A brush with the past

1st December 2000 at 00:00
Primary pupils in south-west France brought a16th-century painting to life. Olivia Lowe explains

One spring afternoon in a small village in south-west France, some 180 children could be seen walking in procession to the sounds of fifes, bagpipes and drums, singing songs in old French (occitan) and playing old-fashioned games until, at regular intervals, silence fell and they froze into position, transforming themselves into a living image of a painting by old Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Jean Rocher, tourist guide and arts co-ordinator for Monflanquin, was responsible for this unusual celebration. A Bruegel fan, he saw possibilities in that artist's unique blend of panorama and expressive detail. Children's Games (1560) is set in a townscape overrun by children: rolling hoops, walking on stilts, straddling fences, standing on their heads, turning somersaults, riding a hobby horse, playing with sticks, stones and barrels ... 80 pastimes have been identified in the picture.

For a cross-curricular challenge, pupils in their last year of primary school recreated the painting in a tableau vivant in the main square of onflanquin. The children, with their teachers and families:

* looked closely at the picture, analysed and discussed it and expressed their views * carried out research in local libraries and information centres on the painting, artist and his times * learned about the games and how to make some of the simpler ones * compared the games with those played today * chose one of the people in the painting and re-enacted his or her character * collaborated with the community in rehearsals * prepared costumes and props (some improvised, others made from scratch) * worked on aspects of scenery.

At the same time, they were encouraged to think about the painting. Bruegel often used allegory. Children's Games has been interpreted as a commentary on human folly: games are all very well, but time-wasting in idle pursuits is not.

The day was so successful because it bridged "the gap between generations, with children, parents and grandparents working together", Jean Rocher believes. He is already laying plans for another painting-based event that will bring the past alive. "I now know what history is about," commented one pupil.

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