Me, Myself and MRI

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Our second session at York Art Gallery focused on the use of symbols and objects in portraits and other paintings and artworks.

We had all been asked to bring with us an object that somehow represented us. It could say something about our personality, our hobbies and interests, our family life or our inspirations and aspirations. The group brought in an interesting selection of objects and we were all asked to try and identify what each object said about the person who had brought it with them.

The discussion was really interesting in that it showed how objects can be used to represent aspects of an individual's life. Some of the connections were easy to guess - for example, we all guessed that the person who brought in a picture of their skis enjoyed skiing - but others weren't quite so obvious. For example, project manager Kirsty brought in the small wooden carving shown to the right above. It's a traditional Marapu figure from Sumba in Indonesia and it represented a few aspects of Kirsty's life. The first was her love of arts and crafts, the second was her love of travelling and finding out about different cultures and the third, perhaps less obvious, was the importance of her family (the Marapu figures represent the ancestors of the people who carve them).

We then went into the main gallery to look at a 17th century Dutch Vanitas painting. Vanitas is the Latin word for vanity and Vanitas paintings explore the fact that earthly life is relatively empty and meaningless compared to the everlasting life promised to people of the Christian faith. Vanitas paintings portray objects that relate to this theme - for example, objects showing earthly achievements (maps to symbolise our exploration of the physical world, instruments to show scientific advances) are positioned next to objects that symbolise mortality and death such as skulls, snuffed out candles and decaying fruit and flowers (these objects are known as Memento Mori).

This led to more discussion around the use of objects to symbolise aspects of the individual's life and personality as well as their use in representing wider themes, such as political, philosophical and religious beliefs.

We went back to the Studio and created our own Vanitas still life, using the objects and pictures that we had all brought with us alongside Memento Mori (for example a skull and a candlestick).

Next stop was the upstairs gallery, where we spent some time in front of Edward Ward's painting 'Hogarth's Studio in 1739'. The painting shows Hogarth's portrait of Captain Thomas Coram, the man who set up the Foundling Hospital in London. In the painting, the artist Hogarth is standing to the right, behind the portrait of Thomas Coram, with Thomas Coram standing behind him. The painting portrays several of the children from the hospital who have been invited to see the portrait for the first time. We talked about the stories of the people in the painting, using clues such as their clothes, the objects around them, their facial expressions and their position in relation to other people and objects to try and work out who they might be. Some of the things the group noticed were: the crutches on the floor to the left of the seated girl in the red dress; the facial expression of the small boy standing next to the table on the left - his eyes are firmly fixed on the cakes on the table; and the globe and the book in the bottom right corner - objects that were used by Hogarth in his portrait of Coram to represent the sea captain's travels and knowledge.

All this talk of stories got us thinking about the sort of people we'd like to include in our exhibition. What sort of people were we interested in finding out more about? Whose stories would we like to tell? This is where the idea of selecting people to represent different realms of work came from and the group started coming up with a list of people they'd like us to approach. Our final portrait subjects represented medicine, religion, science, art, media and sport and were all individuals from different backgrounds.

For the final part of the session we went back to the Studio and created self portraits based around our responses to a series of instructions/suggestions. The first step was to lie on large sheets of paper and get someone to draw around our outline. We then took it in turns to choose bits of paper from a box Griselda had prepared and read out what was written on them, including things like 'draw something that reminds you of home', 'draw something that makes you happy' and 'draw something that reminds you of your childhood'. We ended up with some interesting portraits, some of which can be seen at the bottom of this page along with other photos from our second gallery session.

We ended the session by revising everything that we'd explored during the two visits to the gallery - the importance of pose, setting and expression; the relationship between artist and sitter; different ways of displaying or 'hanging' artworks; and the use of objects and symbols in paintings. We asked the group to start thinking about what they would like the final portraits to focus on and how they would like them to be displayed.

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