Marks out of 10 - Brush with creativity

14th May 2010 at 01:00

Take One Picture

The National Gallery, London

April 29-September 19

Free admission

The premise of the National Gallery's Take One Picture exhibition is simple. A painting from the gallery is chosen. Pupils then use it as a stimulus for creating their own work, the best of which makes up the exhibition.

But that does not begin to describe the sheer variety that is on show here. Taking Renoir's 19th-century 'The Umbrellas' as the focus, more than 200 primary schools have produced the most astonishing range of creations, from a 3D woven willow sculpture of a woman with an umbrella, to a multi-sensory peep box with mirrored figures inside.

At first glance, the impression is of "blue" - in keeping with Renoir's stormy masterpiece. But even this hides an array of colours, textures, materials and mediums.

The centrepiece is a stunning blue dress, dyed by hand in a science class, stitched by hand in art, designed in maths, researched at the Fashion Museum in Bath, and finally cut out and fitted around a classroom assistant. It's not perfect - the stitches are visible, ragged and rough - but that is part of its beauty. It feels real and highly imaginative.

That is the theme that runs through the exhibition. The organisers are keen to stress that it is not a competition. Instead, works have to have the wow factor, relate to the Renoir picture and have cross-curricular links.

All these criteria can be seen in a collection of pictures completed by a group of nine to 10-year-olds. They dressed up in Victorian costumes hired from their local library, had their photos taken in sepia and then traced the outlines on to paper.

Inspired by the artist Julian Opie, the facial details are kept to a minimum, lending the pictures an intriguing contemporary feel that sits surprisingly well with the children's traditional garb.

Although the faces may be minimalist, there is nothing simplistic about the colouring and shading. Choosing a well-researched Victorian palette of blues, browns and greens, the 2D characters come alive with the pupils' skilful brush strokes.

Then there is the school that has reclaimed broken and recycled umbrellas from a landfill site and turned them into high fashion. There are pictures of the pupils modelling their creations, including a full-length black evening dress.

Next to it is something different again - brightly coloured corset prints that bring Andy Warhol to mind. Each is different, each has been painstakingly researched and each focuses on something a little bit different, be it the slenderness of the waist, the ribbons and ties, or the bone ribbing.

Similar attention to detail has been taken by a school that has made drawings of Victorian shoes, which are just visible in the Renoir original.

Just when you think all originality has been exhausted, there is a computer-generated design.

Pupils discovered that Renoir had been inspired by Japanese prints, and thought they should be, too.

They put cocktail umbrellas into a mirrored box, drew the results and then ran the images through Photoshop software. The result is bold, vibrant images that encompass art, history, geography and ICT.

Your more "typical" offerings are also represented. Wire figures and "traditional" paintings sit between more outlandish offerings, such as an intricate wall hanging featuring dozens of felt faces with hand-stitched mouths, lace and ribbons for hair and scrap material for clothes.

But the paintings are a much-needed reminder that this exhibition is as much about quality as it is about innovation. Made with water-resistant wax crayons, glue, glitter and even watercolour ink, four to five-year-olds manage to evoke dark, wet, Parisian days, complete with a couple of Eiffel Towers and a brooding River Seine.

It is incredible that one work of art has spawned so many interpretations. Some of the schools have worked closely with local artists, while others have been more pupil-led. All have a sense of authenticity, however.

You leave the exhibition with renewed faith in the fundamental creativity of children. When pupils as young as three are given the opportunity, the encouragement and the resources to express themselves, they can surprise even the most hardened of art critics.

Instead of seeing the packed curriculum as the nemesis of creativity, the cross-curricular links exposed by this exhibition suggest it can be the gateway to deep learning and exceptional self-expression.


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