So much great human history, emotion, and beauty has been distilled into painting and sculpture — but schools leave this mostly untapped. Most of us, indeed, have a hard time spending much time in an art gallery — we stare, we squint, at the works trying to somehow… somehow… experience them. Typically we fail, and move onto the next work.
There are worlds to be entered in works of art, but we feel shut off from them.
Our basic plan:
We make “engaging art” a regular part of the curriculum.
We do so, in large part, by employing a method of immersing ourselves in a painting or sculpture that’s explained in the book Touching the Art: A Guide to Enjoying Art at a Museum, by Luc Travers.
One of the pieces of art he uses in the book is Pygmalion, by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Here’s the full work:
The teacher puts out a piece of art for all to see. (Preferably, we’ll be able to do this with a projector, a large screen, and a darkened room.) The teacher then leads the students through the following steps:
- Create your own title for the work (for example, using the painting above, “Guy kisses statue”). The purpose is to get them to try to make sense of the work as a whole.
- Take turns listing off lots of details. (For example: “The statue is turning pink.” “There are freaky masks on the wall.” “There’s a fish at her feet.” “Hey — some angel is about to shoot him with an arrow!” and so on.) This helps the students focus on the dozens of details the artist put in.
- See if you can agree on a basic story as to what’s basically going on. (For example: “The statue is so beautiful that it’s coming alive, and it’s kissing its sculptor, and this is all so wonderful that lightly-armed angels are joining in the party.”)
- Imagine being one of the characters — imagine seeing what the character is seeing; imagine hearing what they’re hearing; imagine feeling in your fingers and arms and face and body what they’re feeling; imagine smelling and tasting what they’re smelling and tasting.
- Now pretend to be that character — move your body so you’re in the same position as they are!
- Imagine that each character has a thought bubble coming from their head. What does it say?
- Imagine that this painting/sculpture is just one frame of a 60-second video. Imagine watching the previous 30 seconds — what happened? Now imagine watching the next 30 seconds. What happens?
- Describe the specific situation the characters are in. (“She’s coming alive, and they’re falling in love.”)
- Describe the general situation they’re in. (“Falling in love.”)
- Call to mind a specific time in your life, if any, that you’ve been in the same general situation. What did you do? How did it compare to what they characters have done?
Finally, the actual information of the work of art — the artist, the real title, the real explanation — can be shared.
Students regularly get out of themselves, and into a piece of art. There’s something joyous about falling into another world.
Students also develop a love of art, and want to create art themselves.
If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:
You might find an entire class peering attentively at a painting or statue, scratching their heads, arguing happily, and possibly contorting their bodies into silly positions!
You might also see a single small group of students doing this during their independent time, peering at a painting in an art book.
Some specific questions:
- I’ve found that this method is wonderful for works of art that feature fairly realistic images of people. But lots of art doesn’t have that at all. What other methods can we use to engage other sorts of art?
- Any recommendations for books that are full of representational paintings? (Preferably large ones.)
- At what age should we introduce nudity? Is it wiser to hold it back until later, or to normalize it earlier?