When studying art in a social studies classroom, students can be introduced to two interconnected goals. One is to better understand the historical moment in which the art was created and how this context informs the work. The other is to directly respond to the image itself, learning from observation and attention to the visual language used by the artist. With deepening understanding of Soviet nonconformist art these goals are intimately connected. As students parse drawings, prints, and paintings and reflect on their own responses to them, they experience that “co-creative” viewership that the Soviet state found so threatening. The meaning of the work is not static or didactic; rather, it is deliberately intended to honor the ways in which individual identity informs and changes a viewer’s experience.
Communicating and Close Looking with Images
Creating images as a means of reflection (either before viewing works of art or as a response to them) can help students to understand the power of visual language by asking them to communicate with it themselves.
Image: Fly on the Apple by Viktor Pivovarov.
Classroom Prompts and Activities
- Give students five to ten minutes to depict one of several ideas or emotions, such as power, solitude, connection, opposition, resistance, or freedom, using only lines and geometric shapes.
- Have students trade and respond to one another’s sketches. What feelings or ideas are evoked for them when looking at their classmate’s sketches?
- Ask students to reflect on the choices they made when creating their sketches. What shapes did they use? How were the elements positioned in relation to one another and the larger page? How did they use these marks to evoke an emotion, theme, or idea? Did they use lines and shapes to depict recognizable forms such as people and objects, or did they depict more abstract images? Did their classmates’ responses match their intention? Why might this be?
Nonconformist prints, paintings, and drawings are densely populated with objects, faces, shapes, and landscapes. Having students begin by simply noting what they see can help them “enter into” a work that might at first seem inscrutable. Adding some structure to this process can help students to make thorough and precise observations.
- Ask students to see how many observations they can independently make about an image in three minutes, and then compare with their classmates.
- Go around in a circle, each student naming something they see in the image without repeating anything noted by a previous classmate.
Recreating the image can prompt even deeper student observation than close looking alone. Ask students to sketch the image independently. Or, have students team up with classmates to recreate the composition with their own bodies and classroom furniture. For the latter exercise, ask students to identify four or five key elements of the composition (figures, shapes, lines, etc.). Then, have them each stand in for one of these elements, mimicking its form and position with their stance to create a frozen tableau. Drawing a line or extending an arm to mimic a curve that they see can help students to reflect further on their own associations with these visual elements. After re-creating an image in this way, or while watching other students do so, ask students to reflect on the following questions:
- Do the people or abstract forms seem to be cowering? Standing tall?
- Are they crowded or isolated? Moving away from the viewer or engaging them directly?
- When mimicking the position of a shape or posture of a person in the image, do they feel dynamic (in mid-motion) or static (fixed to the spot they are on)?
- Does this feel like a powerful position to be in? Does it feel like a weak or vulnerable position to be in? What is the effect of this in the image?
- Where does the eye go first when viewing this image? How does it travel among the different elements of the image?
- Is the image symmetrical or asymmetrical? If asymmetrical, what is placed in the central part of the image? What is placed along the side? What is the effect of this?
- Is there repetition in the image? If so, what is repeated? What is the effect of this?
Responding and Engaging
How do building blocks of visual language (shape, form, color) combine to communicate with the viewer? How do students’ own perspectives influence their response to the visual language? The following activities, focusing on viewer response to images, invite students into these questions. (This method is modeled after the “Personal Response Tours” developed by Ray Williams, former Director of Education at Harvard’s Sackler Museums.)
Classroom Prompts and Activities
Begin by posting multiple images around the classroom, or by projecting images onto a screen at the front of the room. After students have had a chance to look closely at three or four images, ask them to select one of the prompts below and find an image that evokes the topic or theme.
- Choose a painting that makes you think about power.
- Choose a painting that makes you think about danger.
- Choose a painting that makes you think about rebellion.
- Choose a painting that makes you think about sadness.
Ask students to share their choices with the class and explain:
- What elements of the image’s visual language evoked the theme you chose?
- What elements of your own perspective, associations, experiences, or memories do you think contributed to your response to the image?
As students transition from close looking into more expansive thinking about the images they are viewing, it may also be useful to structure student response using a Visible Thinking methods. (These response methods were developed through Project Zero’s art and education research at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.) The routines ask students to begin with their own close looking and observations and use these as insight and evidence to generate larger questions about an image, and perhaps its context and creator.
Claim-Support-Question: Make a Claim about the image; Give Support to your claim; Ask a Question related to your claim.
Know-Puzzle-Explore: What do you think you know about this image? What questions or puzzles do you have? What does this image make you want to explore?
In anticipation of connecting insights to historical context, teachers may want to focus these routines by asking students to make inferences about the social and political environment occupied by the artists.
Image: Untitled by Evgeny Rukhin.
Classroom Prompts and Activities
Have students pick an image to recreate or “translate” into an alternate visual style of their choosing. How might they express a similar feeling or elicit a similar response from a conceptual collage through a surrealist drawing? What elements of the visual vocabulary could students change while demonstrating a response or reference back to the original work?
Connecting to historical context
As students explore the meaning and impact of these images, they are slowly widening their view to take in more and more of what scholar S. Brent Plate calls the “field of vision” surrounding an image. After looking closely and considering their own perspectives, students now step back even further to look outside the borders of page and print. Students can then be invited to consider how knowledge of the contexts in which images were originally created informs their understanding of the work’s meaning and significance.
Classroom Prompts and Activities
Discussion Prompts: Power and Subversion
- Ask students to think back to the images they initially chose in connection to the themes of power, danger, rebellion, or sadness. After learning more about the historical context in which these images were created, how do the students now see power and resistance expressed in these images? How might the artists who created these images understand their connections to power and resistance?
- Ask students to create three lists of adjectives: one listing words they would use to describe the image, one listing words the creator of the work would use to describe it, and the third listing words a Soviet state official might use to describe it. What are the similarities and differences among these lists? What accounts for these similarities and differences?
Discussion Prompts: Realism
- Individually or as a group, ask students to define the word “realistic.” What are the different ways in which people use this word? What does it mean for a book or a movie to be “realistic”? Can something be realistic to one person and not to another?
- Have students view examples of socialist realism, for example, “Lenin With Villagers” (Evdokiya Usikova, 1959) and “Happy Reuniting” (Fedor Ivanovich Deryazhny, 1950), both of which are available from this online gallery. Do these paintings seem “realistic” to them? In what ways are these paintings “realistic”? Based on the historical moment they portray, in what ways are they unrealistic? Whose reality is being portrayed in these images? Realism is a style that is said to “mirror the world.” In what ways do abstract or surreal works of nonconformist art “mirror the world”?
Discussion Prompt: Viewer Experience and Community
- Return to the students’ experience as viewers of nonconformist art. How did it feel to engage with a visual image whose meaning is intentionally unclear? Was it frustrating? Enjoyable? How did it feel to hear about other students’ observations of these images? The Soviet state believed art would support the formation of community when all individuals came away with the same understanding of a work of art. How might students respond to this assertion based on their own experience with viewing both realist and nonconformist art?