Looking at Art
There are so many ways to look at art.
I’ve been looking at art for more than 30 years and yet I don’t feel like I’m any sort of expert. But maybe I am. I’m not an art historian, and I don’t live in any of the accepted big centres of art and culture. I’m not able to stroll into the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a weekly or even monthly basis to visit my favourite Vermeers, or an obscure still life. But I live with art, and I watch art being made on a daily basis, and how many people can say that? So why don’t I feel like my opinion is worth something? Luckily, my low self-esteem on this matter hasn’t stopped me from writing about art in pretty much every single one of the books I’ve written. And it’s not going to stop me from writing another, as it happens. I’ve started writing a book of essays on still life, art, etc, my usual suspects. I don’t know why, but this time it feels a bit different. I’m not holding back. I have things to say.
I’ve been re-reading Siri Hustvedt’s Mysteries of the Rectangle. In the introduction she makes the point that “painting is there all at once.” She goes on:
“When I read a book, listen to music, or go to a movie, I experience these works over time. A novel, a symphony, a film are meaningful only as a sequence of words, notes, and frames. Hours may pass but a painting will not gain or lose any part of itself. It has no beginning, no middle, and no end. I love painting because in its immutable stillness it seems to exist outside time in a way no other art can.”
How we experience paintings is of great interest to me. I’m particularly interested in how we feel about paintings over time, and especially those paintings we live with, the ones we “own.” I’m interested in this, obviously, because it’s the experience I’ve been privileged to have. (For new readers, my partner is a visual artist). When you’ve lived with a painting and loved it for 20 years, what does that mean? How do we measure ourselves as humans against that experience? What does it tell us about our relationship with beauty? And how is it that a painting allows us to see it in a fresh way through time? When we live with the particular colours in a painting, are they absorbed into our soul?
Hustvedt notes that:
“Seeing anything is immensely complex. In order to absorb an image, we must isolate and assign value to whatever we’re looking at. In a figurative painting, I will notice the woman who stands at the centre of the canvas before the man who stands far to the left. But I will probably see him before I notice the ring on the woman’s finger or the thin line of lace at the hem of her dress. In an abstract painting of many colours and shapes, I will see red before ochre, the large heavy shape before the wisps of paint near it. Although we take these discriminations for granted, the ability to make them is rooted in the physiology of experience.”
She goes on to quote Henry James who says: “In the arts, feeling is meaning.”
And then she talks about how we’re made to feel, in museums – that seeing is perhaps not enough.
“And yet the world of museums has produced a cult of expertise and mythos of greatness that weight the ordinary pleasure of looking at art and responding to it with an alarm about ignorance.”
The museum goer is urged to wear headphones and listen to museum guides which lead from painting to painting. When you go to a museum you see people reading along in their guidebook, or looking at the curatorial notes longer than they look at the actual work of art. Hustvedt says there’s a place for all these sources of information, but that “they are best consulted once the looking is over.”
I don’t know that there’s any correct way to look at and enjoy a painting. When I want to feel things, to feel a stillness, and to experience an all at once-ness, I sit in front of a painting and I look, long and lazy and happy and sometimes beautifully sad.
I would love to hear about your experiences of looking at a painting you love…..