Saturday, October 1, 2016

Analyzing Works of Art in a History Class

Whether you teach European history, United States history, or some other historical topic, works of art are often a great tool for helping students gain a more sophisticated understanding of history. The purpose of this blog is to suggest one approach for helping history students analyze works of art. Although the approach might seem simple, it is nevertheless quite effective at helping students learn to reach historical conclusions on their own.

Once you have selected a work of art, ask students to analyze that work and then use their analysis to reach conclusions about the topic they are studying. You might, for example, choose Pablo Picasso's Guernica to help students better understand the rise of European fascism during the 1930s. Follow my two recommendations below and you should be able to create lessons that not only engage students but also help them become independent thinkers.


First, provide students with enough background information that they can place the work of art in historical context.

So that students will be able to reach conclusions about the work of art on their own, I recommend keeping the background information to a minimum,  

In the case of Picasso’s Guernica, I might, for example, provide students with a little information about the Spanish Civil War. I would probably also talk about the newly-established German Air Force and how it bombed the Spanish city of Guernica in April 1937. In supporting Francisco Franco, the fascist leader of Spain, Germany used Guernica to practice the techniques of air warfare that they would later use in the blitzkrieg of World War II. In attacking Guernica, a city of 7000, the Germans injured 900 Spaniards and killed 1700.

If students know that minimal amount of information, they should be able to glean much meaning from the painting.

Next, show students the work of art and ask them to answer three questions.
  1. What details in the painting catch your attention?
  2. What questions of curiosity are sparked by the painting?
  3. What conclusions can you make that are based on information in the painting?
Take note that these questions are designed to encourage students to examine the painting closely and come to their own conclusions about the rise of fascism. As always, history teachers should avoid teaching students what to think and instead teach them how to think.

If students need more time for research, provide that time after they have examined the painting closely (required by question #1), created a list of questions they want answered (required by question #2), and come to a few conclusions independently (required by question #3). In my experience, student research will be much more focused after they have already completed their analysis of a work based on the three questions.  

In Guernica, Picasso supplied several images of what happened to the one town after the bombing. From the image of the woman holding a dead child and screaming into the air to the single light shining upon the atrocities, Picasso created a touching portrait of human suffering that will most likely engage the hearts and minds of anyone who examines the images closely. Picasso also used the bombing of Guernica to create a painting that was anti-fascist and anti-war, a painting that portrays the cruelty that human beings can inflict on each other. 

As a teacher, I have never had to explain all that to students. Most students are able to figure it out by answering the three simple questions listed above. Additionally, students usually extract meanings from the painting that I have overlooked. 

The approach that I have outlined can also be used to ask students to synthesize historical information and make a comparison between Guernica and other works of art from other historical eras. In the case of Guernica, for example, I might ask students to compare and contrast Picasso’s painting with Francisco Goya's The Third of May, 1808 (1814). Although the two paintings were created almost 125 years apart, they were both painted by Spaniards, and they both offered similar themes and images inspired by similar events.

I must admit that writing about all this makes me miss my work with high school students. I can’t help but think about how much fun I had listening to students talk about Guernica and The Third of May. What my students taught me was always far more than I ever taught them.


As a postscript, I have an assignment for the readers of this blog, I ask that you watch the 3-D animation of Guernica embedded below and answer the three questions as you watch the video. If all goes as I expect, you should be inspired to learn much more about the events and themes surrounding Picasso's masterwork.


© 2012 James L. Smith

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