The Canadian School year is winding down, today I gave my last two guided tours of the Wonders of our National Gallery. There is a wide choice on where to start and what to present. I usually like to start with the Italian Renaissance and early Church paintings dating from 1350 and then move on to the 19th century.
Question that come back all the time, how much is it worth, how much is the whole collection worth, usually meaning in dollars. I am very careful to explain that a work of art is unique, the value is in the eye of the beholder. I also tell them not to be fooled by stories in the newspapers about this or that work fetching an astronomical amount at some auction house. This is a very false value since values can go up and down depending on fashion, buyers taste, an artist being in demand or not. I try to get the kids to understand that art is about imagination, ideas, fantasy and emotions it is not about how much is it worth. I ask them do you like this Monet or this painting by Titian, how about the Rembrandt ? Some will say they don’t like it, ok no problem I say, find one you do like and then look at it carefully. I want them to have confidence in their own choices.
Questions on the MonaLisa are also common, it is one painting that has been over presented in the media and unfortunately I do not find it that interesting. It appears to be the measure by which to judge all other art. I have to explain it is only one painting in a specific period of time and does not represent much really.
Another question I got recently was why are there so many nudes in painting. Paintings from various artists on classical themes often show naked figures of gods, heroes, putti, in a bucolic decor. Coming from a young audience, you have to think carefully how to present your answer. With the late Renaissance and the Baroque, Bacchus or Apollo, Paris, Diana, Venus etc. make constant appearances. Their nudity is not sexual but that of immortals, other wordily. I also refer to the themes of Antiquity, how figures tell a story based on ancient Myth which has nothing to do with our world but a reference to Classical studies.
Asking children today to imagine a world long gone is somewhat difficult, they seem unaware of anything outside their own frame of reference in their surrounding immediate world. Often looking at the paintings as something weird. It is not always the response I get but it comes often enough to make me wonder if imagination still plays a part in our modern technological world.
The best experience is when I get boys who are far more interested in sports and see art as a girl thing. Boys even if they are only 7 or 13 have these specific likes and dislikes, where does it come from? Maybe their family or society at large who dictates taste and what is in or not. Yesterday I had this little jock hockey type who told me I made it really interesting for him and he really enjoyed looking at pictures. The teacher was so happy, she told me afterwards that this was great given he never showed interest before.
If the group ask a lot of questions and make lots of observations even if it is not spot on it really does not matter, the point is to encourage them to speak up and give something. I always give strong positive reinforcement which I think is helpful to them.
On the other hand I do get groups who are less than interested, and simply refuse to participate, I always wonder what is going on here. I discover often that the teacher got the kids to agree to the museum visit by promising a shopping trip or a swim in the pool at the hotel or fast food. That has got to be the worst form of bribe, the kids just want to get the visit done quickly and get the hell out. It is very discouraging for me because you cannot get through to them. I also know that it is very unlikely for mom or dad to bring them to the museum, so this is the one chance.
Danseuse by Canova