Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The concept of self, Part 1: analyzing Spanish-speaking artists and self-portraits

I am lucky enough to teach Spanish to 8th/9th grade heritage Spanish speakers. While it does mean that most textbooks are absolutely worthless to us, it also means that we get to study any material that strikes our fancy... as long as we do it in Spanish. 

This time, my goal with was to define the idea of "self" and work towards describing ourselves through word and image. Given that students this age find themselves to be an important issue, it had special resonance with our class.

We started by asking the following question: Does the image of the person have to be in his/her portrait in order for it to be a self-portrait? Most students felt that, yes, the image of the portrait-ee must be in the portrait.

Then we started looking at portraits by famous Spanish-speaking artists.

In Velazquez's "Las Meninas" there are clearly multiple subjects and a story. However, it also contains the artist... so is it a self-portrait or not?

(We fought about it for a few minutes and then moved on.)

Then we moved on to Goya. I was curious what he was trying to tell us through this picture. We also talked about the role of the viewer -- what is the viewer doing here? Where are we in the scene? Does Goya know we're there? What does his face tell us?
And, of course, we talked about if the purpose of this work was to be a self-portrait, or if the author had some other intention.

(They didn't think that it was meant to be a self-portrait, by the way. Do you?)

I decided that we were ready to go a little farther.

 When I showed them this Dali, there were a lot of titters at first. And then they were just plain curious. Kids got up and gathered around the projection, questioning what the symbols meant, why the dog was there, is he underwater?, I swear that's la Virgen, Profe!, etc.

This time, we went in deep, questioning the goal of a self-portrait. The students decided that:
- the purpose of a self-portrait is to express the individual that the portrait is about.
- a self-portrait expresses things that are important, emotions, or ideas that represent the person
- a self-portrait includes the person itself in the image.

This is all happening in rapid-fire Spanglish. I'll be honest, we didn't know all the technical words that we needed, in either English or Spanish. But everyone had something to say, and the vast majority was taking place -- without second thought -- in beautiful Spanish.

Botero's "First Communion"

At this point, I just changed the slide and let them discuss amongst themselves. The majority of the discussion revolved around religion and the winged creatures above the subject's shoulder. They also made it clear that they could not decide if it was a self-portrait or not until they knew if the artist's intention was to paint himself. I decided not to tell them that the title of the painting is "Self-Portrait on the Day of My First Communion."

The turning point in our discussion came with this image, provided through the London Telegraph, of Gabriel Orozco's "Yielding Stone."
After much conversation, some students decided that this work was in fact a self-portrait, given that it had traveled and documented the artist's actions, because Orozco lives in New York City, and because it weighs as much as he did. Other students, however, felt that it was not a self-portrait. Orozco did not title it a self-portrait and he is not in the ball and we do not know what he looks like after seeing this piece.

I was happy for the divergence in opinion. I decided that they would be ready to write after one last piece.

Although they were intrigued, I think that they had reached their saturation point. After a set of jumping-jacks, we all sat down to answer our original question: Does a person's own image have to be in his/her self-portrait in order for it to be considered a self-portrait?

The responses that I received were truly exceptional. (I did this activity in early October, not even two full months into school).

This student had never spoken to me before.

"...the definition of a portrait is something that represents you. So, a self-portrait is something that the person drew that represents him/her self. ... If the person believes that this work of art represents them then it is a self-portrait. It doesn't matter if others don't think it is..."

1 comment:

  1. I love this. Sometimes I wish I could work with kids like this again. You said that you didn't have some of the words you need so I thought of a resource you might could get your hands on. In the Realidades series, the 3rd year book has a whole unit on the arts. You might look into that. I will look in my resources and see if I have anything to offer you. I taught that level once. Buen trabajo!