Never mind the naked bodies, flesh out the story

5th November 2004 at 00:00
The Age of Titian Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh until December 5

Deedee Cuddihy reviews two exhibitions from two ages that will open primary pupils' eyes to art in very different ways

The National Galleries of Scotland's education department might have anticipated objections of "too much naked flesh" and "not relevant to the curriculum" when gauging schools' responses to The Age of Titian exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy.

In fact, teachers had no such fears. However, some did wonder if pupils would be able to appreciate the style and imagery of 500 years ago, bearing in mind that work before 1750 is not included in the art and design curriculum. They need not have worried.

The exhibition, which has marked the opening of the pound;30 million refurbishment of the academy building on the Mound, features 80 works, including dozens of masterpieces, from the golden age of Venetian art, many of them never before seen in public because they are part of private collections.

The education department has been offering special hour-long tours, aimed at P5-P7 and secondary classes, which concentrate on the stories the paintings tell and give an insight into the times in which they were painted, the artists who created them and the city of Venice.

The tour is preceded by a brief session in the education centre, where pupils can explore the contents of three resources boxes, filled with objects related to the exhibition. These include Venetian carnival masks, maps of Italy, feathers and rich fabrics, plus materials used to produce paintings such as brushes, canvas and a chunk of lapis lazuli, which was ground to a powder and mixed with oil to make a precious blue paint.

The star of the show is, of course, Titian, the greatest of Venetian artists. With only an hour to see the pictures, the tour focuses on a handful of the most significant works, starting with one painted in the old-fashioned manner, using egg tempera on a wooden panel, and progressing to Titian's preferred medium, oil on canvas.

Schools' tours usually include Titian's The Three Ages of Man (c 1515, 90cm x 150cm, from the Earl of Ellesmere's collection), depicting the life cycle of babyhood, manhood and old age approaching death, and his Diana and Actaeon (on loan from the Duke of Sutherland), which was painted more than four decades later and took three years to complete. It's a huge picture (190cm x 207cm) and a complex composition which tells the story of the hunter who accidentally came across the chaste Roman goddess and her female attendants bathing. As a punishment, Actaeon was turned into a stag and was subsequently hunted down and torn to pieces by his own dogs.

Arbroath Academy's principal teacher of art, Joe Smernicki, and two other members of his department, accompanied 40 S4-S6 pupils to the exhibition.

He said: "These types of paintings don't immediately speak to you, so the tour was designed to get the kids to respond. It wasn't a case of: 'Here's a set of facts, stand there and listen.' It was: 'Who are these people in the painting?' So they had to try to work out what was going on, which I think is great. The kids got engrossed in the stories of the paintings.

"My colleagues and I were learning things as well, so it's also a professional development opportunity.

"We've been going to Edinburgh for the past five years, visiting the RSA building and the Gallery of Modern Art. We saw the Monet last year, which was very accessible.

"Although we don't touch Titian in the curriculum, I knew that the education department could be trusted to offer something that would be appropriate.

"We'll be going to the Cezanne exhibition next year, which we do as part of the curriculum, so it's very relevant."

Also available during The Age of Titian exhibition are digital imaging workshops for P5-P7 and S1-S2 classes to create carnival masks. Contact David Mackay, tel 0131 624 6410

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