With a frown on his forehead, medical student Jurrien Loosveld (19) peers at the work in front of him in the gallery. He’s holding a clipboard with sheets of paper, ready for the analysis. How on earth can he communicate what he’s seeing? His view is a mass of yellow with black and white spots. It’s not an illness he has to describe. Today this second-year medical student isn’t working on analysing the human body, but art. Along with thirteen other second-year medical students he’s moving through the Boijmans museum for the lecture entitled The art of looking.
“Do you all know exactly what we’re going to do today?”, asks curator Leonie Hulsman of the Rotterdam museum. “Describe paintings to each other”, says one of the students. She nods. “But in a very unusual way. Imagine that you’re looking at a painting of a snowman. You don’t say that you see a snowman. But rather: ‘I see three white spheres on top of each other, and there’s an orange triangle sticking out of the top sphere.’”
She points to a still-life of vases on a table. “How would you describe this?” “Three semi-circular shapes on a flat shape”, suggests one of the students. “White, bottle-shaped, ummm…. Oh no, I’m not allowed to say that last one.” “Exactly”, says Hulsman and she hands out coloured pencils, sheets of white paper and floor plans. “We’re doing this because it teaches you really well that not everyone understands exactly what you say and mean”, says lecturer Lex Linsen, head of the general medical practice student teaching department, who conceived the lecture series.
With all their materials and the final instructions, the students set off. Jurrien Loosveld joins Monique Devillers (20) and Casper Slachmuylders (19) in search of their first painting. Loosveld will be the first to describe a work entitled Zachte wasbak (soft washbasin) by Claes Oldenburg. He studies the painting. “Wow.” He sees an abstract, round painting with a lot of yellow, white, stripes and dots. He leads his fellow students into the room carefully, ensuring they don’t see the painting.
They sit on the floor with a blank sheet on their laps. “The work is circular”, Loosveld begins. “And there’s a line in the middle. The right half of the circle is yellow with black dots. The lower dots are a little bigger, about the same size as the tip of your little finger. Then the dots gradually get smaller. The left-hand side also has two lines, with yellow between them. The black dots have the same pattern as the right-hand side. Then there are two white spaces left. The upper halves have black dots, going from absolutely none to thicker dots at the top.”
The description is reasonably accurate, because all the students in his group end up with an illustration which more or less matches the work on the wall. “The only thing we didn’t know was whether the stripe had to be horizontal or vertical”, notes Slachmuylders.
Then it’s his turn to describe the next artwork. It’s a Breton seascape with angry clouds and dark rocks. He has particular difficulty in describing the rocks. “In the left-hand side, under the blue there’s an irregular dark triangle which isn’t exactly perpendicular on the side. They’re light-brown, with large areas of grey.” When his companions are eventually allowed to turn around Devillers says: “I had no idea this would be a natural landscape.”
Write it down first, then draw
Once all the paintings have been discussed, the group comes together again for the assignment’s second part. Now they’re allowed to say what they feel when viewing the paintings, including the atmosphere of a work. But they’re not allowed to start drawing immediately. First they have to listen and write everything down, and only then may they draw.
In the meantime Lecturer Lex Linsen heads to a work a couple of galleries further on. It’s a painting by Max Beckman, of a father and mother with their child. They look extremely dejected, as if all the joy has gone out of their eyes. The painting was produced during the Second World War and is a good representation of that fearful, depressing period.
“None of the students will describe the atmosphere of the painting, you’ll see”, says Linsen. “They won’t see that the family is almost literally pushed aside in the work, so that the painter has expressed the all-pervading repressive atmosphere of the time.” And in fact he’s right. The students describe only the family’s clothing, and the colour of their hair, but not the way they were gazing.
At the end Linsen and the students discuss how they felt about analysing the artworks. “Difficult”, says Loosveld. “When you say things, the other person doesn’t always get it automatically.” “I said the woman in the family portrait had dark hair, but she drew her as blonde,” says another student. “But none of you discussed the atmosphere”, Linsen points out. “I didn’t think the atmosphere was that important in the painting”, responds one of the students. “How are you supposed to communicate the atmosphere? It’s only an interpretation. When you see patients, then you know what’s going on thanks to your insight into human nature.”
Looking and listening well
Linsen doesn’t agree. “Atmosphere is in fact important. When you receive patients, you want to know whether they’re happy or uneasy. You can only discover this by looking at them and listening. The atmosphere determines where the conversation will go. If someone has a headache you can certainly unleash an MRI on them, but that won’t tell you that someone has problems at work which are the cause of the headaches. You’ll only discover that by looking. And by listening well.”