Chagall-Inspired Drawing

By Sutley, Jane | Arts & Activities, September 2006 | Go to article overview
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Chagall-Inspired Drawing

Sutley, Jane, Arts & Activities

Anyone who has teenagers or teaches them knows that at times (okay, almost all the time), they're reluctant to share information and reveal their feelings about things they have experienced.

My goal here was for my teenaged art students to discover that drawings, paintings and sculptures are often created by artists to express their feelings and their reactions to a certain event or experience. Also, I wanted them to be able to learn firsthand that the components, the colors and composition all work together to communicate a visual manifestation of an artist's thoughts and emotions. Enter Surrealism a la Marc Chagall.

It's easy to understand why the early 20th-century art movement of Surrealism is so appealing to middle- and high-schoolers. Art of the Surrealists was strange, mysterious, dream-like imagery that, much like their contemporary Freud, explored the uncharted land of the subconscious. How could any teenager resist?

Let's face it. Who hasn't become engrossed in Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory, with its limp clocks so realistically rendered, hanging like wet laundry over branches in a desolate, nightmarish landscape? And, what about The Red Model, Rene Magritte's disturbing painting of boots that quietly morph into feet? Whenever I present these and other Surrealistic examples to my eighth-graders, they become riveted by the realistic images with their strange juxtapositions, levitations, object morphing, texture changes and scale alterations.

Sometimes, as in the case of Magritte's haunting Not to be Reproduced, they will even try to make sense of the painting and attempt to explain that it is actually possible to see a reflection of the back of your head when you're looking in a mirror. Needless to say, the spirited discussions quickly devolve into laughter and spontaneous admissions of "I give up! That dude is weird!"

So, the stage is set. The students know that their new project will be based on Surrealism. Giddy anticipation and the unbridled cacophony of students sharing their dreams and nightmares is soon replaced by the familiar sounds of teenage anxiety regarding their seemingly inflexible belief that they cannot draw anything realistically and their project, therefore, is inevitably "going to stink."

Their fears are quickly allayed by presenting them my sample of this artistic problem that relies not on the Surrealistic school of Dali and Magritte, but on the semi-abstract, romantic Surrealism of Marc Chagall.

As the students gaze at my simplistic, colorful composition, I tell them the story of the humiliation that had, long ago, planted the seed for my drawing. My cousin and I--both 8 years old at the time--danced together at a cousin's wedding. The crowd of beaming relatives and other guests couldn't help but stare at us and smile. To my 8-year-old eyes, however, it seemed as if everyone was pointing at us and laughing.

My 12" x 18" drawing directly and symbolically communicated both the event and my feelings surrounding it. In the lower right-hand corner is an almost childlike rendering of my cousin and me, our arms elongated somewhat as we tightly wrap them around each other, united in our persecution.

In the upper left-hand corner, a tremendous eye spotlights the two of us for all to see with a bright beacon of yellow light. Disembodied laughing mouths, floating eyeballs, strangely-colored oversized pointing hands, upside-down tables of wedding guests. My self-consciousness, my paranoia, my embarrassment. It was all there.

The next thing I unveil for the class is a poster-sized print of Marc Chagall's I and the Village (1911). For more intimate scrutiny, students are also given small color copies of the painting. Before dissecting and analyzing painting's imagery, the class is told that Chagall, as he did in I and the Village, often painted scenes of his childhood growing up in a small village in Russia.

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