Lesson: Urs Fischer: Reviving the Past Art Movements

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 years)
  • Subject Area: Art History, Literature, Mathematics, Physics, Creative Writing
  • "Untitled," (Piano) 2009."Untitled," (Piano) 2009.
  • Detail of ""Untitled," 2009.Detail of ""Untitled," 2009.
  • Detail of "Untitled," 2009.Detail of "Untitled," 2009.
  • "Marguerite de Ponty," 2006-08."Marguerite de Ponty," 2006-08.
  • "Service à la française," 2009."Service à la française," 2009.
  • "David, the Proprietor," 2008-09."David, the Proprietor," 2008-09.
  • "The Lock," 2007."The Lock," 2007.
  • "Noisette," 2009."Noisette," 2009.
  • "Cumpadre," 2009. "Cumpadre," 2009.
  • "Service à la française," 2009."Service à la française," 2009.
  • "ABC," 2009."ABC," 2009.
  • "Violent Cappuccino," 2007."Violent Cappuccino," 2007.
  • "Frozen Pioneer," 2009."Frozen Pioneer," 2009.
  • Detail of "Frozen Pioneer," 2009. Detail of "Frozen Pioneer," 2009.


written by Joseph Keehn II

It comes to no surprise that artists use history as a means to discuss and understand current times. Artists have reflected, reexamined, recycled, repurposed, and even restaged events, movements, and prevailing ideas of the past. When asked about his concern with the past, Urs Fischer states:

“You cannot freeze language. I speak, you speak, and together we keep things alive. Language is not the product of an individual, but individuals drive it forward through living. There are certain triggers from the past or the present—it doesn’t matter which because they lead to the same thing—that basically reprocess language: cultural language and personal language. It’s about passing things on.”[1]

This lesson is inspired by this “reprocessing” and “passing on” language and history. How are contemporary artists making the past relevant? Are the artworks discussed “inseparable from their moment” or do they have future relevance?


Forty-five minute session and reading and writing assignment.

Subject Areas

 Art History, Literature, Mathematics, Physics, Creative Writing


  • Students will be introduced to different art movements and their notable characteristics and styles.
  • Students will synthesize their understanding of the art movements by comparing them to contemporary works.
  • Students will compare and contrast the devices of a contemporary artist and a deceased writer to speak about their ideas and critiques of their own times.


Baroque refers to the style and period of architecture, visual art, decorative art, music, and literature of western Europe and the Americas from about 1590 to 1750. The style is characterized by balance and wholeness, often with an emphasis on spectacle and emotional content, and a tendency toward contrasts of light against dark, mass against void, and the use of strong diagonals and curves. 

Dada refers to the European artistic and literary movement of violent revolt against the pretentions of Western civilization, begun in Zurich in 1916 as a reaction to World War I. The movement advocated the use of irony, nihilism, iconoclasm, the absurd, and emphasized the importance of chance in the creation of poems, performances, and artworks, which were typically commonplace objects set in an artistic setting. The name Dada was chosen by chance from the dictionary.

Surrealist refers to the international intellectual movement centered mainly in Paris from the 1920s to the late 1940s. Adopting some of the aesthetic experiments of Symbolism and the attitudes of Dada, the movement is characterized by an emphasis on exploring the limits of experience by fusing reality with the instinctual, the subconscious, and the realm of dreams, in order to create an absolute reality.

Vanitas refers to still lifes in which the objects depicted are overt reminders of mortality, the transcience of human life, and the ultimate worthlessness of earthly possessions, such as hourglasses, scales, mirrors, skulls, and symbols of wealth, learning, and power such as jewels, books, and armor. Such still lifes, unlike most others, have religious overtones. This type of still life, developed in Leiden, was especially popular in seventeenth-century Dutch painting. The name “vanitas” comes from a passage in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible.

Minimalism is a style developed in the mid-twentieth century, characterized by simplicity and lack of decoration to the point of starkness. The movement advocated reducing art to the state of non-art by removing nature and culture, resulting in artwork in pure, simple forms and objects placed randomly. The term can be extended to all art, including literature, design, music, visual art, and performance. With specific reference to the visual arts, the term is used to describe an abstract art movement and style, predominantly of sculpture, that flourished in the mid- and late-1960s.

Pop art refers to the international art and cultural movement that flourished in Britain and America in the 1950s and 1960s. Influenced by Dada, the movement advocated the use of everyday imagery, such as advertisements, signs, and comic strips, executed in the techniques and graphic styles of mass media.

Trompe l'œil is a technique often associated with painting realistic imagery on a two-dimensional to create an optical illusion of being three-dimensional. French for “trick the eye,” trompe-l'œil was garnered during the seventeenth century Baroque period, when iconography shifted from the witty, intellectual qualities of sixteenth-century Mannerism to a more direct, obvious, and dramatic visceral appeal aimed at the senses.


Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimension by the author A Square

Suggested Procedures

1.       Divide the class into small groups. Provide the students with definitions on the Baroque, Dada, Surrealist, Minimalist and Pop art movements. Additional resources for these movements can be found at the end of this lesson. Ask students to arrange the movements into a timeline. Have a discussion on what the movements were responding to, their major characteristics, and how they relate to one another.

2.       Give each group a series of images from “Urs Fischer: Marguerite de Ponty.” With markers, have students dissect the images into the different movements. For example, drawing a line from the Crutches and writing “Surrealist” and/or “Dada.” Below each movement, students will need to provide visual evidence as to why they choose that movement. On the board, post like images with one another and lead a class summary discussion on the results of the dissection.

3.       In the accompanying publication to the exhibition, Jessica Morgan mentions several artists in discussing Fischer’s work. From the following list of artist, students will need to write a comparison/contrast paper, specifically addressing the artists’ practices. The artist’s practice includes such things as influences, inspiration, art-making process, and cultural informants.

  • Damien Hirst
  • Takashi Murakami
  • Jeff Koons
  • Martin Kippenberger
  • Franz West
  • Medardo Rosso
  • Edgar Degas
  • Auguste Rodin
  • Gordon Matta-Clark
  • Claes Oldenburg
  • Coosje van Bruggen
  • Philip Guston
  • Daniel Burns
  • Elaine Sturtevant
  • Sherri Levine
  • Michael Asher
  • Chris Burden
  • Dieter Roth

Students should frame their analysis around a comparison of Urs Fischer and one of the above artists. Suggest to your students to compare one to two works of one of the above artists with one to two works of Fischer’s. Refer to A Short Guide To Writing About Art by Sylvan Barnet for strategies on writing about art.

4.       Have your students read Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimension by the author A Square. Full electronic version of this novel is accessible here: (http://books.google.com/books?id=u8HOxy7lQYUC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Flatland&client=firefox-a#v=onepage&q=&f=false ) Inform students that Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions is an 1884 satirical novella by Edwin A. Abbott. Writing pseudonymously as “A Square,” Abbott used the fictional two-dimensional world of Flatland to offer pointed observations on the social hierarchy of Victorian culture. In addition to his critique on the time period, Abbott provides a thought-provoking introduction to understand dimensions. While reading have students take notes on A Square’s references to Victorian culture and to mathematics and physics in terms of dimensions. Suggest to students to divide their notes into two sections with the headers “Victorian Culture References” and “Mathematic/Physics References.” After reading, lead a class discussion on the themes that come up in the book. Abbott has used a fantasy two-dimensional world to talk about class, gender, and politics permeating during the Victorian era.

  • Why would a writer/artist use fantasy/fiction to talk about issues that are affecting us now?
  •  What are the pros/cons of using fiction in order to talk about these issues?

5.       Looking back at Fischer’s artistic practice, have your students compare and contrast “Urs Fischer: Marguerite de Ponty” and Flatland. When asked about the changes in his artistic practice, Fischer states:

“I think I am less interested in the contrast between an inner world and the outer world. I want the inner world to become concrete and function like an outer world. I want fantasies to become physical…Now I am more interested in creating a harder environment, a space you can live in.”[2]

What are their similarities between the practices of the artist and the author? Differences? What are both of them using as a device to reference both the past and the present? What do you think their ideal “readings” of their works would be?


Using the analysis papers and the class conversations, did students:

  • Synthesize an understanding of the art movements?
  • Denote similarities/differences in the practices of past artists with a contemporary artist?
  • Address their own ideas and critique the current times?

[1] Urs Fischer: Shovel in a Hole, Bice Curiger, Massimiliano Gioni, and Jessica Morgan (New York: New Museum & JRP Ringier), 2009.

[2] Urs Fischer: Shovel in a Hole, Bice Curiger, Massimiliano Gioni, and Jessica Morgan (New York: New Museum & JRP Ringier), 2009.