Impressions of Landscape: Daubigny, Monet, and Van Gogh at the Van Gogh Museum

by Danielle Carter

Van Gogh is largely known for still life paintings such as Sunflowers or small landscape paintings created from the view from his window such as Starry Night; however, Van Gogh felt most at peace when he was in nature, and many of his paintings depict rural landscapes. After living with his brother in Paris for about two years (1886-1888), Van Gogh escaped to the more rural town of Arles, positioned in the south of France. This is where he painted many of his most acclaimed paintings. He was more inspired by the landscape and environment of southern France than he was by metropolitan Paris. As he told another artist, Bernard, in a letter in 1888: as he painted, he was ‘surrendering myself to nature’.

Theo and Vincent often discussed their favourite artists in their numerous letters. Millet, one of the forefathers of Modern Art and Realism, was always on the tip of Vincent’s tongue, but Daubigny, famous for his landscape paintings, was also a favourite of Van Gogh’s through the years. Van Gogh saw Daubigny’s paintings in 1875 both at Goupil and Cie—the art dealership where he had once worked and where Theo continued to work for the majority of his adult life—and the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris. Van Gogh even mentioned Daubigny’s name, among the names of several other artists, justifying his goal to become an artist in many of his 1880 letters. From Van Gogh’s perspective, Daubigny injected feelings and emotions into his landscapes, which Van Gogh found much more relatable than the realistic, photographic depictions of landscapes of some of his peers.

Daubigny’s interest in light and reflection, as well as his loose brushwork, formed a connection between him and the Impressionists, who were about a generation younger. He was both acclaimed and criticised among established artists and critics, but his work was often shown at the Academy, which was the authority on art at the time. His position as an artist whose work was shown at the Academy’s highly acclaimed annual exhibition gave Impressionists hope. His realistic depictions and looser brushwork opened the door for other Impressionists, especially when he was on the board of the Academy and permitted some Impressionists to display their work there. This would give a lot more recognition and legitimacy to the Impressionist movement; thus, he truly served as the link between the Academy and the Impressionists.

Although Daubigny’s work began with more somber tones and colours — as can be seen in Moonrise at Auvers (1877), he began to take note of the Impressionists’ use of colour when working with reflections, light and landscapes. The Impressionists had been inspired by his loose brushwork, but they in turn influenced him as well, in much the same way that Van Gogh was inspired by the brighter colours of the Impressionists’ work after his brief period in Paris.

Van Gogh’s pleasure in painting outdoor scenes continued when he moved to Auvers-Sur-Oise near the end of his life. Daubigny had spent much of his life and career painting here, especially focusing on the Oise river that flowed through the town. He even constructed a studio boat—a project that Monet would copy in 1873, allowing him to paint the river and its surrounding landscape from a more immersed perspective, rather than from solid ground.

In 1890, Van Gogh painted two images of Daubigny’s house and garden in Auvers-Sur-Oise, even giving one, which can be seen in the exhibition, to Daubigny’s widow. The comparisons drawn among these three artists in this exhibition largely focus on the work from the last year of Van Gogh’s life, during which he worked and lived in Auvers-Sur-Oise. In some cases, Daubigny, Monet and Van Gogh painted nearly the exact same subjects. The poppy fields in Auvers-Sur-Oise, for example, or the farms bordering town.

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By focusing on the works of Daubigny, Monet, and Van Gogh, this exhibition details the evolution of the work of an artist, Daubigny, who had a great impact on the Impressionists—both politically and artistically, as well as on Vincent himself.

The exhibition Daubigny, Monet, and Van Gogh: Impressions of Landscape is on view at the Van Gogh Museum through to 29 January 2017 and is included in the museum ticket price.

 

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The Lucas van Leyden Altarpiece in the Rijksmuseum

Danielle Carter

Images courtesy of Olivier Middendorp

Presentation in the Gallery of Honour at the Rijksmuseum is taken very seriously.  Only the most famous of Dutch artists are displayed here, often with their names adorning the arches and capitals of the hall when the museum was built in 1885, and again during its subsequent renovation from 2003 to 2013. Thus, each time a new piece is hosted in the Gallery of Honour, it is a notable event.

This year alone, Anish Kapoor’s works were hosted in the Gallery of Honour, opposite Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride and The Syndics; and a newly acquired wedding portrait by Rembrandt, known affectionately as Maarten en Oopjen, was displayed adjacent to Rembrandt’s The Night Watch before its planned restoration. Since August, the Gallery of Honour has also hosted The Last Judgement (1526-1527). For the next two years the Rijksmuseum will be home to this altarpiece by Lucas van Leyden (1491-1533). The work has rarely been seen outside of Leiden, where it typically resides at the Museum de Lakenhal, which begins major renovation and expansion this year.

It is, however, not only an honour for this altarpiece to be shown in the Rijksmuseum’s Gallery of Honour, but an honour for the Rijksmuseum to be permitted to show such a piece at all. According to the Rijksmuseum’s director, Taco Dibbits, The Last Judgement ‘is the most important surviving altarpiece in the Netherlands.’ With its nearly exclusive exhibition in its hometown of Leiden, the fact that this altarpiece has been selected to be exhibited in Amsterdam is quite notable.

Lucas van Leyden is an important piece in the puzzle during the Netherlands’ transition from Medieval to Northern Renaissance motifs and styles. He was the apprentice of Cornelis Engebrechtsz, among the first significant painters from Leiden, who is mostly known for his devotional imagery; he was in conta

Lucas van Leyden, Het Laatste Oordeel. In de Eregallerij van het Rijksmuseum. Foto: Olivier Middendorp

Lucas van Leyden, The Last Judgement. Gallery of Honour at the Rijksmuseum. Photo: Olivier Middendorp

ct with artists such as the famous German printmaker, Albrecht Dürer, who influenced van Leyden with his modelling of figures and his compositions; and he drew his inspiration for anatomically correct depictions of human bodies from Italian Renaissance artists such as Raphael. Van Leyden was also a pioneer in crafting narrative in his artworks, which is also evident in The Last Judgement, in which he depicts believers and sinners with angels or demons ushering them towards heaven or hell upon their death.

The Last Judgement is typically viewed as Lucas van Leyden’s most important and impressive work. Van Leyden gained prominence during the Northern Renaissance as a talented printmaker and engraver; however, he painted the triptych, The Last Judgement—one of the three altarpieces that he painted— near the end of his life and career (he died at the young of 39 from tuberculosis) and it has since gained much art historical clout. Another of van Leyden’s altarpieces, The Dance around the Golden Calf  (ca. 1530), is part of the Rijksmuseum’s permanent collection and can be seen in the rooms on the Middle Ages and Renaissance, precursors to the Dutch Golden Age artists whose works are typically displayed in the Gallery of Honour.

The Last Judgement was commissioned by the Catholic Church of St. Peter in Leiden in the 1520s. Due to the conflict between the Netherlands and the Spanish Kingdom, however, which was initiated largely due to Spain’s imposition of the Inquisition in the Dutch provinces, Iconoclasm endangered The Last Judgement and many other Catholic works in churches and elsewhere throughout the country. After years of suppressed Protestantism and Judaism, the Dutch lashed out against Catholicism as they gained their independence from the Spanish, often damaging or removing religious images, in general, but Catholic images specifically. In order to save The Last Judgement, the city authorities of Leiden captured the altarpiece and it has since been in the hands of the municipality. Since 1874, the altarpiece has been on display at the Museum de Lakenhal, in cooperation with the municipal collections.

For many tourists to the Netherlands, the scope of Dutch history and art history is relatively limited to the likes of Amsterdam or perhaps Haarlem and The Hague. The exhibition of this Leiden masterpiece provides a unique opportunity for Amsterdam’s visitors to have a sneak peek at masterworks from other areas of the Netherlands; notably, Leiden, which is also the hometown and birthplace of Rembrandt, who owned a complete set of van Leyden’s prints and likely saw this van Leyden altarpiece in his youth.

In the last 450 years, The Last Judgement has only left Leiden twice—during World War II, it was hidden in Limburg; and it was exhibited once at the Rijksmuseum in 1958, punctuating this historic moment in which it is displayed at the Rijksmuseum.

You can see The Last Judgement in the Rijksmuseum’s Gallery of Honour from 23 August 2016 until 23 August 2018. To book a private tour of the museum with one of our expert guides, please click here.

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The Significance of Rembrandt’s Marten and Oopjen

Danielle CarterWe are delighted to welcome Danielle Carter, owner of Tangible Education and museum educator for Thinking Museum, to write for us. You can learn more about Danielle’s research, educational and practical experience here.

 

There have been numerous images of Rembrandt’s Marten and Oopjen (1634) splashed across billboards and walls throughout Amsterdam for the past few months. Some solely featured Marten’s extravagant shoe. Some featured Oopjen’s coy half-smile and smouldering eyes. However, it’s hard to really understand the significance of these portraits without more context. This is where we, at Thinking Museum, can assist: the importance of Marten and Oopjen from the museological, historical, and art historical perspective.

From a museological standpoint, the display and acquisition of these paintings is what counts. These paintings have only been shown once in public—in 1956 in the Rijksmuseum for Rembrandt’s 350th birthday. Other than that, they have remained in private hands over the past three and a half centuries—unseen by the public eye. Thus the fact that we have the special opportunity to see these paintings is quite amazing in itself. Furthermore, these paintings were revealed in the Rijksmuseum shortly before Rembrandt’s 410th birthday (on July 14th of this year), a serendipitous arrangement that has given me goosebumps several times. The paintings will go into restoration for a year starting in October, so they will soon be out of the public eye once more.

Additionally, these paintings were—to say the least—pricey. Paintings by Rembrandt are hard to come by and a situation in which one (or two!) comes onto the market is very rare. Even more importantly, however, is that the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre partnered to purchase these paintings. This is unheard of in the museum world thus far, but seems to be a solution to a prevalent issue in the contemporary art world; the fact that private collectors are able to outbid public museums and artworks are thus swept into private collections rather than preserved for the public eye. Technically speaking, the Louvre purchased Oopjen and the Rijksmuseum purchased Marten, but the two museums have agreed that the two paintings will remain together forever. The two paintings are married just as the couple once was.

Historically speaking, these paintings indicate a large amount about the Dutch Golden Ages. During this time, the Netherlands was waging war with the Spanish crown to gain its independence, after which it would establish a republic (rather than a monarchy). During the Dutch Golden Ages, royalty are typically the only ones who have full-length portraits painted; Rembrandt has painted these two “civilians” in this manner, symbolising the status of the wealthy in the Netherlands as well as the (lack of) status of the aristocracy. Oopjen herself was the heir of her long-established Amsterdam merchant family’s fortune in trading gunpowder and grain, whereas Marten was the son of an Antwerp merchant who fled from the cruel Spanish regime enforcing the Inquisition at that time. Again, societal structure was much more based on affluence rather than aristocratic title, lending Rembrandt the authority to paint Marten and Oopjen in this manner that would typically be preserved for royalty.

Finally, for the art history lovers out there, there are many reasons to gawk at these portraits. Rembrandt was relatively new on the scene in Amsterdam at the time that he painted these portraits. They were painted during the same period that he painted The Anatomy Lesson, which is often regarded as the painting that initiated his fame as well as his status as the most prominent portrait painter in Amsterdam. However, because Marten and Oopjen were truly part of the elite, it is very plausible that these wedding portraits launched Rembrandt’s notoriety among the highest and wealthiest of circles in the Netherlands, skyrocketing his reputation—when he was just 28 years old.

Furthermore, these portraits are the first—and only—full-length, life-sized pendant portraits that Rembrandt ever painted. And he painted every single detail of them, rather than having one of his apprentices help with the fabric or background (as he often did with other paintings). These paintings are also relatively typical of Rembrandt’s style early on in his career in Amsterdam. Although the Night Watch (1642) is definitely his most famous painting, his technique and style becomes much more loose by that time, making the juxtaposition of these masterpieces in the Gallery of Honour that much more remarkable.

Make sure you get a chance to marvel at these two portraits at the Rijksmuseum before 02 October!

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6 Steps to Stress-Free Museum Visiting with your Kids

I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues about how and when you should introduce your children to museum-going. Museums can seem quite daunting places for families when you are unfamiliar with them. So, before you visit, do some planning and get the most out of your visit:

1. Do your research.

Choose your museum carefully. Ask your children where they want to go. Look online to check transport links, admission prices, layout and facilities. Find out if you can take refreshments and a sandwich to eat there (the Rijksmuseum has a picnic room, for example) or if there is a museum cafe. Find out how large the museum is, how many floors there are and what the lift access is like. Look at the collection and scan to see what parts interest you and what you think would interest your children. Talk to your children about the visit before you go to trigger their interest and curiosity. Tell them the name of the museum and ask them what they think they are likely to see there? Make it a game!

2. Time your Visit Well

Plan when you want to go – some of the larger museums can be extremely busy in peak times and frustrating for families. If you have to spend time queueing for tickets and the cloakroom before you’ve even seen a single object, the kids will start getting restless. If you can buy tickets online, do so!

A visit at opening time or later in the afternoon is the best time of day to go. If you do choose to go in the middle of the day, opt for a less busy part of the museum (the hidden galleries rather than the Gallery of Honour, for example) or go to a less well-known museum instead.

3. Limit bagage

Take as little as possible with you. Backpacks are generally not welcome in museums because they can cause damage to objects, so take a small shoulder bag instead. Anything you don’t need can go into a locker or a cloakroom. Check you have change for the lockers! And remember to use the toilets before you start..

4. Use their educational facilities or book your own..

Check before you go to see if the museum has a family audio tour (the Rijksmuseum has a good one) or a children’s activity trail. Some museums have a dedicated room where you can go and create artwork or take some time out (check out the Family Lab at the Stedelijk). Join a guided tour – most museums have an agenda or calendar on their website with what’s going on. There are usually guided tours that you can sign up for in advance or at the information desk when you get there. Plenty of museums are now doing family tours too. Book a private guide or museum educator, particularly one that is specialised in working with families and children to get even more out of your visit. There are a variety of companies out there specialising in designing private museum programmes especially for families which involve a variety of educational activities and interactive exercises for children of all ages. If you go with one or two other families, this can be a fun and educational option that ensures both children AND parents have an interesting time.

5. Bring your own fun

I started off taking my children to museums with a small notebook each and a pencil. I just told them that whenever they saw something they liked, they should make a note of it either with a drawing or by writing. As they are now older, they get to hold the maps and decide where we are going. When we get to the art work or object, you can ask some very simple questions to get them talking ( ‘What do you see?’ ‘What do you think is going on?”‘What are you still wondering about?’). You don’t need to give them lots of facts and information, concentrate on getting them to look and observe and making up their own minds. You can let them take turns in using a camera and taking selfies with the artworks or objects. You could also bring a pair of binoculars or magnifying glasses to let them explore everything in detail!

6. Set a time limit

With museum cards and free entry in some countries, you really don’t need to see the whole museum in one visit – that just leads to museum fatigue! For the first visit, start with 45 minutes to an hour and see how it goes. You can then increase it from there. Bear in mind that most children will start to lose interest after 90 minutes without a break (or a very interesting activity to keep them amused).

A few simple steps ensure that your museum visit is stress-free and focuses on enjoying the art and museum objects rather than finding the toilets and buying the tickets. Happy museum visiting!

 

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Slow Down, You Move Too Fast…

Slow-Down1Much has been written about the power of different forms of visual expression – art works, objects, artefacts – to inspire, provoke curiosity and interest. It is generally accepted that looking at objects stimulates critical thinking through comparing and contrasting, identifying and classifying, describing and summarising and son on. Indeed, museums are using objects and art increasingly to help individuals learn what Philip Yenawine, museum educator and VTS founder, calls ‘viewing-skills’. This often happens quite naturally, although all too often the process is unstructured and messy.

IMG_3018Looking is central to the museum experience as visitors are presented with an array of objects all requesting their understanding or approximation thereof. However, good observation does not always take place. How long does the average visitor spend looking at an object or art work? When I ask this question in our training workshops, the answers generally vary from 5 – 30 seconds and most people agree that the natural tendency is to have a quick look, make a quick interpretation or judgement, look at the wall text or object information and move on.

However, in order to truly understand an object or art work, time needs to be spent quietly observing and thinking. Some objects do not inspire an immediate sense of connection until they have been properly and thoroughly observed. Shari Tishman explains that looking at something slowly and carefully is essentially a rewarding process:

‘The more you look, the more you see; the more you see, the more interesting the object becomes’.

In ‘The Intelligent Eye: Learning to Think by Look at Art’, David Perkins states that looking at works of art or objects requires firstly long and thoughtful looking to understand its truth and beauty. Secondly, thoughtful looking at art or objects helps to develop better thinking. Perkins goes on to suggest that art provides a natural context especially well-suited to developing thinking skills:

‘Looking at art invites, rewards and encourages a thoughtful disposition, because works of art demand thoughtful attention to discover what they have to show and say.’

I am not alone in thinking that we need to slow down in the museum. Peter Clothier runs one hour/one painting sessions and has written a book on the subject. James Elkins has written about how long it takes to look at a Mondriaan. And Phil Terry started Slow Art Day after spending hours at The Jewish Museum viewing only Hans Hoffman’s Fantasia and Pollock’sConvergence. Now in it’s 4th year, there are now 147 venues (and counting) taking part around the world. This year I decided to volunteer with Slow Art Day and work to encourage more Dutch museums to sign up. This is Slow Art Day in a nutshell:

‘One day each year – April 12 in 2014 – people all over the world visit local museums and galleries to look at art slowly. Participants look at five works of art for 10 minutes each and then meet together over lunch to talk about their experience. That’s it. Simple by design, the goal is to focus on the art and the art of seeing.’

Time is very important in the museum environment. By slowing down and viewing fewer objects in a more controlled and careful way, less really is more. The slow exploration of objects allows visitors to become absorbed, to scrutinise and investigate and to find out and construct meaning.

If you would like more information about or are interested in signing up for Slow Art Day, please contact me by email.

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Teenage Kicks at the Stedelijk

www.stedelijk.nl

www.stedelijk.nl

Teenage Kicks at the Stedelijk

In August I was asked to lead a private tour for a group of teenagers at the Stedelijk, a museum of modern and contemporary art and design in Amsterdam. This was to be a small group of participants aged between 11 and 18 years old. All of the group were German, but some lived in Amsterdam and went to a local international school, whilst others were visiting from Berlin where they attended a bi-lingual secondary school. The tour would be in English but all of the group were non-native English speakers. Two of the group would also need help with translation from other members of the group. I had no further information about the group – whether they liked modern art, for example, or even wanted to come and visit the museum.

This was my task – to put together an exciting tour of the museum that appealed to a diverse age-range and non-native English speaking group of teenagers. No mean feat. Luckily, I like a challenge, particularly one in a museum.

Since the Stedelijk has re-opened, with it’s wonderful and sometimes controversial new bathtub extension, I have visited many times. I love the ground floor with its chronological layout of modern (pre-1950) art and the wonderful and often-overlooked design collection. However, I was drawn to the defiantly non-chronological layout of upstairs and decided to base the majority of my tour with the post-1950 collection here, with some time later to visit a temporary exhibition in the Design wing and a final creative exercise in the Family Lab. So far, so good.

At this point, I should mention that my group was accompanied to the museum by a large group of parents and extended family, who were were taking part in a wonderful private art history tour at the same time as my tour. Our tour of the Stedelijk was to be slightly different. I use thinking routines and inquiry methods to enter into discussions with my groups. We always start with some slow, careful and quiet looking at the object or artwork in front of us. Then I like to ask the group to describe what they are seeing, before we move on to trying to interpret the object or work of art. At different works, I use different routines depending on the kind of thinking I am trying to elicit. As and when necessary, I sometimes add contextual information to extend the discussion. The aim is to always use open-ended questions to open up the discussion and make the whole group ready and able to contribute.  It’s like a mini-culture of thinking for the duration of the visit. How was this achievable? Let’s look at some of the art works that we got to know…

dan flavin

instead of giving the group an introduction, I asked the group what they already knew about the Stedelijk and what they would like to know. From their prompts and questions, we talked about the renovation of the building and re-opening of the museum. I asked them to look closely at and touch the handrails on the famous stairs of the old part of the building. We talked about how these were the only things that had been untouched in the whole renovation of the building. They then came up with reasons as to why they hadn’t been replaced with new ones. They also asked about the wonderful neon lighting and we discussed the mood it created and the intended tribute to Mondriaan by the artist Dan Flavin.

We walked to look at the Sol LeWitt wall drawing and spent some time appreciating just how large this work really is. After describing the work in detail (What do you see? Can you describe it more? What else is going on?), I told the group a small amount of information about conceptual art and how LeWitt wrote a set of instructions for each wall drawing which were then handed over to assistants to complete the work. 

Stedelijk

This led to an animated discussion within the group about who the artist is – is it the person who comes up with the idea? Or the person who constructs the work of art? Does the artist have to make their own work? Is it still art if someone else makes it? We then took a vote as to who was the author of this work.

I then walked the group into the large room containing Barnett Newman’s Cathedra and set them a challenge as to how long we could spend discussing what is largely a blue painting with two stripes on it (their words). Although this painting can be ‘seen’ very quickly, it is only when you spend time looking that you can appreciate it’s impact. Again, this is a strikingly large painting, with hidden depths of colour that cannot be appreciated with a short glance.

cathedra1

This painting also has a very interesting history as it was attacked in 1997 and was painstakingly restored for more than 4 years. This led the group to an interesting discussion as to why anyone would attack a painting and in particular this painting? (In the end we spent 15 minutes here, discussing Cathedra which surprised the group).

By now, the group were well in their stride and excited to see the next artwork. I wanted to show the group some photography too and the group were drawn to the Rineke Dijkstra photographs of children and teenagers in lush park settings. They immediately noticed the facial expressions of the subjects (rarely smiling). We also visited the Allan Sekula triptych that were newly on display following the artist’s death in August. Three photographs are mounted on the wall, supposedly telling a story. The group was divided into three and each group had to describe their photograph and tell the story. What the group was unaware of, was that the table and chair in front of the photographs is intentional and the red book on the table is in fact an essay by the photographer revealing possible meanings of the photographs and their relation to each other. One member of the group started to read the essay and share some of the information with the group. This led us to think about what photographs actually reveal?

3.12-Rineke_Dijkstra-Vondelpark-June_101                                             Allan Sekula Meditations on a Tryptich

The group had worked really hard to get to this point and had all contributed (even the two non-English speakers) but I could tell that it was time for a change of pace and mood. We went downstairs to the fantastic and mesmeric Touch and Tweet exhibition in the Design wing of the Ground Floor. This comprises three interactive installations, Dune by acclaimed designer Daan Roosegaarde and two by London duo Hellicar and Lewis. Dune is an interactive corridor of light that responds to movement and touch and delighted the group. Feedback is an interactive mirror-based installation, much along the lines of a hall of mirrors. The software changes and manipulates your image in response to your movements which generated a great deal of dancing from the group!

A final activity to ward off museum-fatigue took place in the Family Lab where I handed out instructions for every one to create their own Sol LeWitt wall drawing as a memento of their trip. As they worked away, I chatted to them about their thoughts on the tour. I had worked hard to put together a tour that looked at a large variety of art works in different ways. I wanted the group to feel they had worked together as a group to make the tour what it was and above all, I wanted them to feel excited and inspired to return again to this or other museums.

Thankfully, all of the group were overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic. They loved the museum, loved the art and loved being able to talk about their thoughts about what they had seen. All of the group left with a page of links to info, apps and interesting videos about some of the artwork they had seen. At the end of the tour, one of the grandparents came into the Family Lab and heard about what we had been doing for the last 90 minutes. As he left the room, I heard him say, “I wish I could have been on your tour…!”

If you are interested in booking a bespoke private museum tour for corporate, school or personal groups, please contact claire@thinkingmuseum.com 

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Visual Thinking Strategies Practicum in Amsterdam

P1030783

In June I attended a Visual Thinking Strategies or VTS Practicum in Amsterdam. Around 30 participants gathered together to start the 3 day course at the Reade Centre from a variety of disciplines – teachers, museum educators, psychologists, therapists and many others. I was interested to see how VTS varied in practice from Visible Thinking and whether I could use VTS within my work in museums and schools.

The mornings were run by VTS trainer Amy Chase Gulden who gave us an overview of how and why VTS was started by museum educator Philip Yenawine and cognitive psychologist Amy Housen, before describing the fundamental principles:

1. VTS is a discussion-based teaching and learning strategy and also a curriculum and professional development programme for schools ages 4-14(Visual Thinking Curriculum) involving sequenced works of art.

2. VTS uses art to develop observational skills, visual literacy, critical thinking skills and communication skills.

3. Growth is stimulated by using increasingly complex art, responding to development-based questions, participation in carefully facilitate group discussions, hearing divergent views.

The mornings were very thorough and covered a lot of ground. As a group, we discussed everything fully. On the second and third mornings we moved on from understanding the basics to learning about Abigail Housen’s aesthetic development research. We also had plenty of time to develop our paraphrasing abilities and to discuss image selection for different groups. This was particularly useful for me in the work that I do – I often spend a large amount of time looking for suitable images and objects to use with different routines.

Our first VTS discussion was centred around this painting:

Image

After having quietly looking for a few moments, the facilitator asked the question: ‘What’s going on in this picture?’ A group discussion of about 20 minutes followed, where the facilitator paraphrased what every participant said and asked for evidence where necessary with ‘What do you see that makes you say that?’ It is important to note that neither the name of the artist nor the title of the work are revealed during the discussion (although we asked afterwards as we were extremely curious!).

The afternoons were devoted to practising the method in museums – in the Amsterdam Museum, the Stedelijk and the Hermitage Amsterdam. We were split into three groups and in our groups everyone chose a work of art to facilitate a discussion with the group. Seeing as this method differs from Visible Thinking in many ways (for more discussion between the two methods, see here), at first I found it difficult to stick to the exact wording of the three questions and to remember to ask for more evidence ( ‘What do you see that makes you say that?’). I also found it hard to paraphrase  ( I felt at first as if I was just repeating everything the group said, rather than re-phrasing the information in an eloquent way), and to keep my neutrality when a participant mentioned something in the painting that I liked or agreed with. The hardest part for me is not adding any contextual information at the end of the discussion – I am so used to doing this when I work with Visible Thinking routines, so it did feel strange to me to leave the discussion without any summary or final conclusions. I also feel that at certain points in the discussion  participants do need new information to get to the new level. However, my experience at the Praticum has shown that not giving out contextual information does give the participants the chance to find out information for themselves if they are curious (and for the most part, we were curious to find out more). In this way, the participant is in charge of their own learning.

The three days were very illuminating – I had presumed that the method was easy to pick up but I found it does require a large amount of practise to be able to stick to the questions exactly, paraphrase and keep neutral. The facilitators make it look so easy and natural, but it does require mental effort! The training actually made me realise that although I aim to be neutral with my usual groups, compared to VTS facilitators, I am not always! This is something I really would like to work on, as I believe a neutral facilitator is important to make the discussion fair and for everyone in the group to feel that they can contribute. In tours since, I have more been aware of moments when I would like to jump in and congratulate someone on something they said and have therefore been able to curb my natural enthusiasm.

I really enjoyed the Amsterdam Praticum and met many new friends and like-minded people. I enjoyed trying out a new method of working with groups – although VTS is essentially the original thinking routine, it is a more structured way of working to what I am used to.  I intend to keep practising VTS with some of the other participants from the course and to use it selectively in my work with groups young and old. I also have a few ideas for great classroom VTS workshops too and I’m working on these for the next academic year!

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