Slowing down to look

This is a heads up on thought provoking article about how we Slowing down in a Museum from The New York Times. Make a cuppa and read the article as the key point Stephanie Rosenbloom makes is to slow down and spend time with a painting. I am suggesting you slow down, read the article and think about how we encounter artworks in a gallery.  Stephanie Rosenbloom suggests that 20 minutes in front of painting will reveal more meaning to the viewer than racing to see the top 10 pieces in a collection. I agree with her.

Much of contemporary life has become about collecting experiences and catching a selfie in front of not only famous works of art but in front of famous icons such as the Sydney harbour bridge or the Eiffel Tower, London Bridge, on the Great Wall of China etc. I have nothing against selfies as such, but I do wonder what does this experience mean? What is actually happening when people dash here and there, seeing this and that? What is this fetish with collecting experiences? The activity becomes similar to someone collecting stamps.

The process puzzles me. In the case of viewing a painting if people treat the gallery experience as if they are scanning text on a computer screen the quick fleeting impression they gather will be only be partial at best and shallow at worst.

Stephanie Rosenbloom article in The New York Times opens with an image of everyone taking photos of the Mona Lisa. The last time I stood in that room I know I spent my time watching people (because I could not really see the painting) and I felt many did not quite know why the painting was so famous. In the hall next door there are 4 paintings by Leonardo da Vinci that people just walk past. There is even a seat in front of them that you can sit and contemplate the works but tired tourists sit with their back to paintings, facing the door to the room that holds the Mona Lisa usually waiting for their spouse or fellow tour companions to exit that room after seeing the Mona Lisa. Who am I to tell someone to turn around and see the Leonardo da Vinci behind them but I was left wondering what people took away from their day at the Louvre.

Cycladic figure page spread

Cycladic figure sketched at the Louvre

I will happily plonk myself down in front of any of the works in the major galleries of the world as usually if something is in their collection it is worthy of being thought about. Even if I know little about the history or context of the work usually something will reveal itself if I just pay attention and actually look with my brain engaged.

I  pull out my sketchbook and take a note of the key elements in famous painting or no so famous. The note itself may not be very important, but what is important is the slowing down to make it, the slowing down to look. I like seeing the brush strokes and seeing how the painting was made or something about the composition might catch my eye so I sketch it out.

This is important in those big block buster exhibitions where people scoot through the rooms quickly. I use a sketchbook to pace myself because if I am in a crowd that is moving at certain pace, I find I will move with the flow too. It’s like I can easily become part of heard and whisked through the exhibit. So I pull out my sketchbook, stop and stubbornly take notes! I will note the colour scheme as it is an interesting combination and before I know it I have spent a good few minutes in front the painting and I have learnt something. This ‘something’ is a discovery I have made. It is not a snippet passed on by a guide which is useful to place a piece in context, but it something I have discovered and as such will texture my mental life and become something I reflect upon.

Egyptian sculpture in the British Museum in travel journalIf I want to slow down even further I will often sketch an object. This is particularly the case in a museum, as doing so makes me slow down and look at what I am seeing. As I draw I notice all sorts of little things about an object and quite simply I get much more out of the experience of seeing one thing well than twenty things quickly. I find this is really important when travelling as often my senses are on overload and slowing down allows me to focus on key elements of the experience.

OK here is my confession. I have just said that often it appears to me that people in galleries are collecting experiences like they collect stamps yet I love books like 1001 paintings you must see before you die, or 1001 books you must read before you die. What is that contradiction about? I think some of it is that I like to secretly disagree with what is recommended. I am worse with lists of books to read than paintings to see, as I am a real sucker for a good list! In the case of book lists I love being exposed to things I may have not sought out. So there is my contradiction, I like lists but insist on slowing down and not following the crowd.

What are your thoughts? How do you approach a gallery visit?

Thanks to Danny Gregory for the link to the thought provoking  article.

Why is Art important?

What is Art for?
Have you ever felt afraid to ask What is Art for? Or felt you might be considered stupid for asking the question?

In this great, short, no nonsense video Alain de Botton proposes five things that explain why Art matters


Free online Drawing and Photography courses offered by Open2Study

Readers will be interested in this free course run by the Open2Study which is part of Open Universities Australia.
The Art of Drawing and Painting starts on 2 June 2014. I have heaps on my plate at the moment but I could not resist enrolling.

It looks like it covers fundamentals of colour theory, touches on perspective and the hands on is balanced with a touch of art history.

This is blurb from the Open2Study site where you can sign up (it’s free),  and the you tube promo

“Through discussions and visual demonstrations, you will learn how art has been expressed through history, the basics of colour theory, and how to draw and paint flat images and perspectives. Further, you will be able to understand the principles and styles of assimilating visual compositions. You will produce paintings and collages influenced by famous school of arts and painters such as Pointillism, Cubism, De Stijl, Surrealism, and Constructivism. This course is open to everyone who wants to try. It will provoke your sense of creativity and allow you to express yourself in a way that fits within your skill level.”

Also for those who carry a camera everywhere they go there is a free Photography course which is run out of RMIT University. It also starts tomorrow and Jerry has signed up for that one!

Once again this is the class description from the Open2Study site where you can sign up (it’s free) and the You Tube promo.

“You will learn about photography as a visual art practice, and how this can help you to become an engaging and active photographer. You will explore the work and concepts of contemporary photographic artists, which may trigger a new interest in what you photograph. In addition to this, you will also learn some of the practical skills required to further explore photography in exciting and creative ways. Finally, we look at the idea of a “digital darkroom” and explore ways that you can further your interest in photography through post-production knowledge and techniques.”

If you are interested in seeing what else is on offer in the Open2Study free courses visit this page 


Van Gogh’s bridges – then and now

Vincent van Gogh went to Arles in search of Japan – according to David Dale, author of A traveller’s alphabet of essential places. In reality he was looking for the light and colours that he saw in Japanese prints, and he found them in Arles. This post is about how we bridged the distance between France and Japan through Van Gogh’s paintings.

He did several versions of the Pont Langlois bridge at Arles in southern France. The original bridge traversed the Arles-to-Bouc canal and was a simple but functional drawbridge enabling canal boats to pass underneath when raised. A series of these bridges were built along the canal in the first half of the 19th century. The one nearest Arles was called Pont de Réginel but was more popularly known for its keeper, Monsieur Langlois – hence it was known as Langlois’ bridge.

Pont Langlois

Pont Langlois [source: Wikipedia]

I had heard that the bridge was still around and could be seen today. Actually, that’s not quite true, as we found. The original bridge became structurally unsound and was replaced in the 1930s by a concrete bridge – and that in turn was destroyed by retreating Germans in 1944 – they destroyed all but one of the bridges along the canal, leaving only the one at Fos sur Mer. This was of the original bridges on the canal and was the same design as the one Van Gogh painted in 1888. In 1959 the Fos bridge was dismantled with a view to relocating it at the site of the Langlois bridge, but the canal had since been widened and it was decided to move it to its current location near the Montcalde Lock. It is not easy to find.

Pont van Gogh, Arles

Pont van Gogh, Arles

It took a few goes and finally, we turned down a little side street on the outskirts of the town and there was Pont Van-Gogh – its new name – restored to working order. Some might consider it a reproduction or a fake, but since it is from the original series and contemporary with the Langlois bridge, by the same builder, I think it is close enough to original. Again I was struck by how accurately Van Gogh represented the structure and how faithfully he painted the chains and support beams and pulleys for raising the bridge.

He painted four oil paintings and one watercolour of the bridge and completed a number of drawings.

Little did I realise that this bridge was a key to his link with Japan. In the late nineteenth century, Europe was Japan crazy – high quality lacquer furniture, boxes, ceramics and pottery were being exported to Europe by the shipload. As it turns out, many of these were wrapped in fine paper prints, some by famous Japanese artists, others, like the prints of Japanese women were adverts for Geishas.

The different perspective and flat use of colour in these images inspired the post-impressionists to look differently at the world. One print that came to Van Gogh was of a famous painting by Hiroshige of the Edo period bridge that led into the Emperor’s palace in the centre of Tokyo. The bridge is depicted in rain and elegant lines and unusual foreshortening inspired Van Gogh to paint a copy.

Hiroshige bridge

Hiroshige bridge [source: Wikipedia]

 And this is Van Gogh’s version:

Van Gogh-Hiroshige bridge

Van Gogh-Hiroshige bridge [source: Wikipedia]

And we found this connection in Tokyo, at the Edo-Tokyo Museum – which has a full-size replica of the Edo bridge within the museum. It is extraordinary and surprising how connections turn up in the places you least expect. So here is my photo of the replica bridge in Tokyo

Edo-Tokyo bridge

Edo-Tokyo bridge

So from a painting in the Musee d’Orsay, to a bridge in the South of France where Van Gogh sought to connect with his vision of Japan seen through a print of a bridge, we found an extraordinary connection with a reproduction bridge in a museum in Tokyo. This is what makes travel so worthwhile!

What connections have you made across the world in unexpected places? Let us know in the comments below 🙂

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