25 Aug 2009

CM Picture Study & Salvador Dalí

Salvador Dalí: Liquid Desire, the first comprehensive retrospective of the work of Salvador Dalí ever to be staged in Australia, is on at the National Gallery of Victoria at present. We went to see it when it first opened. It was fantastic!

I tried to blog about it at the time of our visit, and three hours work disappeared into cyberspace. You may recall that I was rather bitter and twisted about it at the time. It has taken until now to attempt a rerun. I had to revisit the subject at least for my own use, because we plan on studying Dalí for Picture Study this term and I had to decide what art pieces we would actually look at! I have saved this blog post at every paragraph. True!

Charlotte Mason has quite a lot to say about Picture Study. I don't know whether her methods were progressive or controversial for the times in which she wrote, but she goes into significant detail on the subject in at least three of her volumes. She even goes as far as to provide notes on how the lessons should be given!

Here's a sampling:

The art training of children should proceed on two lines. The six-year-old child should begin both to express himself and to appreciate, and his appreciation should be well in advance of his power to express what he sees or imagines. Therefore it is a lamentable thing when the appreciation of children is exercised only upon the coloured lithographs of their picture -books or of the 'Christmas number.' But the reader will say, 'A young child cannot appreciate art; it is only the colour and sentiment of a picture that reach him. A vividly coloured presentation of Bobbie's Birthday, or of Barbara's Broken Doll, will find its way straight to his "business and bosom."' 'Therefore,' says the reader, 'Nature indicates the sort of art proper for the children!' But, as a matter of fact, the minds of children and of their elders alike accommodate themselves to what is put in their way; and if children appreciate the vulgar and sentimental in art, it is because that is the manner of art to which they become habituated.

Charlotte Mason, Home Education p 307-8

When children have begun regular lessons (that is, as soon as they are six), this sort of study of pictures should not be left to chance, but they should take one artist after another, term by term, and study quietly some half-dozen reproductions of his work in the course of the term.

The little memory outlines I have quoted show his studies; but this is the least of the gains. We cannot measure the influence that one or another artist has upon the child's sense of beauty, upon his power of seeing, as in a picture, the common sights of life; he is enriched more than we know in having really looked at even a single picture. It is a mistake to think that colour is quite necessary to children in their art studies. They find colour in many places, and are content, for the time, with form and feeling in their pictures.

Charlotte Mason, Home Education p308-9

It will be noticed that the work done on these pictures is done by the children themselves. There is no talk about schools of painting, little about style; consideration of these matters comes in later life, but the first and most important thing is to know the pictures themselves. As in a worthy book we leave the author to tell his own tale, so do we trust a picture to tell its tale through the medium the artist gave it. In the region of art as else-where we shut out the middleman.

Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education p 216

How do we prepare a child, again, to use the aesthetic sense with which he appears to come provided? His education should furnish him with whole galleries of mental pictures, pictures by great artists old and new;––Israels' Pancake Woman, his Children by the Sea; Millet's Feeding the Birds, First Steps, Angelus; Rembrandt's Night Watch, The Supper at Emmaus; Velasquez's Surrender of Breda, - in fact, every child should leave school with at least a couple of hundred pictures by great masters hanging permanently in the halls of his imagination, to say nothing of great buildings, sculpture, beauty of form and colour in things he sees.

Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education p 43

The wealth of detail included in Miss Mason's volumes makes it clear the importance she placed on this little study. What do we notice?

  1. Children should have regular Picture study lessons by the age of six.

  2. Children do not need children's art - their minds will adapt to whatever comes their way. If children appreciate poor art then it is because this is what they have seen.

  3. Children should study one six or so pieces by the one artist over a period of a term.

  4. Do not 'teach' art appreciation - let the pictures speak for themselves and leave out the middleman.
It all seems so simple to me. I wonder then why so many people get hung up about this simple subject - or worse still procrastinate so much that they don't attempt it at all.

If you have your hand up right now, I'm going to encourage you to give Picture Study a go. Right now - today. Or tomorrow if it's night time. Some time really soon anyhow. It really is a soothing balm in a busy week. Like nature study it provides relief from academic study, and is often the subject we turn to to sooth frayed nerves and restore peace. It requires concentration but it brings great and lasting pleasure.

Ambleside Online's Artist Rotation is excellent. Prints to study are identified by the Advisory each term and a couple of mums create pdf files for you to download and print yourself from yahoo groups. Angela's are here. I use Judy's, which are here. I don't know about Angela, but Judy provides the prints in several sizes, including thumbnails perfect for timeline books.

Australia has a number of excellent artists, and so we substitute one of the AO rotation for an Australian artist each year.

Once a week for five minutes or so Jemimah looks at the painting. Really looks - with a seeing eye. Then she turns the paper over and tells me what she's seen. Sometimes she reproduces the painting as a sketch:

The castle was there, see. Up here was a knight on a horse, and over there was his lady fair. It was springtime - the tree had pink blossoms...
Something like that (only she probably wouldn't have worded it exactly like that...). Sometimes she tries painting it and doesn't give a verbal narration at all. The next week we use the same painting again. The following one we move on to something new. Occasionally we will read a book or have a chat about the artist's life and where and when he worked. At some stage during the term we add Jemimah's favourite painting to her Book of Centuries.

You can see a drawn narration by a 6 yo Jemimah here. Here's a spoken narration given for her end of term exams recently. She is 7 ½ (The ½ is very, very important when you're 7 ½ - don't you know that!). It had been ten weeks since she had last seen the picture.

That's about it - thirteen years; 39 good artists; 234 paintings. Easy!

Or is it? The problem is, real life intervenes on the ideal. It always does. In the case of Picture Study the thing that most often disrupts the nice simple Ambleside Online rotation is personal preference. That and travelling exhibitions. You see, if your favourite artist isn't represented you're going to want to include him (or her, just to be politically correct.) If you hate an artist you'll probably want to leave him out - unless your kids love him, of course...

Similarly, if your local gallery has an exhibition of the work of an artist that you're not going to study for another two years, are you going to stay at home, or are you going to adjust your schedule to accommodate him? If the artist is a great one - a Monet or a Rembrandt or a Da Vinci then the answer is simple, isn't it? Of course you'll take advantage of the exhibition. After all, you're a homeschooler right? You're characterised by dragging your kids along to things of culture and value.

What if the artist not on the list though? What if he's controversial? What if - horror of horrors - you don't actually like him? What if the artist is Andy Warhol the pop-art king? Is he worth studying? (I actually remember one mum asking that exact question of the AO yahoo group a year or so ago.)

What if the artist is Salvador Dalí?

Dali was very weird:

Much of Salvador Dalí's art was pretty weird too:

The Shoe (Surrealist Object Functioning Symbolically) 1974

Back in 1900 a CM mum addressed this very issue in a PRArticle - not about Andy or Salvador, of course, but the problem is the same - controversial or difficult art:

A lady, a very cultivated and charming person, once told me that much pleasure in art in her after life was due to her having had constantly before her, as a child in her father's house, some good engravings from Raphael's cartoons.

Raphael's cartoons are large water-colour drawings, scenes from the Acts of the Apostles, they were made as designs for tapestry for the Pope's chapel in Rome; seven out of the original ten are the property of our Queen, and are to be seen at South Kensington Museum. Apart from their sacred subject, these designs are interesting as representing character and dramatic expression of all human emotion. They are grand-looking compositions, showing surprise, joy, awe, adoration, indignation, fear and love, with that dignity of aspect which we name divine.

You will protest that only unusually developed children will understand such pictures or care for them, especially when presented in the black-and-white of engraving. I will add that there are many grown-up people who will not understand such pictures apart from the subject, but if these grown-up people had been habituated as children to the sight of such grand works of art , their eyes would have been unconsciously educated into following certain forms and sequences of forms, the exquisite harmony of line and composition (or grouping), which is to the eye as music to the ear; the rich depths of shade, the delicate gradation of light in a good engraving, give a pleasure approximate to the pleasure of colour to an educated eye, and early association is an unconscious constant force in this education of the eye. The eye accustomed from youth upwards to drinking in these harmonies of line and of light, will instinctively turn from the discordant and vulgar in art, as the trained musical ear shrinks from false notes.

Note the sequence of line in the Raphael cartoon of "The Miraculous Draught of Fishes," the line of the over-laden boats, rather too small for nature, but purposely made so by an artist's license in fitting his subject into the decorative limits of his space; how this line leads the eye to the shore and the distant city, a contrast to the lonely part of the lake in which the fishermen have caste their net. The herons are here to pick up the fish that escape from the laden boats and the meshes of the net, but Raphael has put them just where they are in order to fill up a space in the design , to avoid monotony, by thus breaking in upon and contrasting with the lower lines of the composition. The pleasing purely decorative effect of this incident is equal to anything we can find in the vaunted art of Japan. The figures stooping to the drag of the net might have been, in the hands of lesser artist, mere exercises in anatomy, but they are, however, realistically strained by their burden of the miraculous draught of fish, graceful and beautiful. Take the chief lines of the group apart from their human meaning, they form almost a symmetrical pattern, and it is this symmetry, repetition, variety, harmony, that gives pleasure to what is called the aesthetic sense, the sense of beauty in any art and in nature.

I analyse in part the composition of this one picture to show you what I mean by its purely aesthetic value, apart from its human subject and emotional significance, what a recent critic, Berenson, has dilated upon as the decorative and permanently interesting qualities, as distinguished from the merely illustrative. Throughout this composition there are sequences of flowing lines and ordered masses and spaces, beautifully varied, and yet harmonious as the perfect chords of a violin. It is this quality in a work of art which supplies an education to the eye, and raises the standard of taste by association in unconscious youth.

How to Show Children Our National Gallery, A. R. Evans.Parents' Review Article Volume 11, no. 4, 1900, pp 216-227
This then is what we are looking for, perhaps - that quality in an artist's work that supplies an education to the eye, and raises the standard of taste by association in unconscious youth. So, if the visiting artist is recognised as producing quality work which will edify and build up your student then the artist is worth studying. That's my opinion anyhow. (Mrs Evans' too, I s'pose!)

I had never liked Salvador Dalí. He was too extreme, too odd. He had a strange lifestyle and was obsessed with...well obsessed with things I didn't approve of. His paintings were weird too. After the exhibition things changed. The main thing was that my 7 yo loved this strange man's art! Really loved it.

So this term we're studying Salvador Dalí. I don't think Dalí's lifestyle will edify Jemimah, so we won't be talking much about that. I don't think his erotic or worse - to me - perverted art will build up my daughter either. But at this exhibition of more than 200 stunning pieces of art I discovered plenty of pieces of art that possessed what Mrs Evans was alluding to: pieces that supply an education to the eye, and raise the standard of taste by association in unconscious youth.

If you want to follow along, these are the pieces we're studying:

La persistencia de la memoria 1931 or The Persistence of Memory (This is probably his most famous painting.)

Las Ovejas or The Sheep 1942 (Additions on a print by Schenck)

Study for Fifty abstract paintings which as seen from two yards, change into three Lenins masquerading as Chinese and as seen from six yards, appear as the head of a Royal Bengal Tiger c. 1962

Portrait of my sister 1925

Slave market with apparition of the invisible bust of Voltaire 1940

Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bumblebee around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening 1944 I realise that some won't like the nude picture of Gaia in this piece. It is one of Jemimah's favourites - the first Dalí piece she ever saw - and the one that made us go to see the exhibition in the first place. Feel free to substitute!

We'll also look at the two pieces above - the advertisement and the surrealist object, as well as this beautiful piece:

Finally we'll watch Destino animated Dalí - amazing!

I've got some kids' books too:

Dali and the Path of Dreams by Anna Obiols
Dali And Other Secrets by Marta Luna (Now available in English ) Victorians - you can get this book from the NGV Bookshop but I didn't see it on the website.

I'm going to stop now. Can you see why I was upset when the other post disappeared?

It's gunna be an exciting term. Do join us!


  1. I am so glad you got this post up as it is so rich! BTW, I remember not being fond of Dali at all until seeing an exhibit in Germany.

    Thanks for the reminder of how many terms we will have as the hardest part about picture study can be choosing the artist. We do usually go by what we can see the originals of though.

    I know this isn't the point (so please don't scold me) but having your child recognize an artist's work feels every bit as good as having them clean their plate at supper.

  2. Oh I love Dali!!! ☺ Your Jemimah has great taste!

    We don't do any formal study as such but it is impossible to live here & not pick up something about various artists though many of the ones I like are on the weird spectrum. They are simply more interesting visually. lol And both Ditz & I are visuals.

    When we were doing a lot of prac we discussed various artists & their techniques because of trying to replicate some of the techniques. No surprises that Ditz likes weird!

  3. This is really good Jeanne, I mean 'really' good! We have done a bit of picture study, but not real in depth! It is so 'simple' as you said, but amongst all the other subjects it can seem difficult, which is just all in the mind!

    Transitioning to a CM education has been a slow process for me, and I am glad I have done it that way, for each new subject introduced just slides in to the days schedule with ease!

    Thank you for sharing your picture study with us, it is so helpful and I must say I really don't like nude pictures, but that's just my opinion!

  4. Me again - doing the carnival rounds. I meant to let you know how taken Luca was by Magritte the other day at the museum. We'll be sure to get some surrealists into our studies.

  5. Although I agree with CM's approach to art appreciation, I find that I am lacking in that area. We were doing really well for a while but have fallen out if the habit. Thanks for the reminder! Wonderful post on the subject!

  6. Art appreciation is an area where we have been so lacking. I most certainly see the great value in it, but unfortunately if I'm going to let something slide, art is usually it. :-(

    Thanks for this post; it's inspiring and makes me want to get going again with our art study!!!

  7. What a great post! Thanks! We are doing Dali this term as well especially since we live near the dali musuem in St. Pete. What a great description of art appreciation too. I really needed to read that!


I'd love you to leave me a message. Tell me what you like - and what you don't. Just remember that this is what we do in our family - it doesn't have to be what you do in yours...