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Is It Art?

“ How can that be art?”  I went on a trip to Spain with twenty- four teenagers.

With my students in Spain

The art teacher at the high school where I taught had arranged our itinerary. During our nine days in Barcelona and Madrid, we visited eight art galleries, two museums and three cathedrals. Our students saw so many great works of art in such a short space of time that their heads were spinning. Frankly mine was too.

We had a chance to look at famous masterpieces by Degas, Van Gogh, Botticelli and Valazquez. These were artists I could relate to since they painted realistic scenes from history, from the Bible, from their travels or from the everyday life they saw around them. 

I enjoyed examining paintings like Goya’s The Third of May, in which he depicts an exciting battle scene where Spanish troops are confronting Napoleon’s army.

I immediately recognized Holbein’s portrait of King Henry VIII having seen it before in history textbooks.

Jan Brueghel’s depiction of the Animals Entering Noah’s Ark had so many interesting details.

Mata Mua- Paul Gaugin -1892 Museo Thyssen Bornemisza- Madrid

I liked the colourful work Gaugin created after visiting Tahiti.

I had to laugh at Nicolaes Maes’ painting done in the 1600s of a naughty boy whose mother has taken away his drum sticks because the noise he was making woke up his baby sister.

However, we also saw the work of more modern artists like the Spanish greats, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Joan Miro. I have to admit some of their masterpieces were much harder to appreciate. Four ninth-grade boys from our school called me over to examine an art piece by Joan Miro displayed in a Barcelona gallery. It consisted of three large floor to ceiling white canvases several meters wide. On each one was a single, long thin pencil line.

Panel for Joan Miro’s Painting on White Background for the Cell of a Recluse

The boys had listened to an audio explanation about the piece and knew that Miro confessed it took him only minutes to draw the artwork labelled Painting  on White Background for the Cell of a Recluse.  He said, however, it took him years to figure out what it meant. No wonder! What meaning could it have?  “ How can this be art?” my fourteen-year-old students wondered. I didn’t know how to answer them.

Later I asked myself the same question as I examined some of Miro’s simplistic colourful metal sculptures.

I studied Picasso’s massive artwork Guernica in some depth before going to see it in the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid. It is a war protest piece completed after the Nazis bombed a Spanish town named Guernica. I knew what it was supposed to mean but I have to confess Picasso’s rather bizarre forms and figures didn’t engage me immediately. It took a while to appreciate his strange way of protesting injustice.

Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man- by Salvador Dali- 1943

I could certainly see why Salvador Dali was considered talented. His paintings contain a myriad of tiny detailed figures that must have been extremely difficult and time-consuming to create. However, the various images in his paintings were put together in such strange ways I couldn’t figure out what they meant for the life of me. I noticed some of Dali’s painting titles had the word enigma in them. I thought this was very appropriate since much of his work was an enigma to me.

I realize I still have a long way to go when it comes to understanding art and what makes something a masterpiece. I looked at many amazing pieces of art on my trip to Spain which I could clearly see were works of genius. I also saw some creations that are world-famous and worth millions of dollars that left me asking the question “Is that art?”

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