Lucian Freud: Lessons from art applied to the teaching of writing.
At the Pompidou Centre currently (10 March – 19 July 2010) Lucian Freud’s first French solo exhibition in more than a quarter of a century is a ‘must-see’ for any visitor to Paris. The works displayed span more than sixty years of Freud’s career and range from the surreal ‘The Painter’s Room’ (1944) through to a recent, moving juxtaposition of age and youth, ‘The painter surprised by a naked admirer’ (2004-5).
The exhibition is divided into four ‘themes’, each with its own bilingual introductory panel – all of which make sensible use of the artist’s own words as opposed to the opaque post-rationalist texts found in many exhibitions.
When visiting, it struck me that Freud’s approach to painting could also be productively applied to the teaching of writing. The idea of non-domain specific (blurring the boundaries between subjects) methods of approaching the curriculum has long interested me and there is certainly a lengthy history of art informing literature and vice versa.
The Pompidou’s exhibition leaflet states boldly that,
“...the whole of the artist’s work is based on the idea of observation...”.
Fortunately, this assertion is amply borne out in the works displayed. Freud is meticulous in his observations and the first, and most important, lesson we can learn from him is the centrality of close scrutiny and art. Sustained attention should certainly be explicitly developed in the classroom and it is as applicable to the art of writing as it is to the visual arts.
Freud’s subject matter is often ‘ordinary’ – two plants; water pouring from a tap into a sink; a sleeping couple. He records what he sees, looking closely at things which could easily be discounted – a rubbish tip behind a house in Paddington; glass embedded in concrete at the top of a brick wall. The ‘ordinary’ and the ‘extraordinary’ are given equal weight and although art is essentially selective there is no obvious hierarchy of subject matter.
The following activity is useful when transferring this approach to the teaching of writing:
ACTIVITY 1: A Square Metre
Take 4x metre rules and place these on the ground to make a square. Pupils are asked to look closely at the ground enclosed by the square and then describe (in writing) EXACTLY what they see in as much detail as possible. On a square metre of grass there will undoubtedly be insects moving; on a similar patch of pebble path there will be twigs, feathers etc.
The object of this exercise is to help pupils to consider the importance of minute details when conjuring an exact picture in the reader’s mind. Young writers often describe the ‘big picture’ well but fail to balance this with writing based on keen observation.
The second thematic section of the exhibition is titled ‘Reflection: Self Portraits’. It includes a number of works in which Freud deliberately ‘plays’ with the idea of ‘space’. One such painting is a self-portrait as seen in a hand mirror. This technique can easily be transposed into a writing activity –
ACTIVITY 2: Mirror Writing.
Pupils engaged in this activity each need a mirror. They are encouraged to look closely at themselves and describe their reflection in detail. The teacher may wish to model the process beforehand so that ‘eyes’, for example, are not just ‘blue’ but rather ‘...blue the colour of quarry water, each flecked with small spots of black. The whites are slightly bloodshot but still they stare back intently.’
This activity helps to develop a discursive self-awareness and is useful for improving character descriptions in subsequent story writing.
As an extension activity the mirror may be placed in different positions so that the reflection is viewed from a range of angles (rather than ‘face-on’ / frontal) If, for example, the mirror is positioned upon the floor then a written transformation of Freud’s ‘Reflection with Two Children’ (1965) is achieved. In this painting the artist is seen from below in three quarter view, a result achieved by painting his reflection in a mirror at floor-level.
The third major theme of this well-curated exhibition is titled ‘On Painting’ and deals with the impact of other painters on Freud’s oeuvre. Interestingly, this section includes several reinterpretations of well-known paintings by Cezanne, Chardin and Constable.
Freud recently asserted that,
“...art, after all, derives from art.”
And, indeed, many other artists have re-read/reworked the paintings of past masters as a way of understanding the original more deeply. A short walk from the Pompidou, a whole room of the Picasso museum is devoted to the artist’s numerous versions of Velasquez’s ‘...Infanta Maria’; Francis Bacon’s ‘Screaming Pope’ is a further example among many.
ACTIVITY 3: Transformational response.
For this activity pupils will need to be able to see a print of a painting/drawing, or preferably have an original work before them in an art gallery. They then transform the artwork into a piece of writing. This can clearly take many forms and has great potential for long-term writing projects. Some of the range of transformational response possibilities include,
The Chardin’s, reworked by Freud, include two which focus on details of the original painting rather than the whole canvas.
ACTIVITY 4: Parts of Paintings
For this activity the teacher needs a print of a painting and a sheet of coloured paper cut to the same size as the print. A circular hole is cut from the paper so that only that element of the original work can be viewed. Pupils then describe exactly what they can see through the hole. Depending on the position of the circle, this activity can be used to describe characters, locations and also action.
Further holes can then be cut in the coloured paper in order to reveal other areas of the print.
The activity is doubly useful as it encourages both close, detailed observation and accurate descriptive writing.
In the early 1990s I spent three years running the education service of a museum and art gallery. I remember well, mounting an exhibition of recently reframed watercolours of some distinction, including at least one Turner. I also remember well that when the first school group arrived the pupils walked straight through the room without looking left or right at the paintings which surrounded them, their sole focus being the unfortunately placed soft drinks dispenser through the arch at the end of the room.
It taught me that close observation cannot be taken for granted – it is a skill which needs to be nurtured. And when this skill is applied for a lifetime work of Freud’s stature is , in fact, possible. It is as essential for the writer as it is for the artist.
For books written by Alan Peat please visit www.thecepress.com