If you’re wondering why this poem is here, it relates to a post I did a long time ago about the obsessive arts and crafts focus in my children’s classrooms. Whatever they learn, they have to do an accompanying arts and crafts project. So, for example, if they read a book about a girl in Denmark, they have to draw a picture of the girl — which they invariably do by copying the cover of the book. Shoebox dioramas are popular, too. The projects never have a pedagogical purpose, nor do they spring from the student’s own understanding of the subject, nor are they used to teach the children the basics of art.
In my post, I remarked that, if you can inspire students about a subject, they will come out with their own creative product, one that relates to the project directly, rather than just a random drawing or paper cutout — and one that will reveal whether they actually understood what they learned. My example was an art history class I took in college that focused on medieval Flemish painters. At the end of the year, after having taught us in a lively and exciting way, the teacher announced that our big project was to compare the two major Flemish artists, van Eyck and van der Weyden. When students asked how, he said we could do it however we wanted: an essay, a play or even a poem. I went home, thought about all I’d learned over the year, and came out with the following.
Jan van Eyck and Roger van der Weyden : a Heavenly Dialog
‘Twas in a glade in Paradise,
Observed by my unerring eyes,
That two great men shook hands in greeting;
I now record this aerial meeting.
Both were painters of renown,
For history’s passed their treasures down.
Jan stood tall and broad and firm;
Roger bent like a Grecian urn.
They’d come to talk of God and art
And I, for one, took van Eyck’s part.
“Paint what you see,” he’d made his creed,
“Don’t show emotion; there is no need.
Man can’t fathom God’s great plan,
Paint what you see,” said Master Jan.
“But man is flawed and tres terrestrial;
I must make him more Celestial.
I smooth his features and his limbs,
Erase the signs of all his sins,
I put him in a world pastoral,
Flanked by crowds of angels, choral.
Jewels, satin, ermine, too,
Create a man completely new.
I place him broad and firm and tall —
My man I see before the Fall.
Ghent holds my work for all to view,
My perfect men (and women, too).
Their colors bright, their faces pure,
Through their calm, emotions stir.”
“I bet to differ,” Roger said,
“Methinks your pictures slightly dead.
Color, detail, and still perfection
Are only part of art’s confection.
Our hands and our mind
Must lift the shades that keep men blind.
It’s up to us to create a notion
Of sacred, deeply-felt emotion.
Static forms with jewels bright
Fail to reach a human height.
Interaction and deep feeling —
These provide spiritual healing.
I keep your colors, bright and strong,
But my art work must sing a song.
Lyric lines must sweep the painting:
I love portraying women fainting!
The death of Christ is too profound
To be produced without a sound.
My pictures sing with every curve,
People act with vim and verve.
I like the cloth that sweeps and swirls
Much better than your perfect pearls.”
Said Jan, “You’re talking you man’s clack,
Just look at your own Jean de Braque.
No lively curves this painting fill;
I’ve never seen one look so still.
In this , a very late ‘confection,’
You must have followed my direction.
Was pioneered and used by me!
Your Christ is not at all emotional —
He could be a van Eyck devotional.”
“You’re wrong! You’re wrong! You’ve missed the point.
You’ve put my nose right out of joint.
For such a very famous Master,
You’ve got a skull as thick as plaster.
Just view the faces of these five —
They may be still, but they’re alive.
I think it’s time you realized,
That they’ve become internalized.
My Christ is not so bland . . . remote.
His depth should grip you by the throat.
His face is lined by grief and pain,
Emblems of mankind’s great gain.
As for my Mary Magdalene,
Sitting in her clothing fine,
Her face is sad, her eyes downcast.
She’s scarred by memories of her past,
But through the four upon her right,
Her soul’s been saved and she’s all right”
Said Jan, “I still don’t understand,
But we’re getting out of hand.
There is one thing we did not mention —
It’s time that sets gained our attention.
I always paint a depth-filled scene,
With colors rich and outlines clean.
Each detail is true to life —
Take Arnolfini and his wife.
They fill the room so naturally,
That they belong there’s plain to see.
Foreground, mid-ground, background too,
Are clearly shown for one to view.
I know you think that I’m conventional,
But I like my scenes all three-dimensional.”
“Once more I have to disagree,”
Said Master Roger. “Don’t you see
That life-like settings with no action
Can prove to be a great distraction.
The basic beauty of a wedding
Is not contained in lamps and bedding.
Dogs and shoes and fancy mirrors
Can also end up being errors.
It’s man and woman we should see,
Not detail and symmetry.
My strivings for introspection
Lead me in a new direction.
The characters and what they do
Are more important than the view.
And, if a background is included,
It can be a bit denuded,
Because I really don’t aspire
To picture every church and spire.
I think the ancient saying’s true:
Too many trees can hide the view.
So if you wish spiritual healing,
Focus on your peoples’ feeling.”
Master Jan stood with a smile,
And he answered, in a while,
“I’ll quickly tell you what is wrong:
Our Muses sing a different song.
You think emotion makes you free,
While I am bound by what I see.
You show what’s beneath the skin,
But it’s I who brings the outside in.
(There has got to be a better way
To simplify what I wish to say).
To you, a person’s deep emotion
Is written out through face and motion.
In this way we realize
What lies behind your people’s eyes.
I use symbols in various places
To substitute for lively faces.
Through these external kinds of signs
I, too, enter into minds.”
Roger laughed and said to Jan
“You really are a special man.
With fine tact and dignity
You’ve extricated you and me
From a pointless conversation.
You have my greatest admiration.”
They then shook hands and said “Good day,”
Flexed their wings, and flew away.