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Making of a Monster

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

(Note to self: when required to check your daypack/purse at a museum, remember to keep your notebook with you. Inspiration could strike at any time, and you could be forced to take notes for your blog posts by borrowing a pen from a museum guard and scribbling in the margins of your museum program. Or you could get creative and send several e-postcards from the museum's terminals with your notes attached to electronic reproductions of famous paintings. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes it hard to compose the blog draft on the train when you don't have access to your e-mail!)

In my last post I wrote about keeping a journal while travelling. See above note to self---it's taken me some time to put together my next post, which has been languishing in note form since I was in the Netherlands over two weeks ago. But I was glad for my habit of keeping notes (in one form or another) about my blog inspirations while on the road, and I can finally put together my thoughts about visiting the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Like few other museums I've visited, this one, dedicated entirely to the work of Vincent Van Gogh, demonstrated how a single artist's painterly voice developed over time. Even more revealing was the exhibit currently featured there: a selection of Van Gogh's hundreds of letters to his brother Theo and other family and friends has been sensitively paired with paintings and sketches to illustrate the process by which his troubled but talented genius emerged so distinctively.

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When Van Gogh decided in his late twenties that he wanted to become a painter, he had no formal training. Instead, taking it upon himself to study masters like Rembrandt, he taught himself the techniques of composition and colour, the mixing of materials and the use of implements. He greatly admired painters like Delacroix, even at times creating his own versions of their own works as studies. He even went through a period of collecting and imitating Japanese prints, resulting in work that is lesser-known but still striking.

Emulation is a time-tested strategy for learning what makes a piece of work tick. I have had my students emulate the "This I Believe" series from NPR, "Of Studies" by Francis Bacon, and "A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift. Some of these assignments go over better than others (many groans over the Bacon, let me tell you!), but students never fail to learn something about the method behind the madness of the master, and after a while the perennial question of  "But did the writer really mean for this piece to have those features?" tends to fade.

I often use art as an analogy in my AP® Language class to discuss that particular question/complaint. My argument is this: Yes, the writer knows, on some level, what he or she is doing. At first, it's through application of a conscious effort to include certain strategies. Picasso knew very well how to paint the human form realistically. (Many students are surprised to learn that early Picasso portraits did not have sideways noses and three breasts.)

It's after internalizing those strategies---often through a period that includes emulation of styles from which he or she can learn---that the artist makes the shift to including compositional techniques that define his or her own style. Picasso's sideways noses have a purpose; he's not painting that way because he doesn't know how to represent a human face properly. Learn the rules first, practice them, and then you can begin to play with them.

Van Gogh had a natural genius, but he was a self-taught master, and the range of pieces in the museum show plainly how hard he worked to achieve such a  unique style, so different from anything else at that time that most people can instantly recognize a Van Gogh painting as a Van Gogh. The man worked hard! So hard he was full of an ultimately destructive combination of passion and self-doubt.

His letters document that work, as a student's writing journal or portfolio that includes self-reflective piece might. Self-reflective or metacognitive pieces about their writing process might include "letters" to a trusted confidant about what's inspiring to them, what's frustrating, what they admire in the words of others. Brainstorm with students what a struggling artist or writer might want to write about in his or her diary to help them understand that these metacognitive pieces needn't be perfect and eloquent in themselves---what counts is willingness to think about the process, to feel it as a struggle and an effort, but one with forward movement and potential, even when setbacks occur.

You can browse some of Van Gogh's letters at the museum's Web site for inspiration about what such letters might look and sound like. “One must work and be bold if one really wants to live,” he wrote to Theo in April 1885, just before he left for Paris to find better opportunities to learn his art. But the rewards of hard work can be a fire lit from within, and a confidence that allows one to persevere and apply inspiration from others: "While I'm working I feel an unlimited confidence in art and that I'll succeed".

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