‘The object of art is to give life a shape.’ — William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
It’s a brisk Thursday morning in October, and a group of Notre Dame students is out for a stroll along the River Thames in central London. They move along the South Bank as their guide, adjunct art history professor Lois Oliver, points out spots of historical and cultural significance. She takes note of a mother and child combing the bank near the river’s edge. The Thames is tidal, Oliver explains, and when the water recedes one can often find bits of pottery or other materials, some of which can date back to the medieval period. More than a few students are wide-eyed at this.
But this isn’t a sightseeing tour. It’s part of an experiential course called London as Art Capital, which exposes students to the rich art scene here. On today’s excursion, students are exploring a part of the city that has come to symbolize rebirth and rejuvenation. The area was heavily damaged during the Blitz, but by the 1950s, it was a sort of ground zero for an attempt at changing the trajectory of the national mood.
‘This extraordinary festival was planned and took place along this part of the river in 1951,’ Oliver explained. ‘It was called The Festival of Britain, and it was a real celebration of the arts, and technology, and manufacture, and really looking forward to a new prosperous age for Britain.’
So it was that this particular space, once synonymous with industry, grit, and hard labor, began to be known as a center of the London art scene. The National Theatre is here, in all its brutalist glory. The London Eye is a short distance from it, and in between are a number of pop-up vendors and street performers.
The end destination for the group is the Tate Modern, a museum housing works of art from the last 100 years, including many pieces created today. The museum itself is emblematic of the renewal Oliver spoke of: It was originally a power plant anchoring this formerly hardscrabble part of town; its conversion to art museum helped to transform this area into one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in London.
For Zoe Jensen ’24, a political science major who interned in Parliament during her time here, this sort of excursion is exactly the kind of thing that brings balance to a study abroad experience.
‘I think the creative part of me is able to come out and I’m able to think a little more outside the box,’ Jensen said of the course. ‘In Parliament and in my other classes, it’s a lot of analytical thinking.
‘This is a way for me to be confident in approaching art. In the beginning, I would see a piece and then just move on to the next thing. Now, I’m able to sit with it and understand its cultural, historical and social significance.’
Oliver’s job is to help instill that appreciation through this course. It’s a natural extension of her role outside the classroom: curator at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. Frankly, it’s not the prospect of cultivating an understanding of art that is challenging; it’s figuring out where to start. The University’s facility, where students attend class, is just off Trafalgar Square and a short walk to the National Gallery, home of many masterpieces of European art. Many of the works that most people only see in textbooks are on display here, including Seurat’s ‘Bathers at Asnières,’ Monet’s ‘The Water-Lily Pond,’ and Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers.’ It’s common for students to begin class at 10:00 a.m. and then walk over to the National Gallery to be among the first visitors of the day.
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In addition to the National Gallery, students explore the Tate Britain, the Wallace Collection, and contemporary art experiences such as the aforementioned Tate Modern and the Frieze Contemporary Art Fair, one of the largest international art fairs in the world. Students also have the opportunity to visit famous auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s. At first, Oliver said, the students are intimidated by these venues where millions of pounds change hands to procure works of art. But soon, the students find they are made to feel welcome and take in the experience.
‘My students go on the most extraordinary journey when they come here to London,’ Oliver said. ‘For many, it’s their first art history course, possibly the only chance that they will have to study art. Many of them are business majors, they’re engineers, they’re pre-med students, but all of them have really open minds. And I think what they discover in studying the art is that it can be relevant to them whatever path they are going to follow through life in the future.’
All The World’s a Stage. . .
Of course, no exploration of the arts in London would be complete without a survey of Shakespeare. Adjunct professor Boika Sokolova teaches two courses that use differing approaches in examining the work of the famous playwright.
In the first, called Shakespeare in London, students attend productions of Shakespeare plays and learn to write reviews of the experience. Sokolova said the intent is to preserve the memory of theater over time. Chronicling the reaction of the audience to certain moments in the performance gives a window into the contemporary resonance of Shakespeare’s works, just as recounting other aspects of the production can lend insight into modern interpretations.
In the second course, titled Playing Shakespeare, students experience the works from both sides of the fourth wall. Co-taught with The Globe Theatre, the 15-week course is broken up into two segments. For the first seven weeks, students attend three Shakespeare productions. In the latter half of the semester, they focus on one of those texts, this time as actors. This includes rehearsals and a performance at The Globe itself, directed by a classically trained Shakespeare thespian.
‘What I believe happens in this process, especially in the second seven weeks, is that the confidence students have grows enormously,’ Sokolova said. ‘You begin with these rather shy people who sit in your class, and then you see them on the stage totally transformed. It is really a pleasure to see how they grow within a period of 15 weeks. It’s a short semester, and they’re different people.’
Just as the Notre Dame classroom and office building is next to the National Gallery, the residence for students studying in London is mere blocks away from the National Theatre. The proximity of both facilities brings engagement with the arts front and center in the London experience. It’s a dynamic that provides a holistic dimension to the students’ time abroad, regardless of their field of study. Art, after all, resides in the space that other disciplines can’t quite reach. As Shakespeare put it, art gives life a shape. In London, that’s evident in the physical transformation of the South Bank, where Oliver takes her students. More often, it’s shown in the journey of students who learn about themselves and their world, and reflect that learning to those they encounter.
‘One of my students put it really brilliantly,’ Oliver said, ‘that putting something visually can be a way to open up a conversation before people are ready to think about it in words.’
‘I’ve seen through my students maybe the most positive thing about America,’ Sokolova added, ‘which is the desire to learn and change, and to somehow outgrow what you are at the moment. I’ve seen my students develop, thrive; their thinking, their views develop.’