Artist reflections on Gestalt discussions

Explaining the concept of Gestalt or a composition to 6-10 year olds has challenged (and improved! 🙂 my ability to communicate it.

When I talk about Gestalt I mean ”visual composition” or where ”the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. Art theorist, author and perceptual psychologist Rudolf Arnheim is very articulate on the subject: he describes Gestalt Perception as a foundation of visual perception and draws on an 1890 essay by Christian von Ehrenfels to explain it with evidence from an example: “if each of 12 observers listened to 1 of 12 tones of a melody, the sum of their experiences would not correspond to what would be perceived if someone listened to the whole melody.” (“Gestaltqualitäten.” Vierteljahrsschrift fĂźr wissenschaftliche Philosophie, 1890, vol. 14, pp.249-292.) For Arnheim, “all perceiving is also thinking, all reasoning is also intuition, all observation is also invention.” Furthermore, Gestalt psychology’s position ‘’that vision is creative and not just a ‘mechanical recording of sensory elements’” asserts that the experience of seeing is not just “an entirely subjective imposition of shape and meaning upon reality” but rather “the process of looking at the world [is] an interplay between properties supplied by the object and the nature of the observing subject.” (See Arnheim, R., Introduction, in Art and Visual Perception A Psychology of the Creative Eye. 1954, University of California Press: Berkeley. pp. i-ix.)

While Gestalt, composition, the role of interpretation and the subjectivity of seeing are difficult concepts to convey to people who are only just learning to think abstractly; I am finding that these children are getting there. Remarkably quickly, in fact. Even by the end of Thursday I  had seen an improvement in their comprehension of these ideas. (Their open-ness and flexibility in learning has impressed me, along with how good the teaching staff are with facilitating this development and student absorption and exploration of ideas).

In attempting to convey the concepts we have been talking about Recipes as opposed to a mish mash of ingredients; of the balance, perseverance and ‘heart’ or spiritual aspects involved in Andy Goldsworthy‘s landscape artworks as opposed to them being simply a pile of stones. We have also talked about the face composition that emerges from what otherwise could be simply a collection of food scraps or utensils in Jan Svankmajer’s “Dimensions of Dialogue” stop motion animation or Arcimboldo’s Summer oil on canvas.

So now when I point to a picture of a spoon in an artwork to ask ‘what is this?’ the answers I get include spoon but also ‘nose’; acknowledging the role of the composition and their understanding in what they see. Thus we also reinforce their understanding that perception is constructed, that interpretation plays a role in what we see, and that there are many different “ways of seeing“.