At the end of last term I received a hand made card from one of my Yr 5 pupils thanking me for teaching them.
The card said ‘Thank you for giving me a new perspective on art’, I was intrigued and found the young lady who wrote it to enquire as to what this new perspective was. She elaborated in great detail so I asked her to write it down for me, and this is what she wrote.
I used to think of art as just a drawing but now I can see it in a new perspective. It is not just a drawing, there are things and facts behind the painting and the artists, art is both a skill and a way of life. I have learnt to see and experience art in a new way and enjoy looking at it and seeing the story behind it.
Yasmin, aged 10.
I was blown away by her eloquence and deep thinking. Art is definitely a way of life, a way of seeing the world and a way of capturing that experience in an art form. I could definitely see this in her approach to her own art and in our art history lessons.
It confirmed to me that no one is too young for art history, in fact it is essential for the growth of a young artist to learn to appreciate and critique the art of others. What is important is that it is presented to the young artist just one step ahead of them so that their interest and ability is pushed and stimulated.
When I was in school I was only taught to learn facts about an artist’s life, or copy their painting technique. But it was only at degree level that I was taught to look for symbols, patterns, meaning, trends, habits, and the psychology within an artist’s work. It was such a shame that I had to wait so long to actually be exposed to this critical and searching approach to art. I think if I had been shown this earlier it would have enhanced my own creative process as well as sparked more interest in the art of others.
Here is some of Yasmin’s work.
The orchid below was worked on by Yasmin and Grace. You can see the development of colour and vibrance from day one (below) to day two (below that). These two girls made a great team, Grace had a particular concept which she communicated to Yasmin who then put it into action on the mural. Grace wanted Yasmin to paint the dying, crumpled flower on the left to show how the rain forest is full of life and death. That things dye and new things are born.
Here you can see the finished orchid within the context of the whole mural.
What I would like to emphasize is that Grace and Yasmin used the dying flower as a symbol for a very grown up concept, the natural cycle of living and dying. Very often children like to show nature in its perfection, and I expected them to omit the dying flower and show the orchid in its full living glory.
I believe that the study of art history, and the analysis of other artist’s work has influenced how Yasmin and Grace approach their own work and whetted their appetite for deeper, thought provoking art.
You might argue that too much analyzing and critical thinking will spoil the natural innocence of a child’s approach. And I agree with that on some levels, however it’s all about the natural disposition of the child and about the way the critical thinking is introduced.
It is natural to see an image and want to know more about it and yet so often we look at a painting and just accept it for its face value.
For example if you present a year five class with The Scream by Edvard Munch it might be quite inappropriate, they would be less able to empathize with the emotion and desperation intertwined with it. However if you presented the class with the painting below by historical artist Graham Turner you could bring in relevant historical, conceptual, compositional and symbolic analysis. Children could compare the bright use of colour here with this older etching. You could ask why it is effective today to use these colours (Turner’s) and his style of depiction rather than those used in the earlier etching. Or ask which one the children feel is most effective, take a vote and ask them why.
Questions such as why did Graham Turner portray this particular moment in the battle and not another are interesting. The children could compare other depictions of the Battle of Bosworth and ask why it is that none of the artist focus on Henry Tudor in the same way that they feature King Richard III? (Richard is the last plantagenet king, the last King of England to be killed in battle, a king who was never given the burial of a King but was instead stripped naked and paraded over the back of a donkey to the people of Leicester.)
You can ask why is it significant that Turner has depicted Henry Tudor’s Herald and flag bearer (William Brandon) falling so dramatically? What do they think happened to Brandon after he fell? What is the symbol of a flag and therefore the flag bearer? (Just after K. Richard blasts into Brandon and kills him, the flag nearly falls but at the last minute is restored by one of Henry’s body guards).
Ask why Turner has angled the two flags in the way they are? What do they do to Richard? (they create a frame for him, so making him stand out, clever composition). Ask who they think the men are in the distance behind the rearing horse of Henry Tudor. This question can then open up the story telling of The wealthy Stanley brothers, the corruption, hostage taking and deceit that went on during Tudor times.
The Stanley brothers were a very wealthy family that commanded an army of 6000 men. They were loyal to King Richard III but decided not to commit to either side at the Battle of Bosworth. Needless to say both Henry Tudor and King Richard wanted them on their side. Richard went to meet Sir William Stanley and ask for his loyalty, but Stanley (who is married to Henry Tudor’s mother by the way) would not promise his loyalty. To help persuade him Richard kidnaps William’s son but apparently William replies to the news of his son’s kidnap by saying: ‘I have many more sons’. William Stanley and his army spent a large part of the battle of Bosworth waiting to see which side they would join. However they made their important decision just after the moment depicted in Turner’s painting. The Brothers chose Henry Tudor’s side and attack just after William Brandon’s death so sealing King Richard’s Fate and Henry Tudor’s succession to the throne.
Well chosen and fascinating, art history, with relevant analysis and critique is essential to the artistic creative process. It not only whets the appetite of the young artist but is essential for all of us to experience because it informs and assists us in reconsidering our own art. This is what I have discovered through teaching and as an artist myself and Yasmin’s card has reconfirmed this for me.