The Potato Eaters and our images of poverty

There was a unit on shopping we were recently working on with my sixth grade primary school students that triggered the idea of showing them Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters” and relating it to poverty. After looking at coursebooks images of happy people shopping and paying at supermarkets, and reading texts on the numerous goods one can buy there, I could not help but wonder how the children would react to the issue of poverty, especially since they are growing up and living in a country constantly descending into poverty because of the prolongued economic recession. There was also some reaction on the part of the children while working with the coursebook when a couple of them pointed out that “well, if you don’t have money, you can’t buy anything”. That made me even more curious to find out what the students see around them, in their surroundings. For these children, who in their majority come from families who can provide for the basics and in some cases more than that, are the poor invisible? or even worse “written off as trash” as John Berger phrased it?

My main aims during these lessons were to:

  • expose them to the work of art and encourage careful observation and aesthetic appreciation
  • encourage students’ thinking, speaking, active listening and writing
  • associate the work of art with the issue of poverty and prompt their thinking on it
  • explore how the children make meaning of poverty through seeing around them, drawing their own images of poverty and writing about them

The Potato Eaters

The “Potato Eaters” (1885) by Vincent Van Gogh is a realistic painting about harsh country life. It depicts five peasants sitting around a table, eating potatoes. The colours are dark and gloomy and the only light source comes from an oil lamp on the ceiling, at the centre of the panting, which sheds light on the facial expressions of four of the figures.

What’s going on?

We first observed carefully the painting. I then asked the students:

What’s going on in this painting?

When a student offered his/her idea, I asked a follow-up question:

What do you see that makes you say that?

This is the Visual Thinking Strategies approach (VTS) to finding meaning in imagery, developing visual literacy through learning on the arts, fostering thinking, and communication skills—listening and expressing oneself. Following a constructivist, developmental approach to aesthetic appreciation, VTS views the teacher as the facilitator who allows the students’ mental frame to evolve by making connections, new constructions, and building meaning in new kinds of ways as they weave their understanding and interpretation of a work of art.

This was a viewing, speaking and note-taking activity. Children agreed as to the more evident elements like the fact that “there are people around a table who are eating”.  They also negotiated meaning on:

  • what exactly it is that they’re eating and drinking
  • what is the overall situation they’re in

In the first case, ideas involved “fish”, “apples”, “potatoes”, “tea”, “coffee”, “cocoa”. In the second case, some children believed there are “poor people in a house” while others believed the people in the painting are “in a war” situation.

The What do you see that makes you say that? stem prompted them to look more carefully for details that supported their ideas so

  • “poor” was related to the figures’ “old and cheap clothes”, and the fact that “they’re eating from the same platter”. Students also related “poor” with “sad and tired faces” who “are not smiling” and even with “dirty” appearance
  • “eating” was related to the fact that they can see “food on the table”, “they’re holding forks”, “they’re sitting around a table and families usually sit around a table to have lunch or dinner”
  • “potatoes” was related to the fact that “they are not expensive so they can buy them”
  • “War” was related to the “small room” which had no electricity, but “only one lamp” and because these people “looked sad”

I finally asked the children if the atmosphere in the painting is cold or warm. Opinions were divided. Others thought it was cold because the people in the painting were poor, tired, sad. Others, however, thought it was warm because these people were all together and were sharing their food.

As students were expressing their ideas and listening to each other’s ideas, I facilitated note-taking by writing key words and phrases shared, when speaking, on the board for all to see. I also helped them with the language they needed in the flow of the conversation which involved items like “hiding shed”, “platter”, “serve”, “shelves”, “in the background”, “all together” “atmosphere”, “I believe”, “in my opinion”.

When this session ended, I revealed the title and asked them to write a text on what we did in class, drawing on the classroom discussion and their notes. Children came up with shorter or longer texts that ranged from simple descriptive accounts of the painting to more elaborate reflective texts where they incorporated their own thinking as well as their classmates’ thinking. All of them responded well and even struggling students found the activity accessible since the in-built differentiation and the fact that their writing was based on classroom experience was of considerable help.

 

In the second session, first, we briefly revised the previous lesson through a plenary discussion and brainstorming around questions like: “What did we talk about last time?”, “what did we see in the painting?” I also mentioned the name of the painter and his country of origin. Then I asked them to look again and answer the question:

What more can we find?

This is the third question in the VTS approach that encourages more careful viewing. We focussed on

  • the colours of the painting which the children found dark and gloomy, but  noticed bright spots, too (What do you think about the colours?)
  • the appearance of the people in the painting (What are the people wearing?, “)
  • what their job might be (What do you think their job is?)
  • how the room is illuminated (How is the room illuminated?)
  • any other details they could find (Can you see anything else?)
  • what emotions the painting evoked (What are your feelings?, How does the painting make you feel?)

The new vocabulary that emerged out of this session included items like “ceiling”, “illuminate”, “bony” (fingers), “kerchiefs”, “caps”, “bright”, “little, a little, very little”, “depressing”, “gloomy”, “feeling”. I also provided them with the terms “monochromatic”, “realistic” and “naturalistic” related to the artistic elements of the painting. I finally explained that Vincent Van Gogh made this painting for two reasons: he wanted people to see that he was a good artist, and he wanted to show how hard the life of poor peasants is because he lived among them at that time. “Peasants” was added to our words list and I asked the students’ opinion on whether the painting was successfully showing what it was supposed to show.

At the end of the session I asked them to work in pairs on a gap fill activity https://www.scribd.com/document/363989825/Potato-Eaters?secret_password=mSU2RrNJwhmq4czmfsEl

For the next lesson I assigned them to write a text on the new information we had added

 

I also asked them to look around them, think, and draw their own images of poverty along with a short description and rationale.

 

My Image of Poverty

The children did look around them and what they brought in class indeed reflected the face of poverty in our surroundings. In the final sessions, they presented their images to their classmates and talked about them. The majority chose to depict people scavenging food, paper or anything useful from rubbish bins which in the Greek debt crisis context has been rapidly rising and has become a way to survive. At times they associated it with the country’s shuttered industrial infrastructure, scarcity of jobs or poorly paid ones.

Begging in the streets, in the subway, in front of global supermarket chains and homelessness also featured in their work. This was again at times related to the rising unemployment in the country and the rising cost of living.

Others related their images of poverty to immigrants and refugees

Or associated poverty with different reactions towards poor people

On completing these series of lessons, children had come in contact with art, had shown interest in both the aesthetic and social aspect it embraces, had had the opportunity to express themselves in verbal and visual modes, and had seen and identified the often unseen and overlooked. Their responses were marked by awareness and emotional and cognitive engagement. As they were trying to make meaning of poverty through drawing their own images and writing about them, they employed their thinking, planning, and connecting skills. There were interesting signs of individual engagement with putting together their own works of art and reasoning their choices. Of course, there were varying degrees of conscious connectivity among the children which have to do with their diverse degree of maturity, artistic and language ability, familial and social context.

Ideally, a related problem-solving situation that would push children’s thinking beyond identifying and empathizing towards developing and initiating ways of tackling with the issue of poverty should follow. Poverty is a very complex issue with the unequal distribution of wealth at its core. We did not go that far. Food for thought for the future.

References

Visual Thinking Strategies website

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2 thoughts on “The Potato Eaters and our images of poverty”

  1. Your usual excellent work with the children, Chrysa!

    It is interesting how these two different kinds of poverty are set side by side. The potato eaters as representatives of the very poor peasant families in the southern Dutch province of Brabant in the nineteenth century, their way of life, their food coming straight from the land and produced by their own hands. Proud people inspite of their hard lives.
    And then the poverty in present-day Greece and elsewhere, caused by manmade economic crises. Poverty going hand in hand with shame, frustration, anger, despair.
    Very different of course.

    Liked by 1 person

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