What Do You See?

Art + Climate Change

When I saw the collaboration between the Prado Museum and WWF Spain for the COP25 climate change summit, my first thought was not about climate change. Rather, I recalled a lecture that I had taught years ago for Art History 1301:

In the beginning of the semester, it was not uncommon for my students to avoid making eye contact with me during a lecture —  eye contact meant that the inevitable and dreaded moment in which I would request their opinion was approaching. Similar to most people, my students struggled to proffer their opinion regarding a work of art. The fear of seeming ignorant and the thought of being judged by their classmates meant that, for at least the first three weeks of the semester, most of my students never looked at me. 

Breaking the silence

Determined to find a way to break the deafening silence, I stopped asking, “what do you think?” and instead began asking, “what do you see?” What began as a meager discussion  in hushed voices gradually evolved into a boisterous choir of students shouting about the obvious, e.g.,: “the work is broken”; “men are hunting”.

Ti Watching a Hippopotamus Hunt from Tomb of Ti, Saqqara. Fifth Dynasty, c. 2450-2325 BCE.

Aphrodite of Milos, better known as the Venus de Milo dates to the late 4th century BC.

Learning to SEE

These seemingly benign observations were actually quite remarkable and meaningful to me, as they provided me two points of insight: first, my students could in fact talk, and second, maybe like me in the beginning of my art education as well, they just needed to learn how to see a work of art in order to engage with it. When they came to this point in their discovery, I would task them with one of my favorite exercises: look at a work of art and break down everything you can see. Take for example, The Parasol (El Quitasol) by Francisco de Goya.

Step 1:

Identify the Visible Traits

I would ask my students to identify every visible trait they can see:

  • Figures
  • Fancy clothes
  • Umbrella
  • Trees
  • Blue sky
  • Dog
  • Stone wall
  • Lots of color

Step 2:

What Can We Deduce

Once all of the stand-out traits are identified and established, I’d follow up with what can be deduced from these traits:

  • The female figure is rich.
  • It might be spring time.
  • They seem happy.

Step 3:

Theories & Questions

As some students would begin to offer their theories, others would counter with questions:

  • Is the figure standing behind her a servant, boyfriend, another female?
  • Are they in the countryside?
  • Why is the sky dark near the wall, is it a storm?

We would then complete the exercise with a simple question: “do you like it?” In the beginning of the semester, the answer was typically a simple yes or no. As the semester progressed, their answers grew in complexity: the students went from “looking at” a work to discovering it, through education and inquiry. 

WWF + Museo del Prado: ``+ 1.5ºC Changes Everything.``

In many ways, I see that this method of guided education unto discovery is what the WWF and Prado are intending with their collaborative project. The juxtaposition of the known image and its landscape with the other, modeled reality viewers are being asked to see, question and discover their own truths surrounding climate change.

WWF y el Museo del Prado

All images courtesy of Museo del Prado / WWF

The Original

Joachim Patinir, Charon Crossing the Styx (c. 1515-24)

Joaquín Sorolla, Boys on the Beach (1909)

Diego Velázquez, Felipe IV a Caballo (1635-36)

Francisco de Goya, The Parasol (1777)

Climate Change Makeover

Retoucher: Julio Falagan

Retoucher: Conspiracy

Retoucher: Marta Zafra

Retoucher: Pedro Veloso

Visit WWF to view the art with an interactive slider, as well as learn more about conservation and climate change.