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January 2020 Visual Arts Storytelling Experience in Vienna

Approaching different cultures via exchanging stories is like entering the new unknown territories with curiosity, uncertainty and the will to discover something new. Grasping the unknown via visuals marks additionally the visual turn of our times. I have been wondering how to combine both and came up with a new project that I tried out with the design thinking approach in one of my favorite European museums with a group of intercultural enthusiasts. If you got curious what we have experienced there, have a look at the short summary and the pictures.

Staircase at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

The entrance to the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art Museum) in Vienna is spectacular. To those who are used to minimal art and a certain simplicity of form of our times this vast neo- renaissance staircase can even be overwhelming. The tasteful rich decorations attract our attention and the eyes wander from the marble stairs towards the spectacular ceilings with paintings by Gustav Klimt deducing the observers with golden background and vivid colors. Half way to piano nobile, the first floor of the museum the Carrara marble sculpture showing Theseus fighting against Minotaur by Antonio Canova welcomes our group of six to the universe of beauty. First jokes, first icebreakers, first laughter tunes us to enjoy time spent together with familiar and new persons. After this short art tasting we head to the room with pictures by Peter Breughel. Why him? Because I promised to Magdalena, Gradiola, Barbara, Tomas and Essa the „ Visual Arts Storytelling Experience” and this Dutch Renaissance painter is well known for his narrative approach.
To me it was the birth of the “VASE” project, designed as a compilation of art, storytelling and intercultural communication to enhance building bridges of mutual understanding across cultures.
When we reached the room with the collection of pictures everyone had ten minutes to choose one painting, guess its theme and remember as many details as possible without reading the description. One by one we moved from the “Tower of Babel “to “Children’s Games”, “The hunters in Winter” towards “The Gloomy Day”. Every picture invited us to enter a new story and to exchange observations on the cultural setting of the sixteenth century in the Netherlands and the dynamics of global communication of our times.

Choosing the painting in the museum

When we approached the Tower of Babel I asked the person who chose that painting to imagine she really entered the picture and share what she saw there. The précised description let other participants notice many details and get curious about the story behind.  The biblical story on the construction of the Tower of Babel invited a discussion on challenges of our times regarding global communication. In the Biblical story people who wanted to reach out to the sky with their tower, got punished by God who mingled their tongues so that they could not understand each other any longer and faced great challenges in continuing the building process.  The Story of the Tower of Babel is an example of the punishment for the pride and the futility of much human endeavor.  Our current struggles in the virtual space with the acceleration due to the digitalization and the advance of artificial intelligence bring us to the point of no return, where we must focus on the ethical aspects of our “proud achievements”. One more aspect got emphasized during our discussion on the multilinguism after Babel. Understanding each other across cultures requires enhanced listening skills and empathy. Only then we are listening for understanding and are able to tune our communication styles. 

As we have spent in the museum 90 minutes, the description of the Visual Arts Storytelling Experience (VASE)  can go on for pages and pages. Therefor, regarding the further pictures I would like to focus on questions and discussions we had, without the back stories of the pictures.

Jan Brueghel, Children’s Games

And so, moving to the next picture, “Children’s Games” we focused on the following questions:

  1. Why have you chosen this painting?
  2. What role could you have in this picture?
  3. What surprises you and why?
  4. What analogies do you see between the scene depicted in the picture and our time?
Jan Brueghel, The Hunters in Winter

A vivid description of “The Hunters in Winter” became an invitation to discuss how important it is to address different senses in our stories when we wish to describe something unknown to our listeners. Following our exchange, the person who chose the picture described “snow” to someone who has never seen it. The world of obviousness in the intercultural context became once again tangible. It got even more intense when we moved to the last painting “The Gloomy Day”, that got compared with the tense situation in the Middle East. The debrief of that description is for another article, though.

Encouraged by the intensity and power of the VASE experiment, I am looking forward to offering more Visual Arts Storytelling Experiences in different corner of the world. Let me know if you are interested and I am happy to reach out to you as soon as possible j.sell@interculturalcompass.com