrier of information and opinions about the most up to date of issues is always so enlightening and valuable to show.