Monday, February 6, 2017

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’ve recently returned from an extended holiday in Europe, and I am once again pondering a cultural question that has often puzzled me.

Why is it that some of the great art galleries and museums are happy to allow tourists to take photographs, while others totally forbid the practice?

Based on experience of three trips to Europe in the last three years I draw up the following scorecard. In Paris, the Louvre, the Orangerie, the Musee d'Orsay and the Musee de Cluny are perfectly happy for snaps to be taken, although they do warn against using flashes. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Scottish National Gallery, the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art and the Scottish Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh are all similarly tolerant of photographs. But Holyrood House and Edinburgh Castle are not. The London National Gallery and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam forbid photos. Meanwhile in Madrid, the Prado forbids photography as does the Reina Sofia museum of modern art. But Madrid’s third great gallery, the  Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, permits photographs. One hour’s train journey from Madrid, the Escorial (palace and basilica) also forbids photography, despite all the El Grecos and Velasquez’s on the walls.

Tally them up and you will see nine of these establishments allow tourists to click away, while in seven, raising a viewfinder to one’s eye will provoke stern glares from curators.

Why this discrepancy? Obviously works of art in the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum are just as precious and valuable as those in the Prado and the London National Gallery, so it's not a matter of conserving the paintings.

Is it, my cynical heart thinks, a matter of preserving the lucrative sale of postcards in the gallery shop? (And, truth to tell, those professional postcards that reproduce artistic masterpieces will usually present better images than most tourist cameras can capture.)

Or could it be an aesthetic preference? In this day and age, when most people use silent digital devices, taking photographs does not produce the loud click of the old Kodak or Leica. So crowds of tourists taking photographs will not produce an irritating racket. But having people stopping and lining up sights will impede the progress of crowds, and in many cases will cause other viewers to get irritated as the photographers in front of them block their sight of a masterpiece by lingering too long in front of it.

These are, of course, just idle specualtions of mine.

I am still genuinely puzzled by the lack of uniformity in this matter.

Personally, I like the freedom to snap away at the Assyrian antiquities in the Louvre.

Or at the preserved and over-opulent quarters in the Louvre that once housed Napoleon III and his empress Eugenie.

I like to stand beside Braque’s Pink Tablecloth in the Thyssen-Bornemisza and be photographed admiring it.

As for those museums and galleries that forbid photography, they provoke in me the bolshie habit of taking bootleg photos anyway, when the curators aren’t looking.

How could I resist taking, in Edinburgh Castle, a snap of the room in which Mary Queen of Scots reputedly gave birth to James VI of Scotland (James I of England)?


            I refused to forego the opportunity of providing photographic proof of how under-patronised, and therefore more delightful for us, were galleries in the Prado in the off-season, which I now believe is always the best time to view canonical art.

            As for the Reina Sofia, why should I deny my friends the pleasure of seeing that the main aesthetic delight of conceptual art is the delight of enjoying the space of an empty room?

            I have a very bossy friend who has rebuked me for this surreptitious habit, but I think I will continue to indulge it until such time as somebody can explain to me why the museums and galleries make such different rules.

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