Puzzle of what art is all about

5th November 2004 at 00:00
Art Detectives Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Coach touring Fife until June tel 01592 412860

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

Every picture tells a story and to help children appreciate that, the best of Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery's Victorian paintings is touring Fife in a converted double-decker bus.

The travelling exhibition, called Art Detectives, has been created especially for primary schools, with a view to breaking down the barriers that prevent many primary teachers from dealing confidently with art appreciation as a classroom subject.

Mac, the museum and art coach, has already been visited by more than 7,000 people at primary schools and community venues since the tour began.

"We decided to create a Mac show that concentrated on art and the stories behind paintings," says Janice Crane, the outreach officer for Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery.

"Victorians, in particular, loved art with a story and we have a fine collection of work from that era. In addition, all primary schools study the Victorians as a topic, which makes this exhibition even more relevant to the curriculum. But the main aim of Art Detectives is to show that looking at art is fun and interesting and that everyone is entitled to an opinion on what a painting is about."

While some primary teachers might lack confidence where understanding art is concerned, their pupils seem to have no such qualms. The P5 and P6 pupils at Kirkcaldy North Primary, in the company of their headteacher, Carolyn McFarlane, did not hesitate to speak out when Mac driver and exhibition guide Dave Shields asked them what was going on in The Smugglers by George Ogilvy Reid.

Helping to interpret The Smugglers, and the other paintings in the exhibition, are a pair of attractive cartoon characters who carry on a simple dialogue along the walls of the coach.

They explain: "Smugglers break the law by sneaking stuff from one country to another without paying taxes on it. This gang could be smuggling anything from tobacco to rum."

Reid's action-packed seascape is enhanced with the addition of sound effects to illustrate what you would hear if you were at the scene. These include waves crashing, seagulls screeching and someone shouting "Heave to!" which, as Mr Shields explains to the pupils, is the sailor's way of saying turn right.

Spring Moonlight, John Henry Lorimer's delightful painting of a young mother dancing with a baby in her arms, is accompanied by the sounds of singing, piano playing and a child laughing. Asked by Mr Shields how we can tell that the woman is dancing, young Sarah replies: "The artist has made her look like she is."

"Yes," he agrees. "The artist has painted movement in his picture."

Art Detectives features 22 paintings but only four are originals, displayed behind protective Perspex. The others are reproductions which can be touched and examined with magnifying glasses. The subjects include a washing day scene, workers in a field, formal portraits and a woman with a toddler in a pink dress, entitled His Mother's Joy. This puzzles the children: what is a boy doing in what is obviously a frock? The answer requires a lesson in Victorian fashion.

At the end of their visit, Mrs McFarlane asks her pupils what they have learnt. "That you can see a lot in a picture if you really look. But sometimes you have to stand back to see things," says Thomas.

Art Detectives is accompanied by an teachers' pack and includes activities such as dressing up and self-portraiture. Contact Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery, tel 01592 412860

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