Teaching Art History through the Visual Culture of Contemporary Film | A. A. Sieunarine

I have been teaching a foundation course in Art History at Boricua College for two years. Although all the students live in New York City, home to a plethora of art museums and galleries, getting them to look at art seemed like an arduous chore. After many lectures and slide shows I realized this method had lost its effectiveness. As I entered through the majestic grand entrance way and staircase of the prominent architectural structure of the college (Audubon Terrace, a landmark early-20th century Beaux Arts/American Renaissance built in 1907) I thought about finding a way to connect the old with the new. How  could I paste the past visuals of old histories, art and artifacts within present human existence and help my students connect it to their contemporary world?


To start, I identified contemporary films that integrated the art and artifacts of ancient cultures with the present day.  As an experiment, I showed the memorable ending of the film Tess of the D’Urbervilles that displayed the ancient megalithic ruins of Stonehenge, commonly believed in Thomas Hardy’s time to be a pagan temple and an ancient burial site. The visual imagery of Tess laying on the ruin, and the sun emerging thoughtfully behind her, created a moving contemporary visual of a pre-historic monumental past.

In the discussion that followed the students made the connection of Stonehenge being an ancient burial site and they said that perhaps Tess’ soul would rest there after her impending death. They were fascinated with how writers and filmmakers re-introduced ancient places and imagery with fantasies and people of the present. One student said that Tess lying on the stone, made the rocks alive with the presence of death, like what it was meant for in the past – a burial ground. This new visual perspective created a dynamic class discussion about fantasy and reality.


The students were alert and excited with the new approach. Integrating an excerpt of a contemporary film into teaching ancient art incited their curiosity. I wondered what would happen if I showed an entire film. Would the students get bored or loose track of the art history objectives while watching the film? I introduced Baroque art with the 17th Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s work through the film, The Girl With a Pearl Earring which fictionalized the creation of Vermeer’s painting. I was a bit concerned that the students may not have the capacity to sit through the slow-paced film, but when I told them that Scarlet Johansson was the lead actress they were eager and excited. I decided not to show any visuals of Vermeer’s paintings until the end of the film, as I wanted them to extract the characteristics of Baroque art from the visual imagery in the film.


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As they watched the movie, I watched the students. Some stared at the screen with starry eyes, while others had conversations with each other. One student asked “Why was Johansson so white? Is she really that white? Look at her skin, it’s as white as her head tie.” One male student who claimed to be in love with Johansson looked intently at her sultry performance as Griet, Vermeer’s assistant and ultimate sitter, with a penetrating gaze. I realized then that they were smitten with the actress and wondered if they had the sensitivity to see the Baroque-ness of magical play of light and color? At the end of the film, as Griet slowly opened the handkerchief that was sent to her by Vermeer, I heard one student say, “It’s those pearl earring, I bet you it is.” As the lights went on another student said, “I felt as if I just saw a living painting.” The students described the film as a magical experience and how they felt as if they were a part of the 17th century Dutch streets. We discussed how the film transcended time and place of a historical novel, which was based on the semblance of Vermeer’s life, and how the story itself was just that – a story.

Still, they argued that it felt so real, like a true story of how the Girl with a Pearl Earring was painted and that they understood the history behind paints and the importance of light in Vermeer’s paintings.  They saw the contrast of the whitest white and the darkest dark, and they gave examples of scenes in the film. One student said there was a white light that glowed throughout the film. The emotional impact of the film left us all in a trance filled with images of bursting beauty that no text or words could equate. Need I say that the students captured the Baroque-ness effortlessly?

The next week in class we looked at slides of Vermeer’s paintings and they realized only then that they saw almost all of his paintings in the film. With excitement, a student said she went into a coffee shop and was startled to see a print of the painting Girl With a Peal Earring on the wall looking at her. She said, “If I had not seen the film I would not have known who she was.” “That was done by Vermeer a Baroque artist,” she said she told her friend who was with her.

Understanding ancient art through contemporary film became a new paradigm in my pedagogical practice and seemed like a successful attempt to bring old cultures into the ever-changing classrooms of the 21st century. But, I was left wondering if an unknown actress would have had the same impact on the students. When I said, “Next week we will look at the film Persepolis,” one student asked, “Will Scarlet Johansson be in it?”

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