Horace once said that “a picture is a poem without words.” What this is really speaking to is the expressiveness of an image. Often art can help to capture the essence of piece of writing and therefore bring out the emotions and purpose of a piece of literature.
However, I don’t think I need to convince you. I think a primary reason why English teachers don’t use more art in the classroom is not because they don’t think it serves a purpose but because they don’t know which pieces best match the literature they teach in class. Therefore, the purpose of today isn’t necessarily to justify the use of art in the classroom or advise teachers on how to implement art. Instead, I’m going to suggest pieces of artwork that pair nicely with commonly known texts in an English classroom. Tomorrow, I’ll present activities that will help students analyze the connection between the art and the texts.
Most of the artists I will suggest fall under the Cubist movement. While not exclusive to the list, I think these work best because they are so abstract that
students won’t be tempted to connect the painting and the text by subject matter.
When teaching texts that involve an introspective look at the main character or
that features a character that faces internal struggles, Picasso is an excellent resource. Picasso often features a singular subject in a distorted perspective. Because of this, it can be explored how Picasso paintings reflect the struggles of the character. This particular painting of Picasso’s known as El Sueno, conveys a woman who appears passive and at peace, while her head is being split in two and is surrounded by bold, contrasting colors. This piece would work well with texts like Picture of Dorian Grey, Oedipus Rex, and Catcher in the Rye.
It is relatively easy to find images of men and women. But, when teaching texts that portray complex relationships between men and women it is more challenging to find a painting that fully depicts the intricacy. However, the iconic image American Gothic, by Grant Wood, is an excellent depiction of the ways in which men and women interact. The shifting use of lines (rounded for the woman and landscape and angular for the man and house) brings out a contrast between genders and leads viewers into a discussion of power and how it is manifested by people. This certainly works for pieces like Daisy Miller and A Doll’s House. However, if teaching Shakespearean pieces, such as Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and King Lear, you might want to consider using a more connotative piece like Titian’s Venus and Adonis. Unlike the Wood piece, this painting reflects a sense of urgency and movement in the positioning of the figures. Students might also explore the role of power within a relationship by exploring the use of coloring and skin tone for the woman, Venus, and how it contrasts the rich-colored clothing of the man, Adonis. Also, the fact that the setting of the image takes place before Adonis is killed in a hunt provides students with context to consider the seriousness of a quest or journey that takes place within the story.
Even though they vary greatly in subject, Animal Farm, Heart of Darkness, Anne Frank, and even Mrs. Dalloway, profile an easily understandable subject matter in a very distorted way. The same is true with the Cubist painters. For these particular works, I would consider using pretty much any work from Picasso, or, specifically, the image from Georges Braque titled Still Life: Le Jour. This oil painting features a still life, in which an artist has placed on a table a series of items to be painted. However, Braque takes these common items and alters them to suggest a disfigured view of life. While it might not explicitly connect to the pieces of fiction, students can engage in a discussion about the ways in which an ordinary details is treated in a very extraordinary manner. Students might also analyze the perspective Braque provides the viewer on depth (especially the ways in which the table appears to “grow”), which could metaphorically represent the shifting depths of a character or plot point.
When reading pieces about revenge or discord between men, like Hamlet or Of Mice and Men, a softer, more sensitive side to death can be explored through the piece from Jacques-Louis David titled Death of Marat and features David’s constructed view of Marat’s, a French Revolutionary leader, death. In this image, Marat is bathed in light and appears almost angelic or revered because of this. David’s use of chiaroscuro, a shading from dark to light, highlights the vulnerability of this fallen leader and transforms the way critics see him. This also helps establish a sense of vulnerability because of the facial features of Marat and the fact that he appears unarmed in the bath. Students might consider how this portrayal mimics the loss of a leader. An image like this could even work for any text when trying to bring out sincerity for a character who has fallen.
Finally, one of my favorite pieces doesn’t necessarily fit a theme. It really just captures a time period: American Modernism. I love using the sketch from Man Ray, Joan Miro, Yves Tanguy, and Max Morise titled Exquisite Corpse when teaching pieces from Hemingway or Fitzgerald. Specifically, the image draws a natural parallel between The Great Gatsby and the relationship between Daisy and Gatsby. The image calls into question the role of society in a relationship and the ways in which a relationship can reflect the values of a time period. Because of the joining of heads and the colors used, students can always engage in a really thorough discussion of how it connects to the novel or comparable works like “Winter Dreams,” or Hemingway’s “The End of Something.”