Mastering the French modernists

3rd February 1995 at 00:00
Hull pupils went to Paris and Normandy to explore the links between primitive and modernist art. Pam Cooley reports.

On a background tape African drums beat an insistent rhythm and a flute weaves a thin harmony. Leaping out of a painting a figure covering one side of an exhibition screen is primitive, aggressive in slashes of red, black and yellow. Nearby a construction of coloured stones, stretched threads and slender twigs makes some subtle links with another place and culture far removed from the hall of Humberside Education Centre in Hull.

The exhibition of paintings and drawings, sculpture, masks, and constructions is the culmination of the Paris Experience, a country art enrichment course that took 133 GCSE and A-level students from 22 Humberside secondary schools, with 17 tutors and three course leaders, to France for a week last October half-term. They went first to Paris to study the connection between primitive art and French modernist painting in France at the end of the 19th and the beginning of this century, then to a chateau in Normandy to spend four days exploring the theme in their own work.

Humberside education authority has held art-enrichment courses in Venice and northern Italy for several years. This, the first course in France, was the largest and most ambitious so far.

Students from Years 10, 11, 12 and 13 were accepted from all over the country. "In this way schools with small sixth forms, or from less advantaged areas who might not be able to organise art trips on a school scale could take part and you got a good social mix," explains Bob Tonks, Humberside art and design adviser and course director. Some schools sent as many as 15 students, others just three or four, the only criteria being that they were taking GCSE or A-level art and design and could raise Pounds 235. Tour operators Travelbound, however, provided some free places and various other donors made sure nobody was left behind for lack of funds.

A month before the trip, a full-day workshop was held at the Ferens Gallery in Hull. Students met other members of the mixed group to which they were allocated, the group tutor who would be working with them throughout the week and the Paris Experience course tutor, Mike Cox, head of art and design at Beverley Grammar School. Each student received a sketch book, using it for the first time to carry out a short task in the gallery that afternoon.

In Paris, the party was divided between three hotels and alternated its study sessions in the Louvre, Gallery of Modern Art, the art gallery in the Pompidou Centre and the Gallery of African and Oceanic Art.

"The logistics were tremendous. It was like monitoring a football crowd, " says Pam Francis, curriculum support teacher for art and course co-ordinator for the trip.

While the party was in Paris, Bob Tonks drove to Normandy in a Transit van loaded with yards of canvas, huge rolls of paper, Perspex, polythene, plaster, bundles of coppice willow, bottles of acrylic, miles of string, glue guns and scissors. All the materials were made freely available and the supermarches in Bayeaux were raided for cardboard cartons and any other discarded packaging that could be turned into art.

The 18th-century Chateau du Molay belongs to Travelbound. Every available space - public rooms, corridors, stairwells, bedrooms, the dining room between meals, and the annexe - was filled with students painting, drawing, cutting, sticking and shaping.

The aim was to complete at least one piece of work using the sketchbooks they had filled with their researches in Paris. "It wasn't a question of getting them to work, rather of persuading them to stop," says Pam Francis. There were few takers for afternoon visits to Bayeaux, the Normandy beaches or evening videos.

"This was looking at attainment target 2, Knowledge and Understanding, giving young people a real opportunity to engage with very powerful art at first-hand and to make real sense of understanding work from other cultures," says Bob Tonks, continuing: "At the heart of it was the question 'How do I make sense of all this art I have seen?' and then feeling confident enough to make a personal response to it."

Having uninterrupted time to discuss work in tutorials, experimenting with materials (for many students it was the first time they had attempted a large-scale painting or sculpture) seeing what everyone else was doing and bouncing ideas off each other, produced work that made the final exhibition visually very exciting. Lasting friendships were made and for several older students the experience brought them to a decision about going on to art college.

In the students' opinion: "It was brill!", "Absolutely wonderful!", and "I wished it could have gone on for ever. Getting home was a terrible anticlimax. "

o Travelbound, Oliver House, 18 Marine Parade, Brighton, Sussex. Tel: 0273 677777.

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