An inspiring Art History excursion

29 November 2023

When you first look at a painting, you don’t know what the story is. It brings you in and asks questions. You can connect an artwork when you spend more time with it,” reflected Art History student Joanne (Grade 10). 
When we visit museums in 2023, it tends to be a quick Instagram experience, a snapshot here or a selfie there, with a limited view of any particular piece. But what if you took your time and really experienced the art? What if you really got to know a painting? What if you took that impression home and found out more about it as an art historian would? Last week, Surval’s Art History students did just that. The class spent a rainy afternoon exploring the Geneva Museum of Art and History before engaging in a ‘slowing down’ exercise with an artwork of their choice. 
In the slowing down exercise, students spent thirty minutes individually ‘reading’ their chosen paintings, recording how their observations of the piece unfolded and changed over that time. They also noted the lingering questions they then had about the painting’s artist, subject or era.

For students with a background in Art History, compositions come alive with decisions of color, form, and symbolism, and further capture a fleeting historical moment. Back in the classroom this week, students explored that historical side of the equation by researching their chosen museum paintings. What is the subject’s story? Who was the artist? What was happening in the world at the time this artwork was created? All these questions started to build a deeper appreciation not only for the particular artwork, but also for their studies overall. “I chose to take the Art History class because I always felt very ignorant about art and I wanted to become more aware,” Victoria (gap student) reflected. “Now, after this class, I feel like I can appreciate it. I’m not an expert, but I feel like I can find meaning in what I see.
Learning to read and study artwork can feel like a revelation for students, opening up new ways of seeing and understanding the world, helping them to find the beauty and history that exists all around us. I still remember my own AP Art History class in high school (taught by Mrs. Hendrix!), who believed that students should not just study art, but further see it with their own eyes. When we visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC that year, touring a museum was no longer a superficial experience; instead, it was a process of appreciating the artwork as a means of expression, of touching the past, and ultimately of making our class lessons more tangible. As Arleen (Grade 10) also recently discovered: “It’s more beautiful to see the paintings in person.” 

An art gallery can indeed be a beautiful space filled with human stories to tell. I know that our Surval girls will now be able to share these stories with their friends and families. “Taking Art History has broadened my understanding of artwork, allowing me to experience it more deeply. I can’t wait to demonstrate my knowledge to my parents!” said Rosey (gap student). Ask them to take you on a slow tour of the museum!

By Mrs Joanna Premand, Teacher of History and Art History

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