What’s the Big Idea?

What’s the Big Idea?

Artists throughout time have come to their work with stories to tell, concepts to explore, and puzzles to work out. By looking at works of art with a curious and investigative eye, students may connect with these artistic ideas while exercising creative and critical thinking skills. This resource set pairs objects with simple engagement activities to help students thoughtfully consider and unpack the big ideas each artwork presents.

Grade Level:
Grades 3-5, Grades 6-8, Grades 9-12, Teacher Professional Development
Collection:
African Art, American Art, Ancient Art, East Asian Art, European Art, Modern and Contemporary Art
Culture/Region:
Africa, America, China, East Asia, Europe, Rome
Subject Area:
African American, Creative Thinking, Critical Thinking, English, Fine Arts, History and Social Science, Math, Science, Visual Arts
Activity Type:
Resource Set

What’s the Big Idea?

Image Gallery

Bell (Niu Zhong)
Willem van Heythuysen
Moshambwooy Mask
The Eruption of Vesuvius
1 2 3 4 5 6
Mithras Slaying the Bull (Tauroctony)
The Temple Court of Fudo Sama at Meguro, Tokyo
Still Life
Catfish Row

Artists throughout time have come to their work with stories to tell, concepts to explore, and puzzles to work out. For this reason, artworks are valuable for the curiosity they can stimulate and the doors they may open to further investigation.

Asking "What's the Big Idea?" about any art object can be a valuable exercise. By thinking creatively and critically about art objects, we can unpack visual clues to the ideas they are presenting to viewers both past and present. Even if we can not draw absolutely clear conclusions about an artwork's meaning, carefully noting what is visually before us can open fruitful lines of inquiry, spark curiosity about the original context and audience, and lead to consideration of multiple perspectives.

Bell (Niu Zhong)

Bell (Niu Zhong)

6th century BC , Chinese

Medium: Bronze

Accession ID: 57.45.10

Taking the time to think creatively and critically about ritual objects from the past can help reinforce the facts we subsequently learn about them. At first glance the form of this object may lea ...

Taking the time to think creatively and critically about ritual objects from the past can help reinforce the facts we subsequently learn about them. At first glance the form of this object may lead to speculation and multiple ideas about its use. Study of its surface with it's distinct green patina might spark curiosity about both its age and the material with which it was made. Consideration of the repeated patterns that adorn its surface might lead to questions about the culture to which its maker belonged.

In fact, the label tells us, this item is a bronze bell from the Zhou dynasty in China (1046-256 BC). Knowing this, we can begin to build on ideas and questions about its fabrication, imagine how it might sound if played, and wonder about its original physical context.

Music was an integral part of ritual ceremonies and royal banquets during the Zhou dynasty. Bells with hangers were used as percussion instruments in the 6th century BC. This bell was either played as a solo instrument or as one of a set of bells cast in different sizes to create a complete musical scale. During the performance, the bell would be suspended on a wooden rack. A player would use one or two wooden mallets to strike the bells, producing solemn yet beautiful music.

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Willem van Heythuysen

Willem van Heythuysen

2006 , American

Medium: oil and enamel on canvas

Accession ID: 2006.14

Artist Kehinde Wiley is known for his creative and critical thinking about artwork from the past. When we spend time with his 21st Century paintings like this one, made in 2006, we are invited to d ...

Artist Kehinde Wiley is known for his creative and critical thinking about artwork from the past. When we spend time with his 21st Century paintings like this one, made in 2006, we are invited to do the same.

Viewers are often struck by the powerful pose of this figure. His recognizable and stylish Sean Jean streetwear and Timberland boots call to mind the present and urban America. But the elaborate gold frame, the presence of a sword, and the vibrantly patterned background whose Indian-inspired tendrils encircle the figure's legs call to mind a different place and time.

This ambiguity is intentional. Wiley's contemporary paintings and sculpture raise intriguing questions about race, gender, and the politics of representation by portraying contemporary African American men and women using the conventions of traditional European portraiture. Appropriating the format of specific artworks by renowned masters ranging from Titian to Édouard Manet, Wiley often depicts his subjects wearing sneakers, hoodies, and other gear associated with today's hip-hop culture and sets them against ornate decorative backgrounds that evoke earlier eras and cultures.

Entitled Willem van Heythuysen , this work quotes a 1625 painting of a Dutch merchant by Frans Hals, whose portraits helped define Holland's Golden Age. Wiley's model, from Harlem, New York, here takes the name of the original sitter from Harlem, the Netherlands, whose pose and attitude he mimics.

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Moshambwooy Mask

Moshambwooy Mask

19th-20th century , Kuba

Medium: Raffia cloth, glass beads, cowries, fur, wood, hide

Accession ID: 2010.63

By thinking creatively and critically about objects created in parts of the world other than our own we can start to recognize visual clues to the concepts they may present. When considering artwor ...

By thinking creatively and critically about objects created in parts of the world other than our own we can start to recognize visual clues to the concepts they may present. When considering artwork from the continent of Africa it is helpful to remember that much of it was once “living art” not meant to be put on motionless display.

For example, masks from the Congolese region of Africa fill a variety of important roles, often representing local belief systems, histories, social structures, and aesthetics. Masks can be active instruments of spirituality and storytelling, and in their original settings, masks are usually accompanied by full-body attire, handheld implements, music, and dancing.

The Kuba [koo-ba] make up one of the greatest kingdoms in central Africa and are renowned for creating objects with elaborate surface ornamentation. Masks like this one feature complex patterning & designs that, combined with music, choreography, and other performance aspects, convey certain ideas to a Kuba person. While these symbols aren't readily recognizable to us, we can work towards an understanding of this object and become curious about its original context. By looking closely and considering all the aspects of this work we can start to identify possible materials and techniques; think about the specificity of patterning; and consider its particular expressive qualities.

Moshambwooy represents both the king and Woot, the legendary founder of the Kuba. When used to act out familiar Kuba myths and stories, this mask would have been accompanied by other masks. One story, for example, features a mask that portrays the king’s brother (and the common man), who tries to steal the king’s power and take away his wife, represented by a mask that also signifies the beauty of women. The king, being the more powerful and stronger of the two, wins the struggle and keeps both his wife and his royal power.

The Kuba are highly regarded for their patterning and beading skills, which can be seen in the Moshambwooy mask. Notice the white animal-hair beard, which underscores age and knowledge. It appears that Moshambwooy is bald, but depending on the performance, he will wear different head crests.

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The Eruption of Vesuvius

The Eruption of Vesuvius

ca. 1780 , French

Medium: oil on canvas

Accession ID: 60.39.11

Some art can serve as a primary source for our consideration of how people of the past experienced and understood world events.

The volcano Vesuvius, which destroyed the ancient cities of ...

Some art can serve as a primary source for our consideration of how people of the past experienced and understood world events.

The volcano Vesuvius, which destroyed the ancient cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii in 79 AD, was active again throughout the 17th and 18th centuries and excited intense interest. Artists throughout Europe travelled to southern Italy to observe and paint this marvel. Some recorded the eruptions to illustrate the principles of the new science of geology, while others simply painted picturesque scenes of this sublime natural event.

What ideas does this rendering of the eruption, painted in about 1780 by French artist Pierre-Jacques Volaire, seem to present? How might we characterize the eruption and the attitudes of the onlookers whom Volaire has placed in the foreground of the painting?

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1 2 3 4 5 6

1 2 3 4 5 6

1978 , American

Medium: Painted wood

Accession ID: 85.555

Artist and sculptor Sol LeWitt recognized and valued the perception of the spectator in the success of his artwork. Speaking of the artist’s role, he noted, “Once it is out of his hand, the art ...

Artist and sculptor Sol LeWitt recognized and valued the perception of the spectator in the success of his artwork. Speaking of the artist’s role, he noted, “Once it is out of his hand, the artist has no control over how the viewer will perceive the work. Different people will understand the same thing in a different way.”

In the VMFA’s Lewis Contemporary Galleries, viewers are invited to take this to heart when looking at a compelling sculpture that is at once simple and complex. Made of painted wood in 1978, it is part of a series of modular cubic structures the artist began in the mid-1960s.

A founder of Conceptual Art, a movement that emphasized a rational, objective approach to form, LeWitt sought to make work that stimulates the mind of the spectator. In his 1967 essay Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, LeWitt maintained that the idea behind any particular work of art need not be complex, and that “the mathematics used by most artists is simple arithmetic or simple number systems.”

Spending time to looking creatively and critically at this sculpture, entitled 1,2,3,4,5,6, we may start to recognize the layered visual complexity that results from LeWitt’s presentation of a simple arithmetic concept in visual form. In so doing we can begin to uncover our own ideas and understanding about space, form, scale, and similarity.

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Mithras Slaying the Bull (Tauroctony)

Mithras Slaying the Bull (Tauroctony)

early 3rd century AD , Roman

Medium: marble

Accession ID: 67.58

Exploring artworks can sometimes help us connect to stories and ideas long lost to time. Viewers of this sculpted frieze join the many scholars who, from ancient to modern times, have attempted to ...

Exploring artworks can sometimes help us connect to stories and ideas long lost to time. Viewers of this sculpted frieze join the many scholars who, from ancient to modern times, have attempted to decipher the particular symbolism it seems to present. An example of a scene found over and over in archaeological sites throughout what was once the Roman Empire, it is called a tauroctony, the central image in underground cave-like temples (Mithrea) where members of an underground religious group worshipped a deity called Mithras.

It is easy to recognize a larger-than-life central figure who is the primary actor in what seems to be a very particular story. Scholars recognize this as Mithras. While his motivations are not known, he is shown plunging his sword into a bull’s neck as a dog and serpent drink the gushing blood and a scorpion bites the bull. We can also discern four other figures on the frieze. Scholars believe the figures to his left and right likely represent the celestial twins of light and darkness, Cautes and Cautopates who hold torches, while Sol (the sun) and Luna (the moon) look from the corners above. The exact symbolism of their presence and interaction with Mithras remains unclear.

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The Temple Court of Fudo Sama at Meguro, Tokyo

The Temple Court of Fudo Sama at Meguro, Tokyo

1891 , American

Medium: oil on canvas

Accession ID: 91.503

When American artist Robert Blum undertook this oil painting in Japan, he was thinking creatively and critically about a part of the world whose artistic traditions were very different than his own ...

When American artist Robert Blum undertook this oil painting in Japan, he was thinking creatively and critically about a part of the world whose artistic traditions were very different than his own.

Arriving in Tokyo in 1892 on assignment for Scribner’s magazine, Blum became one of the earliest American painters to visit Japan, a country with design principles that had long fascinated Western artists.

Here, in the first major oil painting from his two-year stay, Blum focuses on Japanese architecture, sculpture, and ornament, paying tribute to the culture’s refined craftsmanship while communicating its vitality to a 19th century American audience.

As we consider the scene today, we can begin to discern how Blum might have done this. We can imagine the painter deciding to frame the scene so that sharp angles are a feature of the composition. We can think about why he might have chosen to paint the outside of the building and his inclusion of a bowing figure who might indicate its purpose. What other decisions might Blum have made as he designed and executed this artwork?

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Still Life

Still Life

ca. 1640-50 , Dutch

Medium: oil on canvas

Accession ID: 61.15

Sometimes a work of art is so striking for its technical expertise that it takes a little more looking to consider the message that it may be conveying.

Viewers today might be struck by the ...

Sometimes a work of art is so striking for its technical expertise that it takes a little more looking to consider the message that it may be conveying.

Viewers today might be struck by the precision of detail in this painting by Dutch artist Jan De Heem in which a myriad of textures and surfaces - green velvet, luminous fresh grape skins, gleaming silver, and soft feathers - are so finely depicted one can easily imagine what they would feel like. But there is more to this 17th century work than meets the 21st century eye.

In his day, De Heem was famous for still life paintings like this one. The fruits, vegetables, and flowers in his composition are from distant places across the world. That may seem normal by today’s standards, but in the 1600s, the acquisition of these items would have been expensive and dependent on the reach of Dutch traders. The objects in this painting were specifically assembled to show the wealth and sophistication of the Netherlands during the Dutch Golden Age. Like many still-life painters of his time, De Heem often included some form of animal life in his work, such as the African gray parrot seen in this painting.

Not as apparent to a modern audience,17th century viewers would have also seen another message within the opulence: worldly wealth cannot overcome death and judgement. In this painting, the beautifully detailed watch in the golden case implied that worldly pleasures were fleeting and best enjoyed in moderation.

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Catfish Row

Catfish Row

1947 , American

Medium: egg tempera on hardboard

Accession ID: 2013.228

Art objects can serve to both document and celebrate shared experience. When he made this dynamic painting in 1947, the celebrated modernist Jacob Lawrence was thinking creatively and critically a ...

Art objects can serve to both document and celebrate shared experience. When he made this dynamic painting in 1947, the celebrated modernist Jacob Lawrence was thinking creatively and critically about how to depict aspects of African American life in the South. He had received a commission from Fortune magazine to depict African American life in the so-called Black Belt, a broad agricultural region of the Deep South. The artist spent a few weeks that summer traveling to Memphis, Vicksburg, and New Orleans, as well as various communities in Alabama. Catfish Row is one of ten artworks resulting from Lawrence’s journey, all painted with tempura on his return to New York.

Viewers might be struck by the painting's limited, but vibrant palate and the bold lines and geometric shapes that both organize and activate the scene. These essential elements are some of the tools Lawrence used to distill a lively communal experience into a single image. With its overall mood of abundance and pleasure, this small canvas documents and depicts the shared preparation and consumption of food in black communities that offered some respite from the hardships of racial discrimination in the postwar years.

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