Where It All Got Started

Gerry Sherayko photoThe decades surrounding the first World War were some of the most artistically rich in modern history. In the cultural capitals of Paris and Berlin, revolutionary artists, writers and philosophers forged some of the first truly “modern” art movements: impressionism, expressionism, Art Nouveau, Dadaism and surrealism.

History professor Gerry Sherayko isn’t an art historian by trade, but he’s fascinated with the intersection of art, culture and politics. Sherayko wrote his master’s thesis on Paris and Berlin in the 1920s and has taught a popular seminar on the subject at Randolph for the past ten years.

In 2006, with the help of French language professor Jaymes Anne Rohrer, Sherayko expanded his course into an unforgettable International Study Seminar called “Paris and Berlin in the Modern Age.”

During the spring semester, students met for small weekly classes to discuss assigned readings and films by and about the brightest artistic figures of late 19th century and early 20th century Europe. With a lot of ground to cover, students were expected to read an entire book each week, plus watch related films.

“You end up doing a lot more work in these seminars, but the advantage is that [the students] are really getting graduate-level experience as an undergraduate,” says Sherayko. “I’m not lecturing to them. It’s everyone sitting around a table discussing the films we watch, the art that I show them, and the books that we read.”

The readings and in-class discussion served as an intensive primer for the anxiously awaited capstone of the course: a two-week trip to the museums, galleries, cafés and architectural monuments of Paris and Berlin.

“Reading about history is interesting, exciting, informative, challenging, and necessary to understand our world,” says Sherayko, but nothing compares to walking the same Parisian boulevards as Hemmingway and Van Gogh or standing awe-struck in front of the famed Bauhaus School outside of Berlin.

Paris really captured the students’ imaginations, says Sherayko, especially a guided tour of Monmartre, the historic neighborhood that so many influential turn-of-the-century artists called home: Picasso, Renoir, Matisse, Degas, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, just to name a few.

“Paris still looks very much like a 19th century city,” says Sherayko, “ so it was easy to be transported back in time.”

“Berlin was a completely different experience,” says Sherayko of the next stop on their European cultural tour. “The rebuilt, reunited city is drenched in history, but straining toward the future with the same burst of creativity that it must have had in the period we were studying.”

While visiting world-famous museums and galleries, students conducted first-hand research for a paper that would be due in the fall. Before leaving for the trip, each student worked closely with professors Sherayko and Rohrer to develop a research paper topic. Most students started out knowing absolutely nothing about their subject; by the end, they were drafting complex 12-page papers with titles like “The Influence of Marcel Duchamp and His Confrontation with Art” and “Kunst und Rasse: Race and Art in Germany from 1920-1937.”

Sherayko is now working on plans for an International Study Seminar exploring the impact of World War II on the U.S. and Germany, with trips to Washington, D.C., Berlin and Dresden.

The real benefit of these seminars, says Sherayko, is that they give Randolph students new eyes through which to see the world.

“Taking these experiences back home, perhaps, they will have gained an attitude of inquiry,” he says, “to ask questions about what they are reading, hearing, seeing on TV. To wonder what the situation might really be, and to know that there is always more to learn.”