Monday, 16 August 2010
'Masterpiece Theatre' at Art21
On a single day this week I saw a clutch of paintings that would, by most reckonings, be referred to as “masterpieces”: Velazquez’ Las Meninas (1656), Goya’s Third of May 1808 (1814), Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1503-4), and Picasso’s Guernica (1937). I’m deliberately not linking to images of them, because you already know what they look like. Perhaps the images flicked into your mind on reading the titles. I thought I knew them too, but this prior knowledge made it almost impossible to look at the real object with any kind of immediacy. Anecdotal historical information, the stuff upon which wall labels and guided tours are built, deadens an immediate response to a work of art. It thickens the air; it slows down your reactions. This distancing from the physicality of the thing in front of you is made literal in the Louvre’s disastrous hang of the Mona Lisa, pinioned behind glass like an entomological specimen: dead.
The sort of contextual historical knowledge used to accompany a reproduction of a famous work like Las Meninas in an historical textbook seems pretty useless when employed in front of the actual object. The object can’t be explained away that easily, and the painting looks back, amused; both Las Meninas and the Mona Lisa seem, in their focal wry female smiles, to play out this bemusement themselves. Language swarms around the smiling object and most museum hangs and curatorial approaches — burdened with words: written, read, said — reduce the duration of actual looking. We talk because we don’t know how to look.
Read the complete article on Art21 here.