When you visit a show that features Josef Albers you can feel fairly sure that the twenty year long Hommage to the square is going to feature. But the exhibition at the Kunstmuseum in The Hague that is nearing its end now, offers a whole lot more. Yes there is the room that features fifteen variations of the long running series, including a mesmerizing and large yellow composition.
But Mr Albers is very much only half the story. There is Mrs Albers too. Anni, 11 years the junior of her husband is every bit as important in the display. Her textiles, graphics and drawings are every bit as eye-catching with their rhythmic repetitions and wandering lines that remind me of so many artists that were still to make there artistic mark in the second half of the twentieth century.
The work of both artists has a modest scale, you are drawn in to stand close and look carefully. A scale that is not dissimilar to my own paintings and drawings. I wondered beforehand if I would discover anything during my visit that may find its way into my own studio, and yes, I think I have. I’ve been folding landscape spaces in recent paintings and drawings, maybe there is something I will be able to do with Josef Albers Steps from 1935.
Conferences are back on the agenda, and I am ending the school year in The Hague for two days to attend one that has been in the pipeline for more than two years, the World CLIL Conference. CLIL, content and language integrated learning has been the main stay of my type of educational practice for the last twenty plus years. Yes, I’m an art teacher, but in the bilingual educational context that I work in, CLIL is my methodology, combining the teaching of art with the intensive and immersive use of a second language teaching (the use of English when teaching Dutch children art in my case).
That sounds quite simple, a different language of instruction during the lessons. It is of course that, I speak only English with the Dutch children I teach, and the language of the classroom is English. But good and slightly more complex CLIL teaching goes several steps further, and it is this that the conference this week is about, and what the consequences are of this approach.
I gave a workshop as part of the conference but have also dosed up on CLIL input that hopefully should give me ideas and angles to explore in my teaching next school year.
I don’t attend a great many conferences, certainly not in the last couple of years, but it is so good to escape the humdrum classroom life. These are the battery recharge moments that I’ve missed immensely. The chance to listen, hear new and different perspectives and simply just to reflect a bit on what we do and perhaps what we could be doing is something we don’t get the opportunity to do enough in educationland.
Particularly for those who attended my workshop during the conference, below there is a link to the PowerPoint that I made use of. It is not completely ready-made lesson material, but it is certainly enough of a reminder of the content we covered and offers the necessary basis material that may be of use to you.
Finally, after a two-year break, today was the day for an excursion with pupils to a museum. The destination the Kunstmuseum (formally the Gemeentemuseum) in the Hague in the morning, with an afternoon visit to the Mauritshuis. I’ve certainly missed these occasional cultural trips out, but our pupils too. The group with us today were all 15-17 year olds who have chosen art as a final exam subject. The the Corona-forced suspension of days out have meant that many of these pupils have missed out on first-hand cultural experiences that in more normal times we all take very much for granted. Two years with no trips that have taken them out beyond the familiarity of the classroom.
Once inside our first museum, taking a look at the extensive collection of Mondrian paintings it was kind of clear to see, the pupils were enthusiastically lapping it up. So much of the extra-curricular activities have recently been lost to us all in education, it was both refreshing and encouraging to see the response. No assignments were needed, they just wanted to look and to wander round for close to two hours, on what was for many, a first visit to one of the ‘cathedrals’ of Dutch art.
After a lunchbreak in the icy cold town centre it was off to the Mauritshouse and a chance to see Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring, View of Delft and then on to Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson. Our young cultural sponges still seemed to be soaking it all up, this time with the help of a museum guide.
Such a day out, with three teachers and forty or so pupils is a necessary luxury. It is this sort of day that the pupils will remember and will bring their art history textbooks to life. Staring out Rembrandt in his last self-portrait or seeing Mondrian’s meticulous steps from figuration to abstraction. It is often a revelation for our pupils, a discovery of just how interesting a museum can be, even on a Friday afternoon!
Oh, how I have missed these excursion days during the last two years!
It’s nearly a year since I’ve been into a museum. My escape days to recharge my cultural batteries. The opening up of a post-lockdown world is finally allowing it again. It’s not quite as it was before, you have to book you entrance time slot and the number of visitors is restricted. It is also true to say that the exhibition programming of the museums has, I’m sure, been mangled by the repeated stop start of the last 18 months. But despite all this it has been fantastic to return to the Kunstmuseum in The Hague today, possible my favourite regular destination of all the big Dutch museums.
Apart from the regular collection, and despite the disruptive effects of the pandemic, the museum had a couple of exhibitions that had drawn me here, ahead of perhaps an Amsterdam of Rotterdam visit. First and foremost a solo exhibition by the Dutch abstract painter Bob Bonies. I remember discovering his work as a student in London back in the 1980s. The hugely reduced visual arrangements that the artist uses fascinated me. The way he worked with form that was physically absent as much as what was present influenced my own student work. Much of the work is of a reasonably large scale, but relies on the most subtle of tensions between the complete and incomplete form, the flat and the spatial, the physical and the illusionistic.
Bonies work is clean, sharp and draws you in. Immaculately made these geometric statements feel totally at home in this particular museum with its equally sharp and geometric design, created by Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage (1856-1934).
Maybe the difficulties of exhibition planning in the Covid effected world has lead the museum to present an exhibition about its own building, or maybe it was planned all along. But it is certainly interesting to see how the building came about, Berlage’s influences, planning and maquettes. It is a piece of architecture that is always a pleasure to wander through, it’s heavy doors, repeating structures and wall paintings. But for me today, and maybe partly because I had just been gazing at Bonies work, it was a set of photographs by Gerrit Scheurs of the building that particularly caught my eye.
The photographs, like paintings by Bonies, play with the geometry. In this case, within the rectangle. Yes, if you look carefully you can pick out easily enough which part of the museum is actually pictured. But these images too have more than their fair share of spatial and illusionistic games going on……all with the cool diffused light that the museum always has.
One of the other spaces in the Berlage exhibition makes use of large, black and white photographs of exhibitions of the past. Often blown up to wall filling scale. The pictured museum spaces seeming to open up mirrored rooms, but ones that take is into the past, peopled by visitors exploring exhibitions held in the same gallery space maybe fifty or sixty years ago. You share the space for a moment, but find yourself reflecting on the different times and indeed the different world going on outside the walls of the museum.
Museums all over the world are shuffling their exhibition programs. They are also undoubtedly counting the costs of the missing visitors, the entrance tickets, the book shop sales, the cafes and restaurants. The museums here in the Netherlands are no different.
Dutch museums are in the process of tentatively reopening their doors. Limited visitors are allowed, and everyone has to pre-book their time of entry. They have also been reorganizing the exhibition programs.
For example, there was to have been this autumn in the Drendtsmuseum in the north of the country, a large-scale exhibition of the work or Frida Kahlo. Kahlo is an artist whose work I have only ever seen in odd snippets here and there. It was a visit that I had been looking forward to making. It seems that I will have to look forward to it a bit longer, it has now been put back a year and is now autumn 2021.
There were other exhibitions that have simply passed by during the lockdown. I thought that this was the case with the Breitner-Israels exhibition in the Kunstmuseum in The Hague. The two top Dutch painters from the late 19th and early 20th century had been put head to head for comparison. The show opened shortly before Corona burst loose on us all. I hadn’t had the chance to visit and guessed my chance had been missed. As compensation to myself I bought the extensive catalogue and enjoyed reading it during the peak lockdown weeks for a bit of cultural distraction.
As it turns out the exhibition has been extended over the summer, so there is still the opportunity to visit. But for me there is a catch; getting to the museum involves a journey of an hour and a half on public transport. The message coming out of government is that public transport should only be used when absolutely necessary……like when I use it to get to my work in education. There’s a potentially interesting discussion to be had here, that being that after three months of no cultural input of this sort, it does feel pretty necessary and vital to recharge my cultural batteries! Is that needy enough?
I remember looking at Rob van Koningsbruggen’s work when I was an art student around 1990. He was held up as an example of a type of abstract painter who was much admired by teaching staff at the college where I was studying. He had taken on board in his work the lessons of American abstraction of the mid twentieth century without losing his European roots. Better still, he belonged to the Dutch lineage of abstraction.
Rob van Koningsbruggen, Untitled, 1985
I have regularly come across examples of his work in Dutch galleries and museums, but today, when visiting the Kunstmuseum (formerly known as the Gemeentemuseum) in The Hague I have seen a full-scale museum show of his paintings for the first time.
They were a succulent collection of canvases from the past decade of the now 71 year old painter. The paint and colour does quite literally on occasions ooze from the surface.
Peter Roseman, Composition on Drape, 1990
It was strange to walk around the rooms; I hadn’t expected it to feel quite such a visual reminder of the paintings I remember from the college studio spaces back in 1990. I just wish I had more photos from our work place back then. A very likeable exhibition, but at the same time strangely familiar.
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.
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.
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.
Throughout 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.
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.
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).
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.
The 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.