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Thanks for the Memoir

Feliks Topolski's Memoir represents not only a visual history of the 20th century but also an opportunity for diverse schools and pupils to work together. Heather Neill explains

Feliks Topolski's "Memoir of the Century" is both a unique gallery and a fascinating resource: it could provide endless material for history and citizenship students as well as artists and their teachers. Three London schools have recently made this hidden treasure the focus of an experiment which might be copied in other cities by taking similar advantage of their local galleries. The "Memoir" is a few minutes' walk away from the Royal Festival Hall in London, where there is a row of railway arches. Visitors go through a rough entrance into one of these, directly into a musty space, to be confronted by an enormous winding mural spreading over curved panels for more than 600 feet.

Here is a visual history of the 20th century, as observed first-hand by artist and chronicler Topolski, from his birth in Warsaw in 1907 to his death in 1989.

One day in September, the young people taking part in "the Topolski project" met here for the first time with their teachers after the artist's son, Daniel Topolski, had suggested mixing people from different parts of the education system in a shared enterprise. This was taken up by the head of Westminster School, where Daniel had himself been a student. Seven students from Westminster School, in their final year and preparing for art history A-level, paired with three GCSE art students from nearby Notre Dame School and five from Kelmscott School in Walthamstow. They enjoyed Topolski's daughter Teresa's enthusiastic tour of her father's work and immediately set about planning their joint responses.

There is an immediacy in Topolski's free-flowing style and a mix of media which makes the work instantly attractive to young people. The teachers - Pam Stone (Kelmscott), Jacqueline Cockburn (Westminster) and Geraldine Hine (Notre Dame) - were delighted at the way the groups (a mixture of boys and girls, of public and state school students) set to the task, quickly coming up with a shortlist of ideas.

A journalist, as well as an artist and illustrator, Topolski travelled widely and took an interest in everything from war to pop music, literature to politics, psychology to sex and fashion.

There are portraits of his children, paintings (all done in Dulux) of Nazis on the march, of cardinals in Rome, the Nuremberg trials, the Swinging Sixties and the Vietnam war, of Black Panthers, the Berlin Wall, Harold Wilson and his shadow cabinet in the 1970s, of Nehru, Churchill and dozens of writers, actors, painters, heads of state, celebrities and thinkers, from Laurence Olivier to George V, Bernard Shaw to Mussolini. Sometimes a piece of print or a photograph is included, giving an unexpected, tactile texture. A smaller "cave", off the main area, houses Topolski's "Chronicle", a record of events which he produced on a different subject fortnightly and distributed - 2,000 copies at a time - for a number of years.

The students aimed to make pieces of work which reflect this diversity, using a variety of media and expressing their own emotional and intellectual responses to art and current affairs. Their main method of communication - email - was not available to Topolski, but they have also enjoyed meeting and talking.

The GCSE students undertook artwork, while the art history students have researched and written about the shared subject so that both can be displayed simultaneously.

Several Saturday discussion sessions, all at Kelmscott School, have taken place since that first meeting in September. At one session, in November, Chidimma Chukwu (Notre Dame) was working with Orlando Reade (Westminster) on a collage that included newsprint. Orlando said: "We are interested in the way Topolski dealt with celebrities, and the way we do now. So we've gone for the Kate Moss-Pete Docherty story as reported in the newspapers."

They are linking this to the 1960s subjects in the "Memoir". Chidimma (one of three from her school's "gifted and talented" strand) was making progress with the collage, Orlando adding drawings to his piece of writing.

Lucien Trestler from Westminster School is interested in the way "the tragic can be beautiful through the transforming power of art". He and two companions, Izzy Finkel (Westminster) and Sahariyea Siddique (Kelmscott), were working on ideas to do with dying for faith (inspired by Topolski's representations of a self-immolating Buddhist monk and Malcolm X) and with modern multiculturalism.

Lucien spray-canned a print of Michelangelo's Pieta while his collaborators superimposed Topolski figures and others from around the world on to London scenes sprayed red, white and blue. Shabina Mahmood (Kelmscott) and Holly Phillips (Westminster), fascinated by the the image of personal documents and real photographs falling out of a dying soldier's pocket, worked on ways to do something similar, including their idea of the soldier's thoughts and feelings, printed out and "aged".

Tola Awogboro (Notre Dame) was writing poetry to accompany photographs by Nikolai Cedraeus (Westminster) to illustrate how people perceive Topolski's work - the language, colour and line. "My words will be printed in colour beside Nikolai's black and white photos," Tola said. Some of these would feature the rickety frame on wheels which Topolski used when in order to paint at height. "I love it as something he used which also frames the work. I'm interested in the angles of perception," Nikolai said.

When the project was complete, Pam Stone said: "I was delighted with the outcomes. Topolski's work was a great inspiration. I thought the collaboration with Westminster School very successful."

Jacqueline Cockburn added: "I was really happy with the project. All the students participated well and enjoyed meeting and working with each other despite their age difference. They viewed each other's work at the final meeting with great interest and a critical eye."

A gratifying side effect of the project has been the establishment of friendships - some e-conversations now include music and other subjects - and an intention by the teachers to continue the relationship between their schools.

* Information, including pictures about "Memoir of the Century" and this project

A decision on Heritage Lottery Funding, necessary for the survival of the Memoir, is expected in March

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