Dali becomes so real

22nd March 1996 at 00:00

The national curriculum puts the onus on teachers to act as both interpreters and agents of art. For non-specialists this can be a tall order. So to see how a single painting can be used for critical and practical purposes I went to the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath on the trail of Salvador Dali's "Autumnal Cannibalism".

The Dali is the third major painting to go on regional tour from the Tate in order to bring key works to a wider audience. Painted with hypnotic realism it can be seen as a metaphor for the Spanish civil war, a self portrait of the artist's destructive relationship with his wife Gala or an example of his obsessive interest in food and sex.

At the Victoria Gallery, keeper Sarah Kelly has capitalised on the loan by organising a range of workshops exploring different aspects of the painting and using collage, wax sculpture and photography. Wax was chosen because it changes while it is being worked in the same way that Dali's imagery undergoes a metamorphosis.

Led by Sarah Kelly and community artist Amanda Price, the half-day workshop I attended - along with an enthusiastic group of Year 6 pupils from Fosseway Junior School - passed in a flash.

A question and answer session in front of the picture introduced the theme of civil war and the idea that surrealism was a movement triggered by the imagination. This was followed by word-games along surreal lines, then by a practical exercise when the students were asked to produce a collage that told a story about war.

Newsprint, paint, pens and charcoal were supplied - with results that were impressive by any standards. In particular the group had picked up on the possibilities of distorting scale for effect and of using images in a symbolic way so that discarded boots came to represent homelessness while a dreamlike figure heralded death.

Only two out of the group of 30 had been to the Gallery before yet they were responsive to the ideas that were put before them. Class teacher Barry Rennie said: "Surrealism has an imaginative, subversive quality that children readily take to. The workshop acted like a package, focusing their thoughts and distilling the essence of the movement. They produced excellent work and the techniques will bleed into their own original work. The workshop also got them thinking so that they realised there are no real winners from war."

Back in school he plans to use the experience in teaching English as well, experimenting with automatic writing, surreal poetry and puns and writing stories back to front.

Autumnal Cannibalism is at the Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, until April 20 then tours to Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston (April 27 - June 8) and to Stoke-on-Trent City Museum and Art Gallery (June 16 - July 28). Further information, Sarah Kelly: 01225 477775

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