Monday, March 11, 2013

Continuing Education at the Rhode Island School of Design

The Metcalf Lecture Hall in RISD's Design Center (30 North Main Street in Providence) struck me as a rather tired space used for occasional storage of overflow items, and generally not very clean. The desks were all right-hand designed for pre-teens, and the lighting hadn’t received attention for some time as indicated by the bare light bulb dangling from one of the recessed lighting cans. Tacky.

This was probably state-of-the-art 30 (or maybe 40!) years ago; through the glass window into the A/V booth in the rear of the room you could see an 16mm (?) movie projector and a slide projector, which was used to project the slides for the presentation itself. The only item remotely relevant to the 21st century was the use of a ceiling mounted video projector.

The Presentation
The slides used were old, washed out and quite a few suffered from being poorly cropped; one was even out of focus.

The instructor was, in a word, terrible. To begin with, much of his talk revolved around use of the word "uh" and oftentimes it was used every second, third or fourth word, much like the teens today use the word "like." Very distracting and quite the nuisance.

The instructor would often finish a sentence with "and stuff" or in one case "blah blah." In fact, he occasionally just left a sentence hanging, unfinished. Quite unprofessional.

But it was the instructor’s lack of knowledge about the subject that was really at the heart of my profound disappointment.

1. For example, one of Manet's two works held by the RISD Museum is "In the Tuileries Garden," and the instructor referred to it as simply" in a park" when even an amateur like myself knows how important the context was for the Impressionists and certainly for Manet. The instructor mentioned in passing that there some of Manet’s acquaintances and even Manet himself in the painting and yet he didn’t point out who those individuals were – possibly because he didn’t know? In any case, it was, again, unprofessional.

2. Regarding another slide, of the painting "The Plum," the instructor pulled the image on the screen and then proceeded to talk not about the painting so much as about how the subject, a woman nursing a cigarette and a glass of brandy with a plum in it,was representative of the "hook-up generation of the 19th century." No discussion of the painting itself or the model, just a wildly fanciful context that he thought might titillate.

At one point he talked about how the Eskimos have so many words for snow and the French had so many words for single women in the 19th century but that he didn’t bring his dictionary so he couldn’t tell us what they were.

3. But his most profound errors came not once but twice.

First, he referred to the painting "Berthe Morisot with a Bunch of Violets,” one of Manet's most well-known portraits of Morisot (who, as an aside, is given short shrift by the instructor) as "Morisot in Mourning"! Now certainly someone who was unfamiliar with Manet's work might make this assumption; the instructor shouldn't have.

Second, he pulled up the slide "In the Conservatory," which prompted the instructor to start talking about a RISD student (?) working on a robotics study and "oh, doesn't the woman look like an android?"

At first that seemed to be the sole extent of his artistic analysis of the painting – but then he says, "oh and I believe that's a self-portrait of Manet." In point of fact, the couple were Mr. and Mrs. Antoine Guillemet, close friends of Manet – and Antoine was also one of the subjects in Manet’s “The Balcony,” a point either lost on or unknown to the instructor.

4. There was no organization or structure to the presentation. He never set a theme or a set of ideas to explore or art concepts to discuss.

As we sat in the dark for most of the class, the instructor began his presentation with a self-portrait by Manet and rambled on with little direction. In fact, after about 10 minutes or so staring at the same slide in the dark, fighting off the urge to close my eyes and drift off, he flashed a painting of a reclining nude copied by Manet from the Louvre. The instructor then launched into a brief discussion of Manet's parents and family -- and it struck me "why not show the painting Manet did of his mother and father?" which is itself often used in studies of Manet's work.

Finally, it seemed that the instructor lacked any real passion for either Manet or art in general; it was if he was just going through the motions, sitting in the dark saying the same thing about the same slides he's been saying for who knows how many years. And this lack of respect not only for Manet’s art but for the intelligence of his students was not only disappointing in the extreme but shameful.

By contrast, and perhaps a lesson for the Continuing Education department, I’ve taken two wonderful midday discussions in the RISD Museum, one discussing Louise Belmont’s painting “View of Paris from the Louvre,” and the other  Joseph Chinard's’s gorgeous bust of Juliette Recamier. About an hour in length, both of those talks were intelligent, thought-provoking, insightful, and respectful of the intelligence of the audience, and held in front of the works themselves – and all for free. Elements sadly and utterly absent in the presentation by Robin Wiseman.

As for me, I'm asking for my money back. . .

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