In An Inspirational Rut? Look To The Past.
It’s January. The holidays are over, and for many of us, the next few months present as a bleak, no man’s land. Gone is the excitement and motivation of September, which, unlike December 31st, is the true New Year. At times like these. I find it helpful to look to the past for inspiration.
Recently, I visited the newly renovated MoMA. As New Yorkers, I feel we are so fortunate to have access to so many of the greatest works of art in all of history. Seeing the collection feels like visiting with old friends; you can pick up the conversation you had with it the last time you were there. It’s always exciting when a museum revamps its space, and the reconfiguration of MoMA’s galleries allows the opportunity to connect with the past, but also create new conversations, through the juxtaposition with contemporary works.
Contemplating art history helps students connect with the present day to envision the future. For example, our 6th grade is in the midst of learning about Henri Matisse’s groundbreaking “Cut-Outs”; large scale collage works he created towards the end of his career, beginning in the late 1940s. In the last years of his life, and in the shadow of ill health, Matisse said this work gave him a “second life”: if he couldn’t go out into the world, then these encompassing collaged environments pinned to the walls of his home were a means of bringing the world to him. The work was futuristic in a sense, as it predated installation art by decades. Inspired by his methods, students are collaborating on a collage installation (theme: The Garden) which is currently on display in the hallway outside the Art and Music rooms. Our paper “garden” is a cheery and colorful way to look ahead and know that, eventually, it will be spring!
The 8th grade is also looking to the past by studying Grant Woods’ well-known painting, “American Gothic” (1930). One of the most parodied works in modern art, it is instantly recognizable to almost all students, which allows them to approach it with a feeling of confidence in their knowledge of the painting; not it’s facts necessarily, but it’s feeling. “American Gothic” was a polarizing work in its day. For some, it celebrated hard-working and earnest mid-western Americans, stoic in the face of the Great Depression. For others, especially those who lived in rapidly growing urban centers, the painting was a sarcastic and condescending joke about provincial rural culture. Grant Woods was a dualistic figure as well. He hailed from Iowa and his paintings were undeniably a tribute to his American roots, but he was also a worldly artist, who traveled throughout Europe and drew inspiration from Claude Monet and Jan Van Eyke. This history makes it easy to draw parallels to the current state of the American landscape. Students play on these similarities, drawing on inspiration from contemporary culture to create their own appropriation of this iconic work.
The past contains a treasure trove of artistic inspiration, with timeless works of art that we go back to again and again, as their presence is a source of comfort. Sometimes we see it in a fresh light, while other times we discover artworks that are new to us entirely. Either way, it’s always a satisfying means to find inspiration on the path to sunnier days ahead.
Head Teacher, Visual Arts
The Churchill School and Center