During a field trip to Southern University's Museum of Art, Dr. Darius Spieth demonstrates the influence of African artifacts on Picasso's works.
What do Marxist theory, African art, and Georges Braque have in common?
If you were a student in Dr. Darius Spieth’s Honors Colloquium in the Arts class, you would answer without hesitation — Pablo Picasso.
The small, seminar-style course (simply entitled “Picasso”) focuses not only on the renowned artist himself, but also on the development of art and the history of ideas in the 20th century.
“Picasso is nicely confined, yet he goes through the major phases of modern art, starting off with the Blue and Rose period and then inventing cubism along with Braque,” said Associate Professor Darius Spieth. “He returns after World War I to very figurative art with classical overtones, and after World War II, he was very politically involved in the Communist party … So it raises interesting intellectual and historical questions.”
Spieth, a specialist in early modern European art who has worked for Harvard University’s Fogg Museum and held professional positions in the international art market, said that art has always been a major part of his life.
“For me, it’s a very intense personal interest — I’ve been collecting art since I was fourteen,” he said. “I collect art, I organize exhibitions on campus, and I’ve worked for museums … [where] I handled Picassos myself.”
Unlike most art history courses, Spieth said the “Picasso” class allows Honors students the unique opportunity to study a single artist in depth while also learning about the intellectual and social developments that defined the 20th century.
“It’s different from other large survey classes, which I also love teaching, but… here, I really get to know the students much better, and that’s one of the great things about the Honors College,” he said. “With this class, I try to take a step back and let students guide the discussion – I try to put them in the driver’s seat.”
Spieth recently returned to LSU from California Institute of Technology, where he served as the 2011 Mellon Visiting Professor. His scholarship tends to focus on the intersections between art, intellectual history, and economics, so it makes sense that his Honors class is centered on these same interrelationships.
“I tried to draw in parallels from a lot of other disciplines — even film sometimes — to make it relevant,” he said. “I try everything I can to engage people.”
One way Spieth recently allowed his students to directly engage with the subject matter was through a field trip to Southern University’s Museum of Art. The class is also focused on African art’s influence on Picasso, and on the field trip, students got a firsthand look at such artifacts similar to the ones that inspired Picasso to paint the famous “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon” (1907).
“Picasso was one of the very first artists to be influenced by African art and to take this material seriously from an aesthetic perspective,” said Spieth. “And so one of the things students do is write an argumentative essay that deals with artifacts from non-Western cultures and the controversies that arose from their inclusion in museums.”
Christa Mahlobo, Honors kinesiology sophomore, signed up for the class because she was looking for an alternative to the traditional art history class.
“[Unlike most] art classes where each artist is only lightly brushed over … this class goes in-depth and really explores the complexity that was Picasso,” she said. “It’s informative, because I’m getting a lesson in history, philosophy, and politics … and of course about Picasso's famous works, which have very different meanings to me now than when I first saw them.”
Ultimately, Spieth’s goal for all of his classes is to instill in students a desire to learn more about art.
“Picasso is a way to get people hooked on it, because everyone has heard of Picasso,” he said. “People may want to learn more, see more, and make art a permanent part of their lives.”
Story by Elizabeth Clausen, LSU Honors College
For more information, contact the Honors College at 225-578-8831