Professor Darius Spieth’s history of prints course students are taking matters into their own hands.
Instead of reviewing artwork on a slideshow, students in the experiential learning class received a behind-the-scenes look at gallery curation through the LSU Museum of Art’s current exhibition, Bonjour Au Revoir Surréalisme. The Surrealist exhibition features a selection of 60 works on loan from the family of printmaker and painter Georges Visat.
The students each researched an artist featured in the exhibition and crafted summaries contextualizing his or her work. Participants examined the collection ahead of its debut to get an up-close-and-personal experience with the prints, helping them better understand their artist’s techniques and creative inspiration, Spieth said.
The Surrealist artists on display include Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, René Magritte and Hans Bellmer, whom Visat collaborated with in the 1950s and 60s at his printing press in the Parisian art district of Saint-Germaine-des-Prés.
During a 2013 research expedition in France, Spieth met Visat’s son-in-law in the small southwestern town of Pau and a partnership was born. Visat’s family wanted to bring his achievements back into the public eye and Spieth saw a rare opportunity to bring authentic works by Surrealist masters to the Baton Rouge community.
The resulting show marks the first time the prints have been exhibited in the United States since the late 1960s, Spieth said.
Prints are typically underexplored in standard art curricula, but the medium plays an important role in the history of civilization and modern life. Viewing a print exhibition helps students better understand printmaking’s role in fine arts and society, he said.
“This is an opportunity to appreciate these contributions because oftentimes you hear about artists and painters, and these are famous names, but you don’t really hear about printmakers,” Spieth said. “This is an opportunity to learn more about prints, printmaking techniques, the importance of prints in the fine arts and the role of prints in disseminating images.”
Surrealism is an accessible introduction to the printmaking medium. The movement was one of the most popular avant-garde styles in the 20th century and its psychological explorations still feel fresh today, he said.
More than 100 artists were formally inducted into the movement by its founder, French writer André Breton, and many aren’t taught in the traditional art history canon, Spieth said. Getting a more personal look at a talented but lesser known artist helped expand art history junior Matthew Cohn’s perception of the movement, Cohn said.
Cohn profiled Cuban expatriate Jorge Camacho and said he developed a deeper connection with the artist’s work through his research. Understanding how Fidel Castro’s regime and the Communist revolution influenced Camacho’s style and iconography is important to absorb the full depth of his work, he said.
Architecture senior Sarah Eikrem said understanding context and art history’s role in contemporary life is a vital facet of art appreciation.
“History doesn’t happen in a vacuum and neither does life,” Eikrem said. “Knowing what people did and how they responded to different things in the past, and how art has evolved and changed, can foreshadow what could potentially happen in the future.”
Aside from the course’s deep dive into contextualizing art history, the experience was also beneficial because of the skills the students learned. Working with the museum challenged the students to break out of the siloed University environment and expand their skills, she said.
Eikrem said the museum partnership pushed students to develop stronger communication and research skills, practice project management and be accountable as part of a larger team. Most importantly, it let them dig deeper into their passions and use them to excite other people about learning, she said.
Though every course participant isn’t an art history major, Spieth said the benefits of the hands-on learning experience are wide ranging.
“In most instances, if you take a class you turn [an assignment] in to your professor and the professor reads it, hopefully, and you get a grade and that’s the end of the story,” Spieth said. “Hopefully this will give the students a sense of the bigger picture.”