Amy's Whimsical Musings
This is the 3rd blog entry in a series of four in which I aim to draw comparisons between the paradigm shift in education today (in particular, the influence of mobile and connected learning), and the Impressionist Art Movement. My main point is that something considered to be avant-garde or revolutionary eventually becomes quite ordinary, and therefore we need not fear such change.
It’s recommended that you first read the intro (Part I) and the post on “hardware” (Part II). Part IV will be on “Connection” and will delve into the effects of photography and Japanese art on the European Impressionists.
I previously used the analogy of “hardware” when describing the physical tools that shaped Impressionist art- namely, the portable metal paint tube, palettes and collapsible easels, the ferrule on the paint brush, and the bevy of new pigments for paint. What, then, would be the “software” if we indulge in extending the metaphor?
With those new pigments came a new understanding of colour theory, and with the empirical practices of the artists came new insights into the interplay of light and colour. Around the same time, there were advances in the field of optics that intrigued Impressionist artists. As far back as the late 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton had demonstrated that white light could be split by a prism into many colours. To achieve pure, intense colour, Impressionists preferred to prime their canvasses with white rather than the traditional dark underpainting of the Academic painters. Renoir explained:
The Impressionists got to know the Colour Wheel, and realized the powerful effects of viewing two complementary colours (on the opposite side of the wheel). For example, looking at an orange/blue combination would actually cause vibrations in the eye! I love the way Marc Chagall explains this in later years:
I think we can compare the Impressionists’ nuanced understanding of the materials they used to create with that of media / digital literacy. I might go so far as to say that it relates to digital fluency – which is not only knowing how to use the tools but which tool is appropriate in which situation (i.e. when to use what tool and why). It’s important that students cultivate a meta-level appreciation for how media works on us (get to reading some McLuhan!). One of my favourite units in my Theory of Knowledge course was on Colour Theory and Psychology – and students were fascinated to see how certain colours are instinctually associated with certain traits and thus used for branding and advertising (the most useful finding was that red makes one eat more and blue curbs appetite- so I ran out and bought blue plates!). An awareness of media is important in predicting economic turns as well- I recently read an article stating that mass exposure to “fast fashion” on Instagram has negatively affected sales of more traditional clothing suppliers like The Gap.
If students are not only constantly bombarded by media in all its forms, but are also privy to create with a variety of media, they need to understand a bit about the “theory” behind it. Some great resources are Douglas Rushkoff and “Merchants of Cool” and of course Howard Rheingold and his “crap detection”.
Another thing we could identify as “software” was the actual technique of Impressionist painting – of course quite different from that of the established Salon. Due to the newfound ability to be en plein air (thank you paint tubes!) artists could capture the fleeting moments spontaneously – pinning down those transient times as rapidly as possible. Trying to “capture the moment” or complete an outdoor painting before the light shifted forced the artists to work at a heightened pace and develop their own special “visual language” (such as lines to represent people or dots to depict flowers). The Impressionists took to mixing colours right on the canvas and usually avoided careful blending ( no need, because the viewer’s eye could do that). This thick layering with visible strokes is technically called “impasto”, coming from the Italian word meaning to “paste” or “knead”.
above: detail from Monet
Thus, what previously would have been a sketch in terms of classic Academie painting became the actual finished work. This puts me to mind of Austin Kleon’s most excellent book Show Your Work, and the subsequent movement #showyourwork.
(I’ve been known to say it’s the “best book about education that’s not about education”).
Increasingly, teachers are more interested in asking students to make their thinking visible, to show their process and analyze their final “product” – whatever that might be – with some some sort of metacognitive reflection. How can we, as educators, be more comfortable with the spontaneous, sketch-like quality of thinking and learning? More importantly, how can we helps students become more at ease sharing that?
The Impressionists renegade artists, much like our students, were completely “of their time”. Paris, where most of the first Impressionists hailed from, had gone through a massive makeover courtesy of civic planner Baron Hausmann under the auspices of Emperor Napoleon III. The once medieval city was now the epitome of “modern progress” – a testament to the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps even more noticeable than the street lights, wide boulevards, and train tracks were the people- the new merchant middle class of “bourgeouisie” had flooded Paris and now inhabited its cafés, restaurants, parks and theatres.
The Impressionists – who varied in their personal creative style- were very much bound by the fascination of modern life. Therefore, we can refer to “new subject matter” as a kind of “software”. The poet Charles Baudelaire commented on this (speaking to his artist friend Manet) in his The Painter of Modern Life:
While each artists was drawn to his favourite subjects (like the ballerinas of Degas, the train stations of Monet, Mary Cassatt’s scenes of domesticity, or the cabaret performers of Toulouse-Lautrec), almost all of them tried to capture the trappings of modern city life– and in particular the “leisure” activities of the bourgeoisie. They changed the way life was depicted. Interestingly, a human presence was almost always evident if in the “nature” paintings like those involving haystacks or clocks.
This is not unlike our use of mobile devices today. Armed with our ubiquitous camera phones, we find ourselves obsessed with taking “selfies” or “food porn” shots and posting them to our social media platforms. In this Foodie Underground: Why Are We Food Porn Obsessed? article, the author states:
nota bene: For a wonderful exploration into the nature of “selfies” as “art” check out his video from PBS Idea Channel.
My analogy is, then, that the shift in subject matter to the mundane – to the average goings-on of daily modern life – is precisely the kind of shift we have experienced as we now have an archival device in our pockets and, in our delete-and-do-over culture, needn’t worry about “wasting film” like we used to. The Impressionists similarly would often do several versions of the same scene, as the time of day or seasons shifted. I think we have become increasingly mindful of our surroundings and are hypersensitive to “the little things in life”. The Impressionists, too, were so mindful they even took to wearing all black so as not to interfere with the light and colour play of their surroundings! I love to speculate what will happen when our archival devices become even less obtrusive – perhaps with wearables or even cyborgian implants in the not-to-distant-future. For a good read on the phenomena of life-logging, check out Clive Thompson’s Smarter Than You Think.
Finally, the most important “software” the Impressionists had at their disposal was each other. Renoir said of Monet:
These “Independents” as they preferred to be called (but we’ll get to that in the next post), habitually hung out with one another socially, learned from each other, and of course discussed and made art together, sometimes sleeping on a fellow artist’s floor. As diverse as they were in personality, rebellion against the status quo in particular forged a bond between them ( a really wonderful book on this is Sue Roe’s The Private Lives of the Impressionists).
In my talks and workshops on creativity and remix, I often point out that creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum...it is combinatorial in that it’s about connecting dots, but also about cultivating a community of creative “soulmates” – like-minded people who also challenge you and bring out your best creative work from within. Perhaps this has a lot to do with creative confidence, or perhaps friendly competition (most likely a sweet spot of both), but the most successful artists have always made this sort of camaraderie a life practice (Picasso was king of this!).
In our highly connected world we don’t have to live in the same city or frequent the same brasserie as our creative posse – we can harbor that group in the Cloud. Some people call this a “PLN” or “Professional (or “Personal”) Learning Network”. I am particularly fascinated by crowdsourced and combinatorial creativity, and have even started a G+ community about it, “The Cloud is Our Campfire”. One of my favourite social media sites is “Somewhere”, a bit like a Facebook for those in the creative industries. I get inspiration from Somewhere because they offer “sparks” – probing questions that get you to think about the ways in which you work creatively. Reading other people’s answers and viewing their images gives me loads of ideas. That being said, I am sure most educators who frequent the conference circuit could tell you that almost nothing beats face-to-face time with “your peeps”. It’s in the side moments – chats in the pub or hotel lounge for example- that the best sharing and collaboration happens.
In Show Your Work, Austin Kleon reminds us to always keep people around you who love you for YOU, not just your (creative) work. These might be fellow creators, but most likely not..they are probably your best friends who call you on your you-know-what, or pick up where you left off 10 years ago even if you haven’t connected on a regular basis. Or, they are loved ones and family members, who adore your core even if you epically fail (as we all do). I’d like to think most of the Impressionist artists were blessed with that, too.
Next post teaser: We will finally get to the bottom of the name “Impressionist”, explore the impact of photography, and the influence of Japonisme.
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