The Pre-Raphaelite Experiment - Beginnings of a Visual Arts & Dance Project, Manchester Art Gallery

Playing with Paper

Playing with Paper

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been working alongside dancer Shrikant Subramaniam from the Yorkshire-based artist-led organisation Manasamitra, to develop and deliver a project at Manchester Art Gallery. Combining my passion for exploring, manipulating and playing with paper and Shrikant's exploration of dance, we aim to work with a group of young children (0-2 years) and their parents and carers, to develop and perform a visual story in response to a selected Pre-Raphaelite painting.

Currently showing at Manchester Art Gallery, The Pre-Raphaelite Experiment is an evolving exhibition project space, which aims to re-interpret key Pre-Raphaelite paintings from the gallery's permanent collection, through the eyes of Manchester residents. It seeks to question whether paintings such as William Holman Hunt's 'The Hireling Shepherd' (1851), James Collinson's 'Anwering the Emigrant's Letter' (1850),  John Everett Millais' 'Autumn Leaves' (1856) and Dante Gabriel Rosseti's 'Bower Meadow' (1850-72) are still relevant to today's audiences. It also attempts to focus on the radical spirit of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings and examine their concerns in relation to modern society, depicting landscapes and remaining true to nature. To visit the gallery page click here: http://www.manchestergalleries.org/the-collections/the-pre-raphaelite-experiment/

During our first meeting with the group of parents and children at Crumpsall Children's Centre, we introduced different visual art and movement activities. We also introduced the gallery and the Pre-Raphaelite paintings we would see through photographs and a short game. The following week the group visited the gallery for the first time and we were able to get a sense of their interests as they looked at different artworks. We were also able to gauge the young children's initial responses to the gallery spaces and artworks.

It was clear that Holman Hunt's 'The Hireling Shepherd' was a painting that the group found easiest to engage with, particularly as it is full of details and symbolism and was the most colourful and bright in the gallery space. The painting itself shows a young shepherd, perhaps hired help, who has abandoned his flock of sheep as he seems to flirt with a young maiden in a meadow. Perhaps he tells a superstitious tale, whilst holding a Death's-head moth close to the maiden. On one hand the young woman seems passive, on the other sceptical or suspicious. Meanwhile a lamb sits on her lap munching an apple, whilst the rest of the flock wander off into a corn field.

When stepping up close to the painting, we can see that Hunt wanted to idealise the English rural setting as the attention to details in nature are astonishing. Grass, plants, trees and flowers are painstakingly painted and the different animals (sheep, lambs, birds, insects) are as much part of the English countryside, as they are part of Hunt's symbolic criticism of the English church at that time. The scene itself seems rather chaotic and ambiguous as the sheep appear windswept and neglected and the relationship between the shepherd and the dishevelled maiden is unclear. What will the visiting group make of the story in the painting and how will this be interpreted by children of such a young age?