“Reading” Art

I’m hoping for a lot of comments on this one – especially from those of you (Vanx, Claudia…) for whom art is a way of life.

I had the good fortune to attend a conference on teaching the Holocaust at my university yesterday. While I would have preferred they break the event into two days (eight-to-five of that subject is, shall we say, a bit overwhelming), I learned a lot and came away with the sense that I can be a better teacher because of what I learned.

Part of the conference included a trip to the art gallery on campus, where a number of works by Samuel Bak were being displayed. Bak did a fair portion of his growing up in the Vilna ghetto in Lithuania, managed to be secreted out of harm’s way by his father and spent the rest of the German occupation hiding in a convent with his mother. She and he were the only members of his family to survive World War II, and Bak has only recently begun to paint about his experiences as a Jew during the Holocaust.

Conference members were given about an hour (though it felt like much less) to view the works on display and, if they wished, to talk to the artist, who had graciously made the trip to the university to speak to us. I never managed to get to him, though, because I was completely sucked into his work.

I know about this much about art. I recognize when I “like” something, but much of my art experience has been limited to just that – personal preference. I don’t know anything about technique, movements or trends, who’s famous and why, or symbolism and interpretation. Even with that ignorance, though, I was able to come away from the Bak exhibit profoundly moved and positively stunned at the layers of meaning present in his work. I was seeing meaning everywhere, and feeling confident that I understood it despite my lack of experience and knowledge in the medium.

I spent most of my time in front of this painting. It’s about five feet by six feet, and this photo doesn’t – obviously – do it justice; if you click on the image, you should get a full-screen version, though even that doesn’t come much closer to speaking to the power of the actual piece. I could go on for quite some time about what *I* see in it, and why I think what I see is so profoundly significant to what I’ve been studying with my students, but I’m interested to hear other voices. Please, please comment.



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2 Comments

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2 responses to ““Reading” Art

  1. claudia

    As you said in a previous post,it is all subjective. But here are some observations.

    Man,young perhaps, a two dimensional arm- he cannot play.
    Blindfolded and his mask,to cover his face.
    A reflection of who he may really be cast beside him.

    A man,of middle years.
    Houses of paper,in disarray,before him.
    He too is blindfolded, but has no mask.
    Partially invisible.

    A slight smile? An old man- no blindfold,no mask,a whole being.
    Leaning on boxes for support.

    Angel wings.
    Instruments with no strings,but on the wall,within reach. No sound of music, just the motions.

    A sky with clouds soften the wall behind them.

  2. This is a heavily symbolic painting with plenty of objective hooks and subjective hollows. The hollows are the part we bring our own experience to. How much we like the painting depends on how much automatically fills the hollows of “meaning” in the painting. It’s a matter of owning the work of art as something you recognize, something that tells the artist’s story by telling your own.
    You don’t need a whole lot of art history education to react to art. Just some sensitivity and openness in the face of something new and challenging. You should feel free to fire when ready on the range of art criticism.

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