Guided tour of abstract art, designed and given by Roby Bellemans
translated by Jos van Renswoude
The work of British artist Douglas Allsop looks at first sight sterile. In the beautiful,
former living room, in which Piet Mondriaan spent the first years of his life, three large works
by him were on display. Black, shiny, reflecting plexiglass plates with holes in them. One
piece had small holes, the second one had intermediate size holes and in the third one, the
holes were even larger. The three pieces were not accompanied by an explanation. This lack
of explanation showed in the way the visitors behaved: they would take a step forward, turn
their head around for a moment, right it and - with a look of "it's probably modern art" on
their face walk on to another room in which hopefully something would be on display
that does resemble art.
I would invite those people to accompany me back to Allsop's pieces and take a good look at
them. It didn't take me any effort to let them subsequently discover that what counts in this
type of art work is not what it represents but rather what kinds of experiences art can raise
in you. As a result, it never took long before these people had by way of those plastic plates
and Descartes arrived at Sartre.
This is, of course, fun to do for a guide and when we were visited in the museum by a primary
school, I thought: "If it works with adults, it will certainly work with children." Allsop's work
inspired me enormously. One reason for this was that Douglas is a very pleasant and
fascinating person. Together with a colleague guide we went out on the town for some
evenings. We didn't talk about art, but we both had the feeling that we had got a better
understanding of his work.
In this piece I will limit myself to a description of how I arrived at Sartre and why the children
understood that. In the accompanying pictures you see the art work and the
I started telling about Piet Mondriaan and mentioned that he spent the first years of his life in
this place. As a small child he could only see the outside world by looking up to the window.
There he saw the wind making the trees blow. Actually, it is the wind that blows but that of
less relevance now. Next, I told the story of Douglas who in his young years had a
bedroom in a corner house. When he was in his bed at night he saw how the light from the
headlamps of cars turning the corner danced on the wall after passing by the foliage outside. A
beautiful spectacle. He then often lied down with his face turned to the wall and went on
fantasizing about how the light moved.
This kind of thing is nice to be experienced by the kids as well. Thus, they would be allowed
to first look at the dancing leaves and then would lie down with their head facing the wall,
In their imagination they saw how those patches of white light danced on the wall. After that,
they would get back on their feet and look at Douglas's work. Black plates with holes in them
placed against a white wall, as a result of which the holes became white. But the children
didn't perceive it that way. They immediately saw the wall in Douglas's bedroom and the
holes had become the patches of light. And fairly soon they understood why these art works
were on display in the room. The works, in a way, were the foliage the young Piet Mondriaan
saw when he looked outside.
And now Sartre.
First I told them what a philosopher actually does. Thinking is what he does. Descartes, a
French philosopher, thought: "I think, therefore I am." Makes sense. The children understand
this easily. "No," Sartre said, "you are because someone else is looking at you." So I ask the
children: "Do you understand this?" No, of course they didn't. All right, let's take an example.
You are seated somewhere and one of your friends drops by. You wave but she doesn't see
you. You wave again but she looks right past you as if you don't exist. Nothing is worse
than people who ignore you. This is a simple example and the children understand it right
away. So what is the connection between the plastic plates with holes and Sartre? That link is
not immediately obvious, but in a way it is. The children go and stand in front of the plate
with the big holes first. "What do you see?" Big white holes! OK. We walk to the opposite
side of the room and put ourselves in front of the plate with the small holes. "What do you
see?" Well, it's just like a mirror! And indeed, they see each other.
Now we head to the middle plate. Here it is not that clear whether you look in a mirror or at
holes. I give each of them an assignment they should keep to themselves. One child looks at
the holes and another at the mirror image. After a few minutes they are allowed to tell who
was looking at whom, or rather not. What started out as a plastic plate with holes has now
degenerated into something really confusing. And that is a fascinating thing to find out.
It is fascinating for adults as well. On occasion, you may happen to notice that someone
behind you is looking at the same work of art. It is a bit of a funny feeling, but so what.
Something very different happens with Douglas's work. You notice that someone is standing
behind you but that person looks straight at your face from the work .. or doesn't he?
There is art at which you look and think: "God, how beautiful it is!" or you don't. It may
touch you or not. There is also art that does something very different to you. The nice thing
about abstract art is that it doesn't represent anything in particular. It is just an initiative; it
calls upon you as a spectator to do your own thing with it, albeit that a tour guide may be able
to help you a bit.
And after this complex philosophical story we nicely continued our walk .