Tom Higgins

About Me

Tom Higgins

I retired as Principal of Breaffy National School, Castlebar, Co. Mayo in 1998. This project arises from my experience of teaching art and art appreciation in the Primary School, now known as looking and responding to art.

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I retired from teaching in 1998, having served as Principal of Breaffy National School, Castlebar, Co. Mayo for twenty-five years. I taught art and art appreciation to middle and later to senior classes from the introduction of the New Curriculum in 1972 up until my retirement. In the early years there was much experimentation and trial and error. Gradually, through research into the subject I developed an approach and a system of integrating art appreciation with other areas of the curriculum and with the children's practical art activities. By the time I retired I was still discovering new and better ways of dealing with the subject. Some of the ideas and suggestions in this review may be of use to primary teachers and possibly to post-primary students. However, I must emphasise that this review is not intended as a complete guide to the whole of the primary school art programme. The only practical activities dealt with are some that might arise from an integrated curriculum and from lessons on looking and responding.

The first part of the review is a brief trawl through art history. Inevitably there is much simplification. The section begins with some examples from the Renaissance period and it covers later art movements and examples of artists’ work, all of them favourites, but also of a type that I have found especially appealing to children. The emphasis throughout is on interpretation and responding verbally, and occasionally in creative writing and practical art activities. There follows a chapter specifically dealing with a classroom approach to art appreciation, which is now usually described as looking and responding. The remaining chapters are concerned with some of the more practical aspects of art teaching. I feel I could not leave this review without including a chapter on contemporary Irish art which is part of our cultural heritage and a major topic in its own right. Examples of Celtic art such as found in the Newgrange passage tomb, the Ardagh Chalice and the Book of Kells could also be given due consideration.

In treating of the aims of art education, I refer the reader to the section on Looking and Responding in Chapter 12. I have found from experience that children of all ages are capable of responding enthusiastically to works of art. In fact, some of the best lessons I’ve had were with children in the junior classes. The aim is not to give children the information but to lead them towards discovery by the use of judicious questioning. Older children will be able to come to terms with much of the necessary technical language which can provide the key to meaning.

I must emphasise that the contents of this review are not being offered as a course to be covered. Teachers will select from art movements or individual artists as they so wish or indeed from works of their favourite artists. There is a lot more than art history involved in the first twelve chapters. I would suggest that these chapters and the chapter on looking and responding are complementary. Furthermore, I think it will be accepted that if teachers are to approach the subject of art with enthusiasm and commitment, what they may find helpful above all else is the inspiration that flows from an ever-deepening knowledge and awareness of the lives and works of the great artists.

There are a few artists, in my estimation, who inhabit a plane far above all others on account of their unique vision and because of the influence they had on their peers and those who came after them. Due to the need to be selective and in order to impose limits on the project, I have not included any details on a number of major artists. Michelangelo has to be an exception, for here is a giant among men. Because he is so well known through reproductions of his work I will confine myself here to the following brief note on his statue of David and the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo was really the first artist who assimilated antique art and then recreated it. His David is vast, defiant and nude. The body could be taken as a good example of Greco-Roman sculpture, expressing only refinement, perfection and grace. The head however, is heroic and the facial expression represents a defiance of the blind forces of fate and a contempt for mere material obstacles, in other words, the impulse to explore and conquer. Here we see Renaissance man extending his powers of mind and spirit in a reawakening to new possibilities and ever greater achievement.

But in Michelangelo’s later work the body also was made the means of expressing noble sentiments, life-giving energy and God-like perfection. In many works we find the struggle of the soul to free itself from matter. The Sistine chapel paintings are concerned more with spirit than body, the body being a symbol of the spirit. The chapel is a poem on the subject of creation. The perfect physical body of Adam, reclining on the ground with no wish to leave it, is recreated, filled with a soul. Here the gift of creation is passed on to the human, making him God-like, and making us aware of new empowerment and a new destiny.

In recent years I had the pleasure of visiting some major exhibitions of works by a few of my favourite artists. First of all was a loan exhibition of the works of Vincent Van Gough in the Van Gough Museum in Amsterdam in 2002. In 2001 I visited an exhibition of selected works of the great German Romantic, Caspar David Friedrich in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2004 I had the pleasure of attending a major exhibition of El Greco in the National Gallery, London.

American art is a major topic. I have bypassed the post-war New York Abstract Expressionist movement in favour of the lone figure of Edward Hopper who responded in a unique way to pre and post-war urban life in the United States. I had the pleasure of seeing a major exhibition of Hopper’s work in the National Gallery, London in 2004.

One of the greatest collections of Impressionist paintings is housed in the Orsay Museum, Paris. That museum is also very good on Post-Impressionism and especially Van Gough. A good selection of Claude Monet’s paintings – a leading figure in Impressionism - was included in the Impressionist exhibition for the opening of the Millennium wing of the National Gallery of Ireland in 2000. For early to mid 20th century Irish art I have chosen Jack B. Yeats who can hold his own in any company, many of whose works are on permanent display in the National Gallery and the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin.

Looking at Friedrich’s painting, Two Men Contemplating the Moon in the New York Metropolitan was akin to standing in the presence of an apparition from beyond space and time, such was the magical, unearthly light emanating from somewhere within this awe-inspiring work. The museum has produced a very good poster of this painting. Almost all of Friedrich’s works are dispersed between art museums in Germany. Something of the same impression was created on viewing Monet’s Grainstack (Sunset) in the National Gallery of Ireland exhibition, except for the fact that in this instance the glow from inside the picture is more akin to earthly light.

I should say that I have some difficulties with current trends in art education. It appears that in the third level colleges the skills of drawing and painting are being downgraded in order to place more emphasis on installation, construction, performance art and video art, to name but a few. According to Aidan Dunne, art critic of the Irish Times, the dominant form of graduation exhibit for many years from the Dublin art colleges has been the multimedia, multimaterials installation. Despite that, people know what they want when they buy art and invariably look for paintings, which they will find in abundance in all the commercial galleries.

In relation to the Primary School, at the present time, there seems to be somewhat of a minor industry on the part of book publishers in the production of books dealing with the various strands in the new primary art programme. You get, for instance a book on ‘how to draw and paint’, or perhaps step-by-step instructions on how to print using a variety of materials and techniques. I am not in the business of dismissing all of this type of enterprise but one is left wondering if children will not become bogged down in a flurry of skills and materials at the expense of creativity and self-expression.

There is the odd occasion when you wonder if the major art institutions are not being hoodwinked. There is the story of a certain English artist, who some years ago in yielding to a serious bout of creativity, arranged for a dead shark to be imported from Australia. The gentleman promptly had the shark preserved in formaldehyde, encased in a glass tank and labeled ‘work of art’. The said work of art was privately bought for a large sum of money. A few years later it was purchased by the New York Metropolitan Museum, having reaped a handsome profit for the vendor. And to end the story, the London Tate authorities were reported to have been peeved when the said object d’art was not offered to them.

The use of readymade objects and pieces of scrap in the creation of artworks has its origin in the work of the French artist, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain of 1917. This readymade consisted of a simple urinal set on a wooden plinth. Duchamp is said to have stated that any object at all ‘chosen’ by the artist is elevated to the status of a work of art simply by placing it in an art museum. But surely this can only amount to a rejection of all objective norms. Fountain was shown again in 1950 as a replica, the original piece having been lost. Duchamp then produced a number of other editions that enabled the work to be included in the world’s major art museums. A case of a urinal for everyone in the audience? This work is now rarely exhibited anywhere. The reason: it wouldn’t merit a second glance, having at this stage lost its shock value.

One wonders if a lot of what passes for modern art will stand the test of time. I have a sneaking feeling that a lot of installation art ends up in the scrap heap. It has been said that too many modern artists are trying to impress only themselves, their critics and the modern art establishment.

Perhaps a word on some of the art ‘isms’ might shed some light on the current art scene. I will refer briefly to Modernism and Post-Modernism. Modernism had its origin with the Impressionists towards the end of the 19th century. It is also a term which covered most of the other ‘isms’ which followed – Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism, to name but a few. Modernism rejected traditional academic approaches in favour of experimentation in order to reflect a rapidly changing world. However it never sought to totally subvert previous values and traditions. For Modernists, the artist’s exploration of his or her own vision was paramount. Post-Modernism developed in the 1970s and went much further than Modernism in its critique of society and in its questioning or rejection of received beliefs and traditions. Post-Modernists would hold that there are no absolute values, that everything is relative. They are often pessimistic and they value art not for its permanence but for being imperfect, disposable and temporary. I am not surprised then when I find the contents of certain exhibitions ending up as a pile of scrap in a hallway outside the gallery once the exhibition has closed. However, it should be said that not all modern artists are in thrall to the more extreme tenets of Post-Modernism. While architects took the lead in the development of Post-Modernism, it is a movement that has also found expression in literature, music and the media generally. In its aim to subvert and deconstruct traditional culture it has largely succeeded. But then it must be asked, where do we go from here? Do we look in vain for a critique of the new liberal relativistic culture of the present age? Art, to me is a mirror on the soul of humanity, at its best, offering a vision of transcendence. But if I were to choose one word that would describe much of contemporary art that word would be ‘soul-less’.

Because any good book shop will have lots of books dealing with Impressionism, I have included only a few books on that art movement in the bibliography at the end of this review. The National Gallery of Ireland had two books available for the Impressionist exhibition in 2000. These were an exhibition guide produced by the gallery and a more detailed guide published by The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, entitled Monet, Renoir and the Impressionist Landscape. I would highly recommend these two publications. They may still be available at the gallery. There are a number of other publications available from the National Gallery, including a number of books and exhibition catalogues on Jack B.Yeats. The one book on Monet I would recommend is Monet by John House. Some years ago I bought a book on the Impressionists entitled Impressionists by Douglas Mannering and published by Parragon for the unbelievable price of £4.99. Of the many books available on Van Gough, I would recommend one in particular, The Masterworks of Van Gough, also published by Parragon.

One of the best books on education and creativity in general that I have come across is Creative and Mental Growth by Lowenfeld and Brittain. I have relied on this publication for the stages of development in art. The book may be still in print.

Finally, on the question of visual aids, the National Gallery of Ireland have published very good posters on a number of the paintings of Jack Yeats and other artists. Posters are available from all the major galleries and museums of art – through their websites - and especially through agencies that supply posters over the internet. In the Book List section at the end of the bibliography I have provided lists of books where teachers will find reproductions of all the paintings discussed in this review. Local libraries may also be helpful in the provision of some of these art books.

Of course no reproduction can bear comparison with an original work. The colours, tones and textures may not be accurate. In this connection, Chapter 13 offers some guidelines on visiting an art gallery with children.

I would like to thank the following art museums for permission to use images of paintings in their collections. The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin; The National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA; The Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, USA; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA; Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH 43620, USA; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT, 06520, USA; Boston Fine Arts Museum, Boston, USA; The Tate Gallery, London; The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo, Norway; The Orsay Museum, Paris; Galerie Neue Meister, Staatliche, Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Germany; Stiftung Wilhelm Lembruck Museum, Duisburg, Germany; Bildarchive PreuBischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, Germany; The Hamburger, Kunsthalle, Germany.