I have a few aims with the post:
- I want to create a program that will engage my 4, turning 5, year old son in learning how to look at art. (Without any idea if it will work)
- I want to create a series of questions based on information I’ve been learning through a program offered by MoMa called “Art and Inquiry” at the MoMa learning website. These questions, potentially may be well suited to looking at any pictures (not just the one I present here) that fall under a specific theme. This will allow me to move my at home art observation to the Art Gallery of Ontario and see what happens when we view art, first, in the gallery, and second, on a particular theme.
- To develop the first tutorial for a set of new university students that models the topic “What is Critical Thinking?” I think the lessons I am going to put into practice with my son, potentially the exact same process of questioning, will also work on a group of university students. (Ambitious, I’m thinking – but I’m willing to give it a try.)
Looking with the Eyes of an Artist
Have I ever shown you the picture that Hunter personally chose for his bedroom? No. Well, here it is:
This image is painted by Henri Rousseau in 1891. It’s title is “Tiger in a Tropical Storm” or “Surprised!” and that’s all I’ll tell you upfront.
My goal is to create a series of activities surrounding this picture that is hanging at the foot of Hunter’s bed. I love the idea of where it is in his room and the potential that having conversations about it might occasionally produce for him as he lays in bed and stares at it. He must look at it sometimes, right? I mean it is right there at the end of his bed – and if we have some funny discussion about it, he’ll start to think about those conversations too — I’d think.
In learning about Rousseau, for my own purposes, I realized that we have a children’s book (which I now think might be about Rousseau even though I never thought it was before) in our collection that might be a good way to start engaging with the artist.
I bought Henri’s Walk to Paris by Saul Bass initially because I loved the illustrations. Bass was a graphic designer who worked mainly making film posters. If you can call up an Alfred Hitchcock film poster in your mind, you are probably thinking of something designed by Saul Bass. Unfortunately, he died in 1996, but not before making this really quaint little children’s book about the adventures of a child.
The book is essentially the story of Henri, a little boy who wants to take a grand adventure. His adventure is to walk from his rural French town to the grand world of Paris.
Unfortunately, he gets tired, hungry, confused, and lost on his journey so that any distance that he initially covered he loses by backtracking directly to his hometown. In fact, I think it is a nefarious bird that tries to pick up a pencil and fails (which means dropping the pencil in a different position). Henri lays down the pencil in the direction of Paris before his nap; that bird really messes him up. There…you have the climax of the story’s action. Gripping, I know.
As Henri mistakenly travels back to his hometown, he starts looking at the area with new eyes. He reads the landscape with an “en route” to Paris eye for detail. Everything around his town that was drab and boring as he left, when conceived of as part of his exploration of the route to Paris becomes new and exciting.
Upon arriving in “Paris,” Henri is confounded by how Paris has the same kind of bus system, same friendly bus riders, and even the same woods and warm little cottage of his hometown. As he approaches the Parisian cottage, he realizes that his journey has brought him right back to his home, in the woods, with a loving family inside and a pie in the window.
The grand adventure turns out to be the realization that staying in one place is immensely comforting, exciting, and interesting enough for many more imaginative excursions.
I want to start any introduction to Henri Rousseau with this seemingly tangential story, for reasons that will become clear later.
- Observe: practice observing and describing the artwork and interpreting visual information. What is it to perform “close-looking” or inquire into or of the artwork? The goal is to basically get my son, or a child, or a new university student just to take some time and sit with the piece of art and then practice describing and forming opinions about it.
Not that I would tell Hunter that is what is happening but for the purpose of writing down what the method of how Critical Thinking begins, I’m laying it out explicitly.
Questions for “Surprised!”:
- What do you see in the picture? What do you notice about the picture? (Observe/describe)
- How would you describe the jungle? (Describe)
- Is there any particular colour you like in the picture? Why? (Observe/Describe)
2. Analytical Skills: Contemplate the information presented and form some opinions or state some facts about it in order to make an informed interpretation. (For a university audience I would start to question what the difference between a fact and opinion is and how it influences interpretation.) Show me evidence from the picture. You think the tiger is afraid? How do you know the tiger is afraid? Show me the look on his face – voila, you have just provided evidence for your interpretation of the tiger’s emotions.
3. Communication Skills: Practice articulating your ideas and opinions as you learn to listen and respond to the thoughts of others who have ideas.
Questions to Help Analyze the Image:
- What do you think the tiger is thinking? What makes you think that?
- What would it be like to be the tiger?
- What would it be like to put yourself in this picture? Where would you like to put yourself and why?
- What do you think the sounds in the picture would be?
4. Allow yourself to be guided and create new insights by understanding the content knowledge of: your own experiences, the process of the artist, the artist’s biography, historical context and content, and the movement or school the art with which the image is associated.
- Does this image remind you of anything in your own life?
- What does this picture tell you about its time and place?
- How do you think that picture was painted? What do you think Rousseau painted first, second, etc.?
- Why do you think Rousseau painted the picture?
In this section, I’m fairly certain I could only ask Hunter the first question as the rest would lose his interest entirely. Still, I went the extra distance just to create the questions for a university group. At this point I would add some information about Henri Rousseau.
Namely: Rousseau never left his home town. He painted this and other fantastical and dream like scenes – and yet never once left Paris – just like…yes, you guess it – like the little boy Henri who never ventured out of his own home town. He learned that by using his imagination to look at the landscape or the places around where he lived he could have an adventure anywhere. Well, Rousseau loved to visit the botanical gardens in Paris and many of the plants were included in his pictures. His dream-like and fairy tale like style appealed to people, because like him, they had never been in the jungle either and they liked the way he imagined it.
I get this information from a book I picked up years ago from The Met gift store.
Perhaps…I’ve had art pedagogy on my mind for years now and I’m finally at a place where I can really do something about it. Hunter has no idea how long I’ve waited for this moment…haha. I pulled this book off the shelf in his room and realized it has a section on Rousseau, so I let that feed into my thoughts about this particular project as well, and it gave me the handy information content that allowed me to connect the Saul Bass story to the artist.
Here are the two pages on Rousseau:
I’m not sure I would provide all that information, but I do love the ending:
Paint the jungle the way you think it looks!
I envision this activity: story, observing, conversation, painting potentially taking place in one full day (if Hunter is interested) or over many different days when I gauge the interest as there. Once I get through the series of activities, and see how he is able to engage with the artwork in different ways I’d like to maybe look at other Rousseau pictures (some of them are really bizarre) – like this one of “The Sleeping Gypsy”
- Why is the man sleeping?
- What is the lion thinking?
- What is the man thinking? Is the man dreaming? Is the lion in his dream?
Basically, I can ask all the same questions I asked about the previous Rousseau picture because they will work for all kinds of pictures, and if that is the case – then my goal would be a field trip to the AGO. (Which I’ll address in a different post … because I need to think about it a bit more. Like…how do I maintain his interest and not have him running wild in the art gallery? I think this also might be a good group field trip with other children (both for this summer and in the classroom). So, I’m compiling some thoughts about how to present it to Hunter’s teacher (as she is soliciting those kind of engagements from parents who are willing to come into the classroom) as a potential activity I can do with the class next year if I find it successful with Hunter. I’m thinking if it succeeds with Hunter…it’ll succeed with any child.
When I contemplate this same kind of introduction to critical thinking for a university audience, I witnessed an interesting interaction called the MoMa “Arthang” where a group of strangers discussed the Martin Kippenberger painting “Dear Painter, Paint for Me”.
I would follow a similar pattern in starting with observation questions, move to analyzing and interpreting the painting and then giving the bizarre information about the artist. In fact, that is the artist in the painting. This painting was painted by a billboard artist of the artist himself and displayed on a billboard. That little tidbit I’d have to give up later so that the interpretations would shift substantially. Ideally, I would be able to tie in some of the ideas from Michel Foucault’s first chapter in The Order of Things about painting, painters, and subject/object perception.
I leave you with the bizarre world of Rousseau for your viewing pleasure and contemplation!