Storytelling is found in all cultures and the sharing of stories helps us understand our own lives and the lives of others, across time and place. In some early societies storytelling and the use of pictures and visual art provided moral and spiritual guidance for pre literate peoples. Today, stories continue to entertain and communicate important beliefs, values, morals and traditions. They can be told orally, sung, danced, performed, painted, filmed or written. Artists often create narratives in their works of art and can represent a moment or a sequence of events, and illustrate and document religious, historic and cultural stories.
The Indian painting from 1715, Maharana Sangram Singh II and his son at a Shiva shrine, painted to record life at court, shows the importance of religious worship at court with Maharana Sangram Singh II and his son at a shrine worshipping Shiva, a Hindu god in the form of a linga.
The Indian Rajput painting from 1844, Maharao Ram Singh II of Kotah and companions playing Holi on elephants in a street, captures a moment during the festival of Holi. The Maharao, seated on the elephant is squirting his servants and court women with water from the palace fire engine. This festival continues to be held in spring to celebrate the youthful Krishna, a Hindu god, and the coming of spring crops, foliage and flowers, by throwing water and coloured powder over family, friends and strangers.
Ancient Hindu epics and Indonesian folk narratives are still performed in Indonesia using wayang kulit shadow puppets. This oral story telling tradition provides moral guidance and entertainment for the audience. The puppet Prabu Suyudana represents a character in the Mahabharata, an important Hindu story. Facial features, costume, physiognomy and the use of colour determine the character of each puppet, and clarify the moral aspects of the narrative.
The Burmese Buddha, Buddha calling the Earth to witness, is a bronze sculpture for religious guidance. This seated Buddha extends the fingers of his right hand down towards earth. This posture recalls a particular moment in the story of the Buddha’s life and path to enlightenment in which the Buddha overcomes obstructions to realise the true meaning of life.
Hokusai was a Japanese artist who made many Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and created the famous image The great wave off Kanagawa. Here the artist captures a moment in time, celebrating and contrasting the power of nature, with Mt Fuji in the background and a massive wave consuming the foreground. Ukiyo-e multi-coloured woodblock prints are from the Japanese Edo period (1600–1868) and describe the life styles and interests of the people, including the landscape, kabuki actors, historical dramas, sumo wrestlers, beautiful women and picture books.
Learning to read paintings and works of art requires us to observe carefully. What do we recognise? What don’t we understand? What does it make us think about? Look closely at the selected art works and identify the messages each artwork conveys. Can you group these?
Compare the two Indian paintings. Note the people, their costumes, objects, animals, the setting and the use of shape, size and colour. Make a list of the features that describe the artistic style so that in the future you can recognise this type of painting.
Hokusai loved drawing; he called himself a ‘drawing maniac’ and invented the term manga, meaning random sketches or comical drawings. He created many volumes and his images show figures, nature, architecture and mythology, often in unusual positions and with a sense of humour. Draw your own manga or comic strip story. Use your imagination to invent a character, give them magic powers and describe their adventures in simple pictures using line drawing and a few words.
The Indian paintings, the Javanese shadow puppet, the Burmese Buddha and the Hokusai woodblock print share a strong sense of historical and or religious identity. Discuss how these works of art communicate stories that reflect cultural or religious values.
What are the historic or cultural features in your location? Are they part of the natural environment or a place of worship, a significant public building, statue or a park? As a group, select different places and draw, paint or photograph them, and then write about them to create a series of folding books, postcards or picture storybooks. Share these with students from different schools.