Moved by our learning

Vincent Van Gogh's Sunflowers. Universally loved and able to move

Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Universally loved and able to move

It is interesting how the arts can affect our emotions and have a bearing upon the ways in which we view the world. I wonder to what extent education has an impact upon this?

This thought came to mind a couple of days ago when talking to Shweta, one of our visiting MA students from Bangalore. This is Shweta’s first time outside of India and on Sunday, with great excitement and anticipation, along with several of her classmates she made a visit to London. Taking me through the sequence of events that formed the schedule of the day Shweta described a trip by boat along the Thames, riding the London Eye, seeing Buckingham Palace and St James’ Park and a visit to Trafalgar Square. Asking her about her favourite moment from a trip that she had clearly thoroughly enjoyed I had not anticipated her response. Amidst the excitement of walking around the capital city with a group of friends the most memorable moment recorded was standing before Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery off Trafalgar Square.

Shweta reported that this was a picture that she knew so well from school, but never in her wildest dreams had she imagined that she would ever see it in-situ. She told me that as she stood looking at this world famous image one of her colleagues became alarmed and asked her why she was crying. She was simply overcome by the emotion of seeing a picture that meant so much to her and that she had always wanted to see.

I think Shweta felt that I might be surprised by this reaction or even regard it as strange. Not at all. I recall Sara exhibiting exactly the same response on seeing Botticelli’s Birth of Venus at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. More recently when visiting Madrid with our good friends Tina and Philip I felt similar overwhelming emotions when confronted by Picasso’s Guernica, with an opportunity to reflect on the terror and destruction which that stunning painting represents. Indeed I had to return later in order to see the picture more objectively and with less emotion.

Unfortunately it seems that the place of the arts in education has been questioned or pushed to the margins of the curriculum in many educational administrations and schools. The potential contribution of art, music, dance and theatre has, in some instances been seen as peripheral to the main functions of learning, something to be added on when the real work has been done. In schools today teachers talk about results of assessments in mathematics, English and science but rarely have the opportunity to celebrate children’s creativity or imagination. Yet Shweta, as is the case with many learners, demonstrates the ability of the arts to engage our sensibilities, and give cause for reflection that may be hard to achieve through other means. Van Gogh, Botticelli and Picasso along with other artists and performers have enabled us to see the world through their perspectives and in so doing have challenged us to place our own interpretation on images and events. With their genius and artistry they enable us to reflect on the world and its events and develop our own thinking and imagination.

In bringing our MA students from India to England our purpose was to enable them to gain insights into the English education system, to meet with teachers and of course to enjoy some aspects of English culture and life. Experiences such as that described by Shweta at the National Gallery did not feature in the formality of our planning. Yet I would imagine that this was a moment that she will remember long in to the future and that maybe it provided a unique moment of learning, beyond anything that we could have scheduled. If we underestimate the arts and the contribution that they can make to the lives of children it may be that moments such as these will be lost to future generations. That would be unforgiveable.

6 thoughts on “Moved by our learning

  1. Hi Richard. I had the same reaction to Guernica. The scale and composition is breathtaking. I was literally stunned. Also, I recall my daughter, age 11, standing in front of Birth of Venus in 2010 gasping ‘she is so beautiful’ Im no art snob and never studied it – it is so remarkable how that doesnt matter at all when you are standing face to face with the work.

    • Hi Tim,
      I find it amazing that this coming face to face with a work of art can move us even when we are familiar with the works having seen them in books. It is surely an indication of the importance of ensuring that this side of children’s education should not be neglected.

  2. It would be a sad day when art, music and literature are no longer central to our lives. Earlier in the week I was watching “Coast” which is currently in Australia. The section was about an Aboriginal Elder slowly and respectfully renewing a cultural painting that was 5,000 years old. His nephew wasn’t allowed to touch the painting until he had learned all the cultural stories related to the painting.

  3. Hi Carmel,
    The cultural significance of art is immensely important to many people. I’m sure that this is why it plays such an important role in the world’s religions. At a time when literacy levels were low, the depicting of information in pictorial form had a tremendous significance. Hence the telling of bible stories through stained glass or the presentation of Arjuna’s penance on the bass relief carvings of Mahaballapurum. I have known a number of children who though unable to express themselves through the written word had a tremendous ability to articulate ideas through drawing.

  4. Richard – you’ll be happy to know on our visit to one of the primary schools, the 4 year olds had just put up a display of their interpretation of Paul Klee’s ‘Castle and Sun’ painting and we were blown away. 4 year olds ! this was incidentally soon after the conversation we had shared about the Sunflowers. i’ve just shared the picture with you via email – i couldn’t upload it here. Art and art theory was alive and vividly obvious right through this school. it gave us pause to reflect how we should introduce art in context to appreciation, history etc and not just offer drawing classes as part of the curriculum in schools. It’s an integral part of our identity.

  5. Hi Shweta,
    This is an interesting observation. I have always seen art (including music and performance) as above all else, a form of communication. This is why for me it is such an essential element of the curriculum. It can have a therapeutic as well as a technical application and therefore has a broad value to all learners. We should discuss this more when I am next in Bangalore. Perhaps we could generate some form of project related to this at the Brindavan Trust.

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