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.

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7 Responses to Slowing down to look

  1. We went to the Rijksmuseum a few years ago and spent hours in the galleries – but only a cursory 5 mins with the Rembrandts! (Actually that was partly because Andy does not rate him!) Seriously I think you are quite right. I hate being rushed around a gallery as I spend ages on a painting I enjoy, and can learn from. Books don’t count – they are like food – a necessity of life :).

  2. Barbara M says:

    Close to where we live is a great library with a dedicated gallery where regular exhibitions are held. The last one was fascinating as some of the entries were quite large pieces and from a distance, appeared to be constructed of fine black wire, really convincing as 3d objects.
    Upon much closer inspection(i.e. me with my nose practically touching the said pieces) I was delighted and fascinated to find the whole piece was created by using an ordinary everyday black biro on paper, much in the way young children scribble!!!
    These discoveries are a delight to me and I spent quite some time tracing the fantastic shapes with my eyes.
    Another was a book about ‘Alice in Wonderland’ which someone had used to carve paper cut outs directly from the pages and created a fantastic 3D scene from the actual paper. Chairs, table, silhouettes of Alice and the rabbit. Amazing! Sorry, but I could go on for ever. It really pays to look much, much closer!

  3. Beth in IL says:

    My family loves museums. We like to read every single bit of information on a piece. I think most people hurry by is that we are a society that is busy, busy. Run through the exhibit and be done. Check that off my list. I am a list person and I tend to rush to get things done, but it is important to slow down and see things.

  4. Faith says:

    When I lived in Brookings, SD, (a long time ago)
    I remember spending over thirty minutes looking at THE PRAIRIE IS MY GARDEN ( by Harvey Dunn (someone I had never heard of before). I didn’t really think about why, except that it entranced me. It was a wonderful, contemplative experience. I bought a print, but nothing is like the real thing.
    One of the big disappointments of going to the museums in DC was that my husband is one of those who rush through. I try not to go with him anymore. Even at the local art fair, I like to spend time in front of what attracts me.
    And I’m the same about books. I have only just reached a point where I want to reread and contemplate a good book. Even then, I still have a “So many books, so little time” feeling. 🙂

    • sharonb says:

      Faith as I get older I really believe that it is the quality of experiences that texture our lives not the quantity slowing down deepens quality for me

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