Monday, September 22, 2008

Watching The Kids Watch Sister Wendy

We've been watching Sister Wendy's The Story of Painting this week. I discovered the first one, Early Art, at the library. It featured some Greek art, our historical period at the moment, and I had a vague memory from the 90's of Sister Wendy, cheerfully lisping her way through a sort of Grand Art Tour, so I added it to our pile of books to bring home.

Then we went home. We spent some time reading about Greek frescoes and murals and pottery. We painted little vases we'd shaped last year out of air-dry clay, detailing them with owls (for Athena) and triremes (for Poseidon) and the Greek key pattern. We used black and red paint, so they would resemble the pottery of our art books. We talked about how so much Greek art had decayed in the periodically damp air of Greece, which brought up comparisons to Egyptian art, so well preserved in the hot dry African air. We looked at the flat sideways bodies
and, when I was talking a bit about mood and atmosphere, FDPG piped up. "What does atmosphere mean?" she asked. I hauled out Henry Sayre's Cave Paintings To Picasso, and showed them some things they had already seen, things like the Hall of Bulls in the Lascaux Caves, the Toreador Fresco at Knossos, and an Egyptian tomb painting Sayre calls Nebamun Hunting Birds. "What do you feel when you see that bull?" I asked. "How about when you look at those bull jumpers? Do they look scared? Or glad? Or bored? Is this comic art or serious art? Why do you think this was painted?" Then we took a look at the bust of Nefertiti. "When you look at this, what kind of woman do you see?" I asked them. Max thought she looked bored, FDPG thought she looked smart, if a little long-necked, and Dominic thought she looked sort of scary. "She was Akhenaten's wife," I said, "remember?" Ah, yes, they did remember. How could they not? Akhenaten was one of those Strange Characters we liked from our study of the Egyptians. He had a peculiar upbringing and and effected an even more peculiar style on Egyptian life once he became pharaoh. He is most remembered for his singular worship of the sun when most of Egypt preferred their many god-ded pantheon. One medical historian claimed that Akhenaten might have had Marfan's syndrome. And Nefertiti was legendary for her beauty. All quite intriguing stuff. They looked at the bust again. "She looks aloof," said Max. "Aloof and sort of scary." Then we looked at the giant Olmec Heads from La Venta. "What would you think if you were a traveller and you suddenly happened upon these things?" I asked them. After the usual bluff responses from the boys ("giant heads! hahaha!"), and a little Miyazaki tie-in from FDPG ("they look like the heads from Spirited Away!"), they all agreed that they would find them most intimidating. "That's atmosphere," I told them. "The artist has created a mood for you, the viewer. A good artist can create quite an intense impression, as you can see."
And that's how we came to watch Early Art, part 1 in Sister Wendy's The Story of Painting. She'd talk a bit about art, I thought, and we'd see some ancient Greek vases. It would be edifying, I thought, thinking back to my first experiences with Kenneth Clark's Civilization. At first the kids found the image of a nun in full habit, standing in a field in France, almost too hilarious. I shifted a bit uneasily. Is this going to be too dry? Too adult? Too comic? Will I hear anything above their giggles?

But the she started talking. Phrases like "our small hairy ancestors," "Proof that they were really like us in all the ways that really mattered," "priest painters making hunting magic for the tribe" and even "that inspired black calligraphy of the legs" took us all hostage, hostage to her decidedly oddball charm. We were all quite enthralled. It was like listening to a slightly disapproving but deeply loving maiden aunt, one who wanted us to get some culture and get it quick, whisking us around the museum with nothing but her own strong opinions. I really fell for her when she said (of two bison) waving her hands around madly all the while: "these two great black balls of male erotic fury going to explode on one another." 

Great black balls of male erotic fury?

We adored hearing her talk, whether she was pointing out the "firm little apple" breasts of the young funeral mourners or tsk-tsking about the banal monastery scribbles in the Book of Kells (at which she shook her head very sadly, obviously very distressed at such very thoughtless desecration). We watched as she wandered through castles and opened books for us to see, chatting breathlessly all the while about art and atmosphere and how fascinating she found it all. It was impossible not to get caught up in her sense of delight and wonder, and when the thirty minutes was over the kids demanded another in the series. Max put it on, and off we went through France, then to Belgium where she showed us the wonderful Arnolfini Portrait, by Jan van Eyck. She had the kids on the edge of the chesterfield with her descriptions of the mirror, van Eyck's 'artist tag,' and why there was a red poster bed in the back of the frame. And when the camera travelled to a room from a period home, complete with red poster bed, the kids all shrieked "Sister Wendy talked about that bed!" in absolute delight. 

So there you have it. Our Close Encounter with Sister Wendy. We've only watched a couple of episodes, but I sense more viewings in the very near future. A Sister Wendy marathon. With popcorn. 

And I tell you, I'll never look at a bison in the same way again.

Oh, and I should mention that when I was trying to find out some information about Sister Wendy on the internet tonight, I came across a series of interviews on YouTube, interviews with Bill Moyer. One quote particularly caught my imagination, so I'll leave you with it. She is speaking of how art has made her more "alert" as a person:

"The one fatal thing is to be a zombie and I think we're all in danger of living part of our lives at zombie level, and I think art helps one to be perpetually there, as it were."

Love it.


shaun said...

That's all great, but I just like imagining her saying it in her English voice:

"Gweat bwack baws of mayo ewotic fyu-wee!"

sheila said...

HA! You got it in a nutshell, Shaun! I can see that you have quite an eye for bison, err, I mean accents!

I love watching this stuff with my kids - they are in love with her stream of consciousness chat and I am in love with her strangely compelling topics of interest.

Becky said...

I think she's good with/for children because she thinks like a child -- that stream of consciousness, here one second, there the next, and those boundless gobs of enthusiasm.

Rebecca said...

I just bought these! And I find her to be very entertaining, firm little apple breasts and great black balls and all. ;)

She's great. I wish she'd been my art history prof.

sheila said...

Just wait til you get to the second wife of Rubens, Rebecca! We all laughed out loud, then muttered her phrase to ourselves several times, and laughed again.

She's a total character. I just got her book out of the library. It's not quite as, err, entertaining.