Lesson Plan For High School Art Teachers: Identifying Expression in Art
At IPMM, many of our exercises for teachers are geared towards younger students. We wanted to rope our high school art teacher community in as well, by publishing a series of lesson plans designed for an older crowd. Today’s lesson plan explores expression in art, using visual analysis and art history.
As you go through the following information with your students, spend time examining the accompanying pieces of art. If you can, project them in front of the class. Lead a 5-10 minute visual analysis of the image. Ask students to respond with what they see and how it makes them feel. Focus on line, color, pattern, tactility, and other visual qualities. There are no wrong answers, as expression brings out lots of different emotions in different people. After the visual analysis, share a bit about the piece and the artist. Discuss how the information changes how students view the painting, or how it may be in line with many of their visual observations.
Introduction to Expression
Expression is the reflection of deeply emotional, non-rational states in art. Expression shows up in art of all styles and periods, through line, color, and gesture. Expression is often considered to be the opposite of realism or naturalism. Instead of portraying things as they actually are, expression in art allows the artist to express subjectivity and internal states of being and thinking in their artwork.
Expression in art is not new! It is a characteristic of artwork stretching back to the Ancient World. For example, Michelangelo’s Pieta utilizes dramatic drapery, curving, organic lines, and lumpy, mottled textures to bring the scene of mourning and loss to life.
Edvard Munch’s The Scream is a famous example of expression in artwork. A ghostly figure stands on a bridge, clutching his face in a bone-chilling scream. The bright and unnatural color, linework and movement in the painting add to the intense emotion portrayed in the image.
Expression can take many forms, but it is usually characterized by a stylistic departure from reality.
The Impressionists were focused on capturing a moment in time and space–an impression. They wanted to translate the impression onto the canvas, with all of the light, movement, dimension, and atmosphere. Rather than a realistic, logical portrayal of space through shadow, lines, and angles, the Impressionists wanted to convey how it felt to be present and alive in that space. For instance, Monet’s lines are dynamic, textured, and organic. They reflect how water might move when the wind ripples it, or how the sun illuminates a field of flowers.
The Impressionists were working in the late 19th and early 20th century. Many art historians believe that the Impressionists were reacting to the Industrial Revolution. While the world around them sped up, they slowed down. They laboriously worked to capture the feeling of a single moment. Their style was expressive, but their subjects were still purely external.
Questions to ask students:
- How does texture change the feeling of these paintings?
- How do the visible brushstrokes make the natural features of plants, water, and air seem more organic?
- How does Monet convey movement in these pieces?
- Why do you think that the people are left abstracted and less detailed?
- What do you think the weather was like at the moment of each painting? The time of day?
However, after WWI tore across Europe, a new kind of art exploded onto the scene. Expressionism sought to present a wide range of human emotion, in all of its depth. In Expressionist art, an image is untethered from reality. Instead, unnatural colors and lines are used to communicate the mood and emotions of the artist. Often, these pieces focused on rage, loss, fear, disgust, and other negative emotions stemming from the aftermath of WWI. Expressionism lasted for several decades, reacting to the new horrors of the Spanish Civil War, WWII and the Holocaust.
Examine Self-Portrait as a Soldier by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. It takes the familiar setting of the artist’s studio and turns it into a setting for a complex psychodrama. Kirchner is dressed in a soldier’s uniform and smoking a cigarette. His hand has been amputated at the wrist and a nude model stands behind him. The harsh colors and jagged lines are disturbing and discomforting.
Kirchner served in WWI, though he never actually fought. His health was very bad and he was eventually discharged. The amputation in the painting is meant to be a metaphor for how veterans and soldiers were discarded by the German government when they were no longer fit to serve.
Questions to ask students:
- How are Kirchner’s brushstrokes different from Monet’s? What mood do Kirchner’s brushstrokes convey?
- Why do you think he chose to simplify the background of this piece? What effect does the background have on the painting as a whole?
- Who is the woman in the background? What does her simplified form and expression communicate? Why does she seem to be trapped in a box?
Although Pablo Picasso is remembered for his invention of Cubism, his paintings often fell into the Expressionist camp. Guernica by Pablo Picasso is perhaps the most famous anti-war painting of all time. He painted it after the Spanish Civil War, shocked and horrified by what he had observed in his own home country. The grayscale painting is full of screaming faces, decapitated body parts, and panicked animals. However, there is no blood and gore, and Picasso’s composition is very abstract. The horrors of war are all there in expressive black and white. There is no specific scene from the Spanish Civil War portrayed by Picasso and the painting has become an enduring anti-war symbol across the world.
Questions to ask students:
- How does the overlapping and confusing composition of Guernica communicate an anti-war message?
- How do the jagged and criss-crossing lines affect the mood of the painting?
- Does the grayscale change your perception of the painting? Does it make Guernica more horrifying?
In the 1950s, Expressionism took another leap into the abstract. Abstract Expressionists got rid of form and image altogether, relying purely on lines and color to communicate mood. Soft lines versus hard lines, texture, movement and interruption weave stories and moods. Color is hugely important, as is layering and blending.
Helen Frankenthaler was famous for her hand-poured paintings. She laid untreated canvas on the floor and poured paint onto it with only minimal control, allowing the paint to pool and spread organically. Examine Tutti-Frutti. The swaths of bright color intersect and sometimes blend together. There is dimensionality, depth, and movement.
Questions to ask students:
- How does Tutti-Frutti make you feel? What emotions or experiences come to mind?
- How do the colors interact with each other, especially at the meeting points?
- What does the vertical composition of the color swaths make you think about?
- Do you think Tutti-Frutti is easier to understand and access than the other paintings we’ve looked at? Is it harder?
Russian painter, Wassily Kandinsky, painted images informed by music and spirituality. He listened to classical music and painted the images he felt were conjured up. His shapes and symbols sometimes look like another language. Composition VIII is one such painting. The shapes and lines intersect and interact with each other, creating connections and new meanings. He used expression to conjure up universal human themes like death, birth, loss, and love.
Questions to ask students:
- Can you see the influence of music in Composition VIII? Where does it show up?
- What role do the black lines play in the composition?
- What emotions are inspired by this painting? Does Kandinsky achieve his goal of portraying universal human experiences?
En Plein Air: An Impressionist Adventure
Go outside with your class on a warmer day. Find somewhere to sit together with sketchbooks and paint or colored pencils. Ask your class to spend 30-45 minutes trying to capture an impression of the world around them. Stress that they shouldn’t focus on accurate lines or perspective, but that they should try to prioritize light, movement, and feeling. Color can and should be experimented with to try to capture the expressive feeling of the moment. Remind them that texture and different kinds of lines are useful for different aspects of the image. Short lines or dots can be layered to render the appearance of wind rustling through grass. Long, organic lines can be used to suggest clouds and sunshine.
The Impressionists often painted outside, spending long days with an easel and a picnic lunch in the French countryside. It’s a great way to experiment and spend time understanding teh infinite ways to set the world around you onto a page.
We’ve all attempted the self-portrait in one way or another, whether an artistic selfie or a sketch. Ask you students to use collaging materials, paint, colored pencils, and anything else they have access to in order to create their own Expressionist self-portrait. Ask them to pick something about themselves they want to exaggerate or toy with. These self-portraits can communicate complicated emotions, internal conflict, or difficult periods of growth. Tell your students to try out interesting colors, strange lines, and visual opposites. Adding in collaged portions is a fun way to juxtapose different areas of the composition or make a specific portion pop.
Expressionists often used the portrait or self-portrait to communicate feelings about the world and current events in a very intimate and internal way. Human beings filter external events through their unique experiences and perceptions. Expressionists attempt to capture this process of cognition through visual art.
Stay tuned for our next high school lesson plan, which will focus on recognizing symbolism in artwork. Please send us feedback if you put this lesson plan into practice! How can we improve? What worked well for you?
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