Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Museums: Not for artists any more

I have been to museums a grand total of three times in my life. Well, let me qualify that. I've been to museums that showed more than modern or contemporary art, and focused in on art of the past three times in my life. The first time I went I was a senior in high school and I went to the Art Institute of Chicago. The second time I had just finished my art degree, I was in my first year of physics classes and I once again went to the Art Institute of Chicago. The third time happened just the other day, during the first year of my art career, at the Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis.

The first time I was just about to graduate high school and I had taken a few art classes. As many as they'd let me take. Suffice it to say I was not very knowledgeable about the process of painting or drawing but I could get a likeness and given enough time I could make a pretty decent painting, mostly by trial and error. This was my most pleasant trip to a museum. Let me qualify again: this was the one trip I didn't almost get thrown out of a museum. I did lose my group and end up staying there for over six hours, but I see this as a huge plus! We did the tour, they asked questions, I answered as we dissected the meaning of some more modern pieces. And then they let us go. Oh, My, God! Of course the first thing we did is get let out right next to the impressionists and post impressionists. It was the first time I had ever seen a piece of art I had liked from a text book in person. A little dancer done in chalk by Degas. It was so small, so intimate, I could see the way the chalk lay on top of the paper. I started bawling right then, just standing in front of art for the first time in my life. The next was a painting of Renoir, something I had done a master copy of from a book. I started crying again. When asked what was wrong, all I could say was, "Look at it! Just, look at it!" And finally I pulled myself together and went to just look at art for the next six hours, sans any more complete emotional break downs.

And then I returned home, got an art degree, and came back once again. Totally different experience. I know I was looking forward to seeing one painting I had loved as a senior. Now I can't even remember the name or the title, or anything about it, really. I looked at it, and was so confused. Had I really liked this before? Where were the colors I remembered? It was drawn well, but where was the part of it that moved me? It was just so flat and dead from what I remembered before. I shrugged and started walking around to view the art. This is where the problems started. I noticed most people progressing in a fairly linear fashion through the rooms, standing in front of some pieces, skipping others, but still, in a pretty orderly fashion. I, however, well.... Out of the corner of my eye I'd see a piece that would draw me in, I'd stare from across the room, the walk in, get as close as I could and try to figure out how it was painted. Then I'd back up, usually into someone, and then go forward to study it again, and then I would see another painting, and I'd practically have to run to it. I'd go from one room to another and back, without any sort of plan other than "Oh my god, I can't believe I'll get to see it in person!" once a piece caught my attention. Once a crowed had gathered around a fairly large work, and right beside it was a small self-portrait by Chardin. Immediately the portrait drew me in, almost made me cry again, seeing the color and the brushstrokes. I am pretty sure I began talking to myself about how much more amazing it was in person and just gushing over it. Honestly, from reproductions I had not cared much for it, but seriously, in person? Amazing! And then I noticed the crowed around the large painting, some staring curiously at my reaction, and I looked at the other work politely, shrugged a bit, and then noticed another portrait two rooms away and I was gone. At this point I had been asked to slow down numerous times, and one friend I was with had gotten in trouble for using a cell phone in a special exhibit, so at this point she wasn't with me. And then there were the Caravaggio's.

This is where I almost get thrown out. Apparently getting really close to see how someone paints something in a special exhibit is just as bad as using a cell phone. I am having a rapturous experience, and under normal circumstances I'm usually focused intently on one thing, at this point I'm pretty sure I've blocked everything else out. Someone's talking to me and I just start babbling all I know about Caravaggio, which at the time was a God awful amount to know because I had done several papers on him and it was all fresh in my mind, plus I was babbling about /how/ he was painting. And it turns out I'm gushing about the paintings to a security guard who just wants me to step back while I'm gesturing wildly trying to make him understand exactly how the light is layered and "oh my god, look at the glazing!"

Yeah. I think he was happy when I moved to another painting to compare. (It took me awhile to realize it was a security guard).

The same thing pretty much happened in the room with all the Corot's as well. And the Van Gogh's.And let's just say I'm pretty sure all the security guards at this point are well aware that I'm probably slightly insane and they should watch me. Because they do. And they ask me to step back a lot. Which usually just started me talking about how they painted something I was looking at and did nothing for my moving away from the paintings. I was so focused on the art they might have asked me to leave and I might have answered, "Just let me see how he mixed this color" or "do you see how he worked into this glaze" instead of leaving. I was so focused on art everything else was autopilot.

I think they were all happy when I moved on to the gift shop.

And then there was the Brooks Museum. My cousin and her husband and I went the other day. Yeah. First off, bad floor plan. The first thing I notice is a painting of a lobster that I really want to see. So I go see it. Unfortunately I step through some columns that I didn't even notice. Unfortunately this makes a security guard mad. And of course I'm just like, "Really? The space is so huge..." I mean, seriously, a five hundred pound person can fit through so easily, how was I supposed to know I shouldn't walk that way? There was no sign... But whatever. Their bad museum design, not mine, though I was kinda wary about where I could go after that. How was I supposed to know what was right?

And then came the part where we were almost thrown out. I do not have to have people around me to talk about art. So when I have captives with me, aka my cousin and her husband, I can talk a lot. And I gesture a lot, and I point out things a lot. So a security guard comes up to us and says something about it looks like we're touching the art on camera. I turn to face her and give a kind of dismissive smile and say, "Well, we aren't touching the art, thank you though" And then turn around to completely ignore her, even though she follows us throughout the whole exhibit.

I guess it wouldn't have been so bad there except with the way the lights were set up I couldn't be comfortable looking at details from one to two feet away. The light glared so I had to get right up on it to see what I was interested in: how the paint was applied on the canvas.

I suppose once I get used to going to museums like a civilized person I'll get better at this. But really! I got there not to look at art, you can do that online or from any art book, but to study and learn how it was done from the great masters themselves! Good artists not only do a magic trick in front of you, but literally show you how it's done. It's like they are painting right in front of you if you know how to look, and to me that's better than chocolate.

When a writer reads like a writer, they aren't reading a book like most people. They certainly can read a book like most people, but to read like a writer you read in an entirely different way, asking why a writer is saying something, using a certain figure of speech, and writing in a certain idiom. For a carpenter to look at a chair like a carpenter, he's looking at it, taking it apart in his mind, putting it together, wondering about the function of different pieces. That doesn't mean he can't sit in it. As an artist, I can look at art and just see it for the image it is. But I also can look at each brushstroke, each glazed color, see the materials, see how colors stack together, wonder at the use of value and elements of art and composition. And the best way to do that is look at the actual work, because you can't get that in a reproduction, no matter how high definition the camera goes, no matter the light used to photograph it. It's certainly good to look at art no matter how you can. But it's best in person.

As long as you don't get thrown out of the museum.

1 comment:

Kristin said...

"I'm pretty sure all the security guards at this point are well aware that I'm probably slightly insane and they should watch me." ::snort::

I remember being BLOWN AWAY by seeing Sunday Afternoon..La Grande Jatte. It was awesome. I totally want it in my living room ;)

You are an artist and interact with the art as much as you can, I guess they're just not used to the museum being "used" to its full extent :)