Monday, August 17, 2015

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

            I think in the back of many people’s minds there is the notion of the perfect art gallery, hung with masterpieces. It is an art gallery in which we can wander for hours contemplating these great works, uninterrupted. As we admire, we think. We are absorbed into each artist’s conception. We consider technique, we consider colour and line and form and the artist’s distinctive style. We are uplifted, and we eventually emerge into the world outside filled with a stock of rich artistic memories.
            This daydream haunts the minds especially of people like me, of European (in my case, British) descent, but living far from the centres of old European culture, where most of the great European art-works still hang. We idealise how we would experience those galleries.
            Yet in my visits to Europe, I’ve never found reality matching the daydream.
            There is one obvious flaw in the daydream, shameful to admit but a truth nevertheless. I will call it “art fatigue”. I first felt this acutely eighteen years ago. I was visiting Melbourne at the time when a travelling exhibition of Rembrandts, loaned from the Netherlands, was hanging there. Eagerly I went to the exhibition. I was held rapt by the first three or four Rembrandt canvases I examined. I was quite interested in the next four or five that I examined. But within about an hour and a half, as my pace quickened around the gallery, I found myself saying “Oh yes, another Rembrandt” and my mind began preparing how I would spend the rest of the day.
How philistine of me to confess it, but I have found that one can look at the greatest art for only so long before “art fatigue” sets in.  Perhaps if we were in a position to visit the same exhibition for an hour or so on each of three or four successive days, we would really appreciate it. But this is not a practical option for most people.
We can, as modern tourists, attempt to prolong our visits by snapping masterpieces on our handy little modern cameras – but this means that we will eventually be spending more time looking at photographs of great works rather than at the works themselves.
And on top of this, as I have found on European holidays this year and last, some great galleries are very strict in forbidding tourists to take photographs. In my experience, the best-known English art galleries prohibit photography, meaning that in the National Gallery in London I had to take a hasty and surreptitious (and, as it turned out, blurred) shot of one of my favourite marital portraits, Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews, before an officious guard came over and reminded me that photos were forbidden.

Likewise, making a second visit to the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, and knowing full well I wasn’t meant to, I took quick bootleg shots of such favourites as The Harvest (at Arles). Yet at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, where so many Rembrandts and Vermeers hang, there are no restrictions on photography.

Oddly, the great French art galleries appear to have no rules against taking snaps. In the Louvre, I could photograph an Ingres odalisque, and admire her alluring, if anatomically impossible, bottom. Or I could produce a blurry shot of a copyist reproducing a Delacroix, in both cases without being rebuked. I have also snapped away happily in the Orangerie, the Musee d’Orsay, the Rodin museum and the preserved Delacroix studio.

I know good curatorship seeks to protect paintings from the effect of flash bulbs, and all galleries which permit photography do so on the condition that flash-bulbs aren’t used. Even so, my general impression is that the prohibition of tourist photography is mainly in the interests of promoting sales of reproductions in the gift-shop.
Having noted “art fatigue” and the distracting matter of photography, there is at last the major thing that prevents one’s idealised gallery from being a reality. This is the obvious fact that, with few exceptions, you will find yourself sharing your gallery time with jostling crowds, who walk in front of you as you attempt to view canvases, or who congregate in such profusion before a desired canvas that the best you can do is attempt to peer over their shoulders and heads.
Sometimes you can get lucky. As people passed through, we found ourselves for an hour or so almost alone in the Louvre’s room of nineteenth century canvases, able to view the likes of David’s Oath of the Horatii unimpeded. Mind you, going downstairs and attempting to look at the tiny Mona Lisa meant participating in a rugby scrum.

At the Orangerie, I could grab a hasty second when nobody happened to be before my viewfinder, and shoot one of Monet’s vast water-lily canvases in such a way that it looked as if I had the gallery to myself.

The reality was that at that time, the room was buzzing with a tourist horde and sometimes it took a great act of will to concentrate on the paintings.

Similarly, your first sighting of Rembrandt's Night Watch in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum will probably look like this.

So, “art fatigue”, the minor distraction of attempting to photograph things, and especially the presence of so many bustling people. You do not have to be a monomaniac to realise that none of these is conducive to the serene contemplation of art over a long period. The ideal gallery dissolves.
There is, naturally, another philistine thought, which points out that the overwhelming majority of people know and admire Old Masters solely through the medium of reproductions anyway. For every one person who has seen and admired Vermeer’s girl with the pearl earring in Mauritshuis in the Hague, there must be twenty thousand who know her from posters and glossy art books. Increasingly, people know art works from their large computer screen, where they are reproduced with great exactitude. New 3D printing promises to reproduce art works with all the bumps and ridges of real brush strokes.

So do we need art galleries for our art appreciation anyway?
In spite of everything I’ve said here, I think we do.
Why is this? Is it a matter of “bagging” each painting for some presumed list of things done? Or is there a special power in being in the presence of the very thing the artist made?
I still don’t know.

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