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tilted perspective

Closing in on December, we managed to pack up our little apartment into two overweight suitcases. The days counted down into the single digits until we arranged our meeting to return the apartment keys and pay for broken wine glasses. The horribly humid, yet cold and drafty apartment was thoroughly bleached to remove all trace of mold growing behind the damp furniture. Not our problem, I thought.. but still we could use our deposit back. Inevitably the toll of bleach and mold took their toll and I felt unnecessarily sick on travel day. C’est la vie.

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Sapin de Noël à Chenonceau

Navigating the expansive Paris train system one last time we made it to the airport and spent our last Euros on overpriced sandwiches, using up our last bit of change for the uncustomary tip. A long dry but uneventful plane ride later we landed in Toronto. Leaving the plane we cracked open the backplates on our phones to switch back our SIM cards to text loved ones, “We’re home”.

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vin à Caves Duhard, Amboise

I keep getting asked if I miss Paris, having barely enough time to process my place in the world these last few weeks. I’ve indulged in many Canadian comforts, such as dirty take-out pizza and timmies. I wouldn’t say Tim’s has good coffee; the coffee tastes like industrial warming plates and the cardboard cups it comes in, but tinged with Canadian kindness, commonality.. and liquid sweetener. The mid-sized walk-up apartment buildings of Paris have been replaced with groomed front lawns and pine trees, the € 3 wine replaced with inferior $20 wine, tradis replaced with Christmas dinner rolls, old-world artworks replaced with pale winter sunsets. I can’t say I miss Paris at this time though its European charm has a special place in my heart, and for me now represents a time of personal reflection and improvement, stopping to think about art and the world, enjoying long walks and fresh food. My world is instead filled with singing familiar choruses and gazing out on frozen farmland, blasting down the 401, passing small towns that you’d miss if you blink at the right time. Connecting with my roots: both my family tree and my roots in the natural world. I don’t want to say there’s no place like home.. because it infers that it’s better not to leave. When you leave and come back you both appreciate all the things you left home, but bring back many new things, parts of other places that you blend in with your own life, becoming a new person. Your personal makeup now an altered recipe with improved ingredients.

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rooftops

Rooftops in the Ward (1924), was painted by A.J. Casson (1898-1992), a Torontonian, member of the ever-loved member of the Group-of-Seven, and the Art Director and Vice-President of my alma mater. This was one of the first paintings I thought of when I got home. The heavy blue blocks of snow covering the rooftops a familiar Canadian sight, but the angular abstraction of the houses I am reminded of when I pass these giant suburban complexes on the highway. This painting always stuck out to me on the coveted top floor of the AGO, nestled in with fuzzy reduced palate sketches of typical Algonquin landscapes. The anonymity of each building lending itself to feeling familiar to anyone who looks upon it, the gridwork of buildings similar to the view from so many houses, especially in the Big Smoke. “His art distills Ontario […] into highly finished, carefully composed designs, with a stillness that sometimes seems ominous” 1.

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toits

Keeping with my cross-cultural mindset, I can’t help but be reminded of a similarly lovely painting on the top floor of Musée d’Orsay, Vue de toits (Effet de neige), (1879) by Gustave Caillebotte. Technically, he was a Realist, but had one foot in Impressionism. His works were often known for their tilted perspective, likely influenced by Japanese prints 2. The painting has a similar skewed orientation as Rooftops, the same anonymous houses to give the impression of a familiar window-view to the audience. The cool colours giving volume and weight to the snow, though clearly we get much more snow here in Canada. /brag

1 http://www.gallery.ca/en/see/collections/artist.php?iartistid=935 2 Distel, Anne, et al. Gustabe Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist. New York: Abbeville Press, 1995.

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mon tuyau de plomb fait un peu mal

If you guys remember two posts ago I was talking about Millet’s Gleaners and so on, so I wanted to mention the guy who paved the way for this sort of stuff, Gustave Courbet. He is considered to be the head of the Realist movement, and was influenced early on by a trip to the Netherlands to see Dutch masterpieces depicting every day life. There are some very famous examples of Courbet’s work at the musée d’Orsay, such as “Burial at Ornans” (1850) and “The Artist’s Studio”(1855). His style looks quite different than Millet’s, aesthetically, but at the heart of the matter, they are Realists; which means they are concerning themselves with painting real, modern people doing accurately real things. They are concerning themselves with shedding light on the average peoples of France (read: lower class) instead of giving attention to subjects which previously were committed to paint such as royalty or religion. A major difference in aesthetics can be attributed to the fact that Millet was a Barbizon School artist, which is a group of artists that traveled to the French countryside in search of rural subject matter (mainly in Barbizon). The movement was coming out of Romanticism so the subjects are somewhat Idealized, but at the same time moving towards Realism in subject matter. Unfortunately, Courbet’s works have always been somewhat rejected by my personal tastes because I consider his execution of ideas to be offensively heavy-handed and vulgar. None the less his works are quite celebrated.

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Burial at Ornans

Ornans is significant because it depicts an event that happened during his lifetime, and the figures were posed by the people themselves. It is important to remember that previously the only people important enough to pose for their own portraits were generally royalty, or ancient greek or biblical figures were often posed for by poor students or prostitutes from lack of finances. In addition, this work is unbelievably enormous: 10 x 22 ft, a size normally reserved for biblical scenes. As the fantastical and decadent style of Romanticism was losing public interest, Courbet’s Ornans offered an every-day realistic view of life, and more importantly death, as the ordinary funeral procession is splayed out in huge scale before us. “The rigorous frieze-like composition and the gaping grave strewn with bones invite us to think about the human condition” 1.

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L’Atelier du peintre. Allégorie réelle déterminant une phase de
sept années de ma vie artistique et morale

In the same room at musée d’Orsay, there is the Artist’s Studio which features Courbet in the centre and allegorical figures depicting the turmoil and reality of his life. On his right, he is flanked by his supporters, contemporaries and friends such as Alfred Bruyas, Proudhon, Champfleury and Baudelaire. On his left are his contenders, the wretched, the exploited and the twisted. He also added in a man with hunting dogs much later, supposed to be an allegory for Napoleon III, depicting him as a criminal. “The unemployed worker and a beggar girl symbolis[e] poverty. We can also see the guitar, the dagger and the hat, which, together with the male model, condemn traditional academic art. […]  When faced with the rejection of his painting, intended for the 1855 Universal Exhibition, Courbet built a “Pavilion of Realism” at his own expense. Here, outside the official event, he organized his own exhibition, which also included A Burial at Ornans” 2. A great amount of viewership were people who only came to belittle the artist, offended at his audaciousness and lack of tact.

Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Summer)

The self-proclaimed “proudest and most arrogant man in France” 3

Courbet secured some financial success by flanking his controversial paintings with long standing favorite views, such as hunting scenes. He furthered his work of female nudes and erotic art depicting such scenes as women in bed, prostitutes napping with their undergarments showing, or just extreme vagina close ups, some of which attracted attention from the authorities. Two examples are the “Le Sommeil”(1866), and “Ces demoiselles des bords de la Seine”(1857), both at the Petit Palais. Ces demoiselles aimed to portray the “realism of the scene, with a frank sensuality” […] Courbet deliberately provoked critique, sparking a scandal by exposing Ces Demoiselles at the Salon of 1857” 4. Le Sommeil was never shown, instead immediately went into a private collection. There is a long history of erotic artworks and of France in particular there is a long history of the eroticised female nude painted by men for the appreciation of men. So while I can appreciate Courbet’s desire to bend the rules and question authority I find his treatment of his subjects crude and ugly, and his works make every attempt to bash his ideology over our heads like a lead pipe.

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Stonebreakers

One of his most celebrated works, which has a more realistic and less sensualised feel, is the “Stonebreakers” (1850). The work is no longer viewable as it was destroyed during allied bombing in WWII. It depicts the lower-class people of abject poverty, two men whose only means of survival is breaking rocks to make way for a road. Courbet witnessed this scene and hired the two to come to his studio to pose for the painting. This painting, created a year after the Communist Manifesto was published, aims to shed light on class structure and the reality of the low class in France. The fact that we can’t see the end of the road, and the nondescript ambient lighting gives no indication that the work will be completed on any discernible timeline. Instead, the stonebreakers are engaged in perpetual labour. They are enslaved by the land they must work, and the only peep of any light on the horizon almost imperceptibly out of reach.

Courbet participated in the Paris Commune (French socialist uprising) and upon his suggestion, the Vendôme column was demolished. Following the fall of the brief reign of the commune, Courbet was sentenced to six months in prison and a five hundred Franc fine for his involvement. However when the Republic elected a new president it was decided that the Vendôme should be rebuilt, entirely financed by Courbet (323 091 Francs). Courbet went into exile to avoid bankruptcy. He was then told he could pay in installments of 10 000 francs per year until the age of 91, but he died the day before the first installment was due from the effects of heavy drinking.

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A group of artists coined the “bande noire” working later in the 1800s, were inspired by Courbet who employed dark colours and whose compositions held a turbulent feel, especially his self portraits. They rejected the bright and colourful light of the Impressionists and Barbizon school in favour of dark and violent colour to express melancholy, the precision and realism of everyday life. The group included Charles Cottet , Emile-Rene Menard, Dauchez André, Rene Prinet Xavier, Lucien Simon, and associated non-members Edmond Aman-Jean and George Desvallières.

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l’ascention du poilu, (1931)

Desvallières work made use of dark and turbulent subjects, eventually becoming more twisted and expressive as his life and work progressed.  Desvallières met Gustave Moreau at the Académie Julian who influenced his work significantly, drawing  Desvallières away from making traditional copies and influencing his personal style and independence. “Devallières devoted himself to the creation of the Salon d’Automne […] “whose role is to be excessive because the role of the other salons is to be quite the opposite”, for forgotten masters and for talented artists that were currently excluded from official exhibitions” 5. Desvallières aimed to give attention and public exhibition to Salon-rejected artists and to give support to those dedicated to their cause even if unpopular eg) Fauves. Upon the outbreak of WWI he voluntarily enlisted at the age of 53, and “it was on the occasion of one of these sallies, when he had passed close to death, that he vowed to paint only religious subjects in the future: a vow that he kept scrupulously until the end of his life” 6. His style mixes the dark and furious aesthetic of Courbet with the same turmoil felt during wartime France. The subject matter is in a modern setting, but expressive and inventive in its execution. Devallières began mixing religious images with violent military battle scenes, expressing his pain and horror of the war in which he lost his son Daniel (aged 17) in his own battalion, with the grace and comfort he found in religion.

1 http://www.musee-orsay.fr/index.php?id=851&L=1&tx_commentaire_pi1%5BshowUid%5D=130

2 http://www.musee-orsay.fr/index.php?id=851&L=1&tx_commentaire_pi1%5BshowUid%5D=7146&no_cache=1

3 http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/gust/hd_gust.htm

4 http://www.petitpalais.paris.fr/fr/collections/les-demoiselles-des-bords-de-la-seine-ete

5, 6 http://www.georgedesvallieres.com/index_en.html

le cercueil caché

If you ever wanted to get into the artist Jean-François Millet, the place to start would be “The Gleaners”, 1857. It is probably his best known work and the one of the most cherished examples of Realism painting. The scene depicts the ancient right of poor women to scour the wheat fields after harvest and collect and bits of edible wheat that remain. The painting shows three figures, hunched over in perpetual labour, hard working for a menial meal. The triad and the triangle in painting is one that brings a feeling of balance – the triad of women rise in front of us like a sturdy mountain. Indeed, their own forms are drawn to the ground like mountains, ever rooted in the soil.

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“What does The Gleaners show? [The women] embody an animal force deeply absorbed by a painstaking task. The contrast between wealth and poverty, power and helplessness, male and female spheres is forcefully rendered.” – Liana Vardi

Even if you aren’t familiar with the process of gleaning there are visual cues in the process to tell the story ; we can see the hay being harvested and piled up in the background, indicating to us that the harvest has already occurred and the women are engaged after. In addition, the contrast of the heaping piles of plentiful food hovers over them, almost danging above their heads as a strong reminder of their situation. The gleaners themselves are hunched and tired looking, their skin darkened from the sun as a testament to their unending labour.

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Their faces are obscured from us shrouding their identity and allowing the gleaner to act as a placeholder for all impoverished women. They’ve collected but mere handfuls of grain as the sun is setting, an indicator of the small reward for such a difficult and lengthy task. But the work is not in condemnation of the gleaners, instead the warmth of the golden light shines gracefully upon them as they are presented to us in impressive scale compared to the “privileged” in the background.

“[They] have gigantic pretensions, they pose as the Three Fates of Poverty, their ugliness and their grossness unrelieved” 1.

“Part of the shock value of Millet’s painting was undoubtedly due to the fact that in the past gleaning had usually been represented in art through the Old Testament tale of Ruth the gleaner, in which Ruth is characterized as a modest and virtuous example of the way to God, and not – as it was now – a statement on rural poverty” 2. There is both a literal and metaphorical disconnect between labourer and upper class as exemplified by the master on horseback (top right) who is leading the harvest but not participating. He is shaded and solitary, not involved in the scene, and physically set apart from any work being done, yet he represents the consumer, both in food and class.

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When the Gleaners was submitted to the salon of 1857, the reception was disapproving, even hostile, especially among the upper classes (the usual patrons and audience of art). “To them, it was a reminder that French society was built upon the labor of the working masses, and landowners linked this working class with the growing movement of Socialism” 3.  The work was viewed as a glorification of poor subjects and idolization of rural life, a common theme in Millet’s work. This theme and subsequent raw depiction and admiration is nowadays widely revered and respected but was generally rejected at the time of its debut, and the painting sold for much less than the asking price. Millet desperately needed the money, but in his embarrassment tried to keep the pathetic sale price a secret from the public.

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Two Peasant Women Digging in the Snow, April, 1890
Foundation E.G. Bührle, Zurich, Switzerland.

Not much later, Van Gogh idolized and drew inspiration from Millet. Rural scenes were important in Van Gogh’s work both on a cultural and psychological level. Van Gogh did over twenty copies of Millet, especially during his self-admitted stint in Saint-Paul asylum which his brother thought Vincent created his best work. These paintings interpret the symbolism of Millet’s rural scenes and translate subjects into his own style. Van Gogh did in fact copy the Gleaners but reworked the scene into women digging in a field of snow. The work takes on a futile and uncomfortable aspect, changing what they dig through to something illustrative of that which is barren and hostile.

“One does not expect to get from life what one has already learned it cannot give; rather, one begins to see more clearly that life is a kind of sowing time, and the harvest is not yet here.” 4

angelus

Another very famous work is The Angelus” (Millet), 1859, also at Museé d’Orsay. It depicts a rural scene of two peasants standing in a field with gentle illumination from the sunset. They are gently bowed, praying over a basket of potatoes. This simple painting is another depiction of the humble and righteous peasant. It was commissioned by Thomas Gold Appleton, who never collected it. It is about half the size of the Gleaners, and sold for less than half the price, so you can imagine Millet’s embarrassment. It was finally shown in 1874, a year before Millet’s death, and by the end of the century had completely about-faced in reception. It sold in 1889 for 553 000 francs5 (originally sold for 1000), the highest price for a modern painting to date. Only a month later, The Gleaners sold for 300,000 francs. Posthumous fame is a common theme in art history, and in this case owes itself in part Millet’s oeuvre, which was exhibited and auctioned after his death6. “They presented an artist whose works depicted “the man and the woman of the field in all the states of their lives. [Millet] admirably shows developments from infancy to youth, from youth to maturity, from maturity to old age, with the most solid logic and precise observation, with no more bias toward ugliness than toward beauty” 7.

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An interesting side note is the Dali’s fascination with this painting, which led him to create a series of works and writings exploring his horrific associations and dark obsession with the Angelus. Dali was convinced that the work was sinister on some other level. Dali experienced hallucinations where he could see the painting in his mind but his interpretation was changed and distorted. Dali became convinced the painting was a funeral scene and that the two figures were playing over a child-sized coffin. Dali eventually convinced the Louvre to conduct an x-ray of the painting and discovered a small coffin-shaped object between the figures, which had been painted over with the basket of potatoes, presumably to make it more saleable. In his book The Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus Dali “recounts an instance in which a man knifed the Angelus and was put in an insane asylum, and uses that anecdote to make a point about the painting’s unpredictable power: exactly what David Freedberg and Leo Steinberg were to chronicle over forty years later.  [… He also wrote] an essay explaining “Why They Attack the Mona Lisa”; [wherein] it divides assailants into “ultra–intellectuals” such as Duchamp, and “more-or-less Bolivians” who throw “pebbles,” or just steal the image” 8.

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The Angelus is similar in composition to the Gleaners, in that the background extends out and away from the subject. Millet is said to have drawn inspiration by the memory if having to recite the Angelus prayer upon hearing the toll of the church bell9. However the tiny indication of the church, fading away in the background serves to both to indicate the context in which the subject should be considered, but also physically depicts the physical and representational distance between them. “Millet pictured not the rift that modernization had driven between rustics and the land but a nostalgic union of humankind and nature”10. What is foremost delineated are the two figures engaged in solemn thanksgiving within the sustenance borne of the soil. “The shift in attitude toward Millet, The Gleaners, and The Angelus in France owed not to the workings of the marketplace but to nostalgia and to the creation of a fluid republican national identity in France in the generation after the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune” 11. The socio-political upheaval uncertainty in France encouraged the public to take solace in the simple and unchanging rural scene, and the direct relationship between need and satisfaction ie)hunger/food, purpose/job.

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Similarly, there are other examples of rural idolatry from this era, including Ploughing in Nivernais” (Rosa Bonheur), 1850. Bonheur, in contrast to Millet, enjoyed a great deal of success in her lifetime. “Photographic realism is the hallmark of her work, yet she rises far above mere photographic representation. She was intelligent, conscientious, & hard working. She believed in honesty in art & kept as close to nature as she could” 12. Bonheur studied animal anatomy and osteology and dedicated her life to the honest and factual depiction of animals. She was met with wide success of her realistic rural depictions. Nivernais was a commission awarded to her by the Second Republican government of France. “The inspiration for this famous painting may be from a novel by George Sand, the pen-name of Baroness Dudevant (1804-1876). In “The Devil’s Pool” (1846), she wrote about the displacement of peasants and farmers by industrialization, and espoused a return to nature” 13.

boeufsanother example, Boeufs allant au labour, effet de matin (Troyon, Constant) 1855.

In contrast to Millet, however the scene was not interpreted as a critique of the upper and middle classes, it was instead thought of as an loving depiction of simple life and stability, ideals which were yearned for within France. Unlike Millet’s Gleaners and Angelus, they are not bathed in golden warming light, they are illuminated in cold, clear light as if to indicate there is no question to the motivation or appreciation of the subject, it is purely Realism. “It is primarily an animal scene, whose heroes are the horse themselves, leaving little room for the man: the herdsman is very small on the canvas. It is a hymn to work in the fields whose magnitude is even more magnified it is easy to oppose, in the aftermath of revolution, the depravity of the city” 14. The public’s desires for stability and tranquility was reflected in their artistic interests. “They found solace in their image of what they considered unchanging: country life. In Labourage they see the sunny blue sky, the hills and moving oxen create a comfortable flow across the canvas. There is harmony between man and beast” 15.

1 “Story behind the picture – The Gleaners”. University of St. Andrews. Retrieved 2008-01-10.

2 http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~waste/timeline/story-pic1.html

3 Kleiner, Fred; Christian J. Mamiya. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages (12 ed.). California: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning. 2005.

4 Erickson, K. At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision Of Vincent van Gogh. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdsman Publishing. 1998. pp. 150–151.

5 W. Walton et al., Chefs-d`oeuvre de l`exposition universelle de Paris, 1889 (Philadelphia: George Barrie, 1889), 53.

6, 10, 11 http://www.mutualart.com/OpenArticle/France-Embraces-Millet–The-Intertwined-/65DB908A334354D8

7 Theophile Silvestre. Catalogue des 95 dessins de J.-F. Millet composant la collection de M. Gavet (Paris: Pillet, 1875) ; and Catalogue de la vente qui aura lieu par suite du deces de Jean-Francois Millet, peintre, sale cat., Hotel Drouot, Paris, May 10-11, 1875.

8 http://305737.blogspot.fr/2013/03/chapter-81-salvador-dali.html

9 http://www.musee-orsay.fr/index.php?id=851&L=1&tx_commentaire_pi1%5BshowUid%5D=339

12, 15 http://ringlingdocents.org/pages/bonheur.htm

13 http://www.themasterpiececards.com/famous-paintings-reviewed/bid/18772/Famous-Paintings-Plowing-in-the-Nivernais

14 http://www.musee-orsay.fr/fr/collections/oeuvres-commentees/recherche/commentaire/commentaire_id/labourage-nivernais-31.html

waarom je moet liefde de rijksmuseum

I’ve been to a lot of different art galleries. I’ve been to small spaces where the artist stands up on a milk crate and introduces the work as you eat tiny sandwiches with the artist’s close friends. I’ve been to small galleries in small towns where the you’re the only person around and the complete silence is only interrupted by the click of your shoe and swish of your jacket. I’ve been to large galleries where small pockets of people mill around admiring the works and it’s no consequence for you to usurp an extended private audience with a work. I’ve also been to large galleries where the crowds are so prevalent it’s difficult to walk around or even stand in front of a work without having your personal space sufficiently violated. I’ve also been to galleries where the mass assemblage of pilgrims whip through like a hurricane, cameras flashing, luggage bumping and neon group tour stickers shining. Even in galleries like Musee d’Orsay, where photography of any kind is forbidden, I still saw dozens of eager photographers shamefully snapping away.

The issue of photography in art galleries is very complex and rapidly changing. There is a long tradition of copying in the history of art. It was and still is considered good practice for a student to faithfully copy masterworks. With the invention of the printing press in 1450ad many illustrated copies of paintings were made and easily (and cheaply) distributed within Europe. Artworks that had previously donned only Cathedrals, palaces and private estates were now reaching a larger audience through copying. “Woodcut colour printing helped the rapid circulation of ideas, information and images and led to increased levels of literacy and education. As well as being valuable teaching aids, mass-production of coloured prints also met the demand for high-quality images in the well-established book publishing industry. Many artisans reproduced existing works by some of the finest artists such as Parmigianino, Raphael and Titian. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is a very well-known example. Coveted by connoisseurs for their technical brilliance and visual impact, high-quality reproductions of drawings and paintings became much sought after items”1. As artistic instruction began to shift from apprenticeships (where students would copy their master’s work) to artistic institutions and academies, where students began to attend galleries and public art displays to spend time copying the works. Academies also organized annual Salons, exhibitions of juried artwork which lead for a more social gathering rather than analytical discourse. More and more artwork has become literally more accessible to the general public, and at the same time becoming a more social event. “Why do we go to art galleries? The standard answer is to look at the art. And in theory that ought to be the end of the matter. Except that in practice it is not the whole story – and never has been. Ever since galleries have existed, visitors have flocked to them not just to see but to be seen in the act of seeing. As anyone who has got close to the Mona Lisa will know, the most famous galleries have long been secular cathedrals of mass pilgrimage”2. For the majority of people who visit galleries, I think they want to take something home with them. Increasingly, galleries have relied on gift shop sales to supplement their earnings, with a great number of works entering the public domain and our modern ability to cheaply print and manufacture goods there are any number of items from the most expensive framed print or delicate pendant, to € 2 fridge magnets and printed disposable napkins. Not only do people desire a kind-of souvenir, but a copy of the work.

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oh, look! MonetTM shoe polish!

A great number of people have access to cameras, and in the digital age, each picture is essentially “free”. I highly doubt that people would take as many photos at museums if they had to pay to process said photos. Especially with social media, there is a cultural desire to document. “We’re in an age when people take pictures just about everywhere, an act that photography critic Jörg M. Colberg describes as “compulsive looking.” The phenomenon has created a unique set of challenges for art museums, many of which have historically had strict limitations on photography—either for the purpose of protecting light-sensitive works or because of copyright issues”3. Our need to document our lives is persistent and ever-growing with the simplifying of technology. Nowadays basically everyone has a tiny camera in their pocket with the built in ability to share said photo instantly with friends. “People taking photographs of their food in a restaurant instead of eating it,” says [Antonio] Olmos. “People taking photographs of the Mona Lisa instead of looking at it. I think the iPhone is taking people away from their experiences.[…] Guardian photographer Eamonn McCabe agrees:  I don’t think photography’s dead, it’s just become lazy. People are taking lots of pictures but nobody’s looking at them”4. No longer are we standing back to admire said work. We aren’t even trying to cultivate quality reproductions or works we want to look at again. The act of looking is surely changing. Not only are we becoming more and more removed from the subjects canonized in the annals of fine art, but our pervasive and compulsive drive to experience the world through a lens further cheapens the event.

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“Two studies examined whether photographing objects impacts what is remembered about them. Participants were led on a guided tour of an art museum and were directed to observe some objects and to photograph others. Results showed a photo-taking-impairment effect: If participants took a photo of each object as a whole, they remembered fewer objects and remembered fewer details about the objects and the objects’ locations in the museum than if they instead only observed the objects and did not photograph them”5. Damage to artwork is one of the major problems with photography in museums. It is most common that flash photography is forbidden due to the damaging effect it has on artworks but there is always someone who forgets or for whatever reason is still flashing away. Cameras in museums is also annoying because of the constant clicking sound of real cameras or the horrible TCJHHGRRRTT artificial sound of a camera phone. For some reason people think that this sound is completely acceptable at large volumes. The sad thing is, these photos look like crap. “Instead of reflecting and appreciating brush strokes, technique, perspective, lighting, […] you’re staring at a 2″ x 2″ display screen on the back of a camera. You might end up with a picture of the Mona Lisa, but you won’t remember having seen it for yourself. The photos you take will be pointless. Without a flash, it will be blurry. With a flash? You’ll get a glare, wash out the painting, and probably do permanent damage to the work”6.

Mona Lisa relocated in the Louvre's Salle des Etats in Paris, France on April 06th, 2005.

TCJHHGRRRTT

I’ve spent many many uncountably many hours in art galleries and I myself used to take pictures with whatever I had available to me at the time, from super DSLR to 3MP cell phone camera. I took pictures because I wanted to remember. There were particular paintings that I liked and wanted to remember what they looked like. Unfortunately my crummy pictures do very little justice to the original work and they end up in some mass graveyard folder or digital art images that I rarely look at. I’ve instead opted to buying postcard-sized reproductions to jog my memory, or in recent years, downloading official photos (better ones than I could ever take). A great number of galleries will offer free images of their collection on their website. There has been a definite push to get galleries and museums to participate in the digital age, between tweets and facebook updates to installing wifi and downloadable content in museums. But it also encourages and sometimes facilitates the sharing of media. “Museums often do not hold the copyrights to the works they display, which creates legal problems when visitors start snapping away. […] But the deluge of cameras, along with the fact that the vast majority of visitors simply want to snap a pic for a Facebook album, has led some institutions—such as MoMA, the Indianapolis Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum—to ask [for permission]”7. The accessibility of artworks in digital format has lead me to change my method of documentation of art galleries. I usually just write down the name of the work, and look it up on the museum’s website later. Not only do they often have very good images of the work there are usually notes from the curator, giving you the change to learn a little more about the work. The subjet matter is oftentimes so removed from modern life that artwork is difficult to approach. Museum-goers will often look to the thumbnails of the gallery guide to determine what they want to (read: feel they should) see, or rely on the level of compaction of people in front of a work to determine whether it’s revered enough to join in. Art has become so inaccessible that the average person feels they cannot connect on virtually any level with a work and abandon any hope in having any kind of personal experience with a work. What is artwork without viewers? If a painting is locked in a windowless room, does it exist as art at all? Or merely as an artifact that blossoms into art once exhibited?

tumblr_l6z55rJdaG1qar0xt© John Hughes / Paramount

“One attendant [at the British National Gallery] told The Times there were flashes every 10 minutes as tourists snapped the Arnolfini Portrait, an oil painting on oak panel dated 1434 by the Early Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck. “You have people taking photos all the time – selfies, pictures of their kids, everything. Some of the staff are seething,” he said. “People take pictures with flashes and you can’t stop them because by the time the flash goes off it’s too late.” She said she had seen people trip over plinths when they had their backs to the works trying to take a selfie. “We have got plinths with a sculpture on and they knock into them. It also distracts security. While two people are being silly with a selfie somebody else can go and stick a pen through a painting,” Ms Ward said. “Perhaps we need to change the rules. Allowing people to interact physically with a work of art by taking pictures would probably increase the risk but if you can’t do that how are you going to attract people? How we interact with people has got to change”8. There is always a mix of viewers at any gallery, a full spectrum between the quiet, musing aficionados who linger contemplatively around works, and the high-energy loud and bustling tour group snapping cellphone pictures or pointing and giggling at the sculpted Greek nudes. But, without participation and patronage there wouldn’t be many galleries to speak of.

While the artist is burdened with the task or painting or sculpting something in such a way to give you a particular experience upon viewing the work, once it’s out there it’s up to the audience to validate that work’s existence. That’s the beauty of art. It’s not stuffy old men shushing you for giggling at the Greek sculpture’s tiny wiener. Art is what you perceive it to be. Quite often, a great number of people agree on a work’s impact and why it should be appreciated but as we know these things change over time. Sometimes hundreds of years later we change our mind that something that was bad is now good. There isn’t anything wrong with going to a gallery and not “knowing anything” in the academic sense. Granted, I would argue it’s more interesting to have some kind of back story. But if your experience is different that someone else’s, that’s okay too.

“So extensive and subtly pervasive are the ideas that set Art upon a remote pedestal, that many a person would be repelled rather than pleased if told that he enjoyed his casual recreations, in part at least, because of their esthetic quality. The arts which today have more vitality for the average person are things he does not take to be arts: for instance, the movie, jazzed music, the comic strip, and, too frequently, newspaper accounts of love-nests, murders, and exploits of bandits. For, when what he knows as art is relegated to the museum and gallery, the unconquerable impulse towards experience enjoyable in themselves finds such outlet as the daily environment provides. Many a person who protests against the museum conception of art, still shares the fallacy from which that conception springs. For the popular notion comes from a separation of art from the objects and scenes of ordinary experience that many theorists and critics pride themselves upon holding and even elaborating. The times when select and distinguished objects are closely connected with the products of usual vocations are the times when appreciation of the former is most rife and most keen. When, because of their remoteness, the objects acknowledged by the cultivated to be works of fine art seem anaemic to the mass of people, esthetic hunger is likely to seek the cheap and the vulgar” 9.

The way we interact with and experience artwork is definitely changing with the times. Our personal experience is perpetually changing, coupled with the inaccessibility of historical “fine art” and the strive to create something “new” and the strangeness of modern artworks. There pretension in the art world that leaves the average person saying “I don’t get it” and the artist pretending that artistic expression exceeds the realm of understanding for those not imbued with artistic aptitude by saying “you wouldn’t get it”. The relationship with art is strained and strange; we are happier to take some kind of small ownership over it with shitty photos and giftshop napkins than to admit our own participation in events.

Of course this leaves me to believe there is a separation of camera-wielding-museum-goers: one half trying to document their day and sharing their experiences of all kinds with others, and those who really do just want a photographic copy of said work so that they can look at it again at home. So next time you see a work that you really actually do want a copy of, do yourself a favour and spend some money on a reproduction. Either that or go on the internet, where the vast majority of galleries post way better pictures that you could take. Speaking of which, while feeling quite sad that my digital photo of “A Windmill on a Polder Waterway” by Paul Joseph Constantin Gabriël had turned out so crummy, I turned to the website of the newly-renovated Rijksmuseum and lo and behold they had an amazing high-resolution photo of it (and every single painting in the museum) available for anyone to download. All 25812864 glorious pixels.

1 http://decodedpast.com/renaissance-impressions-royal-academy-art/7259

2 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/15/unthinkable-no-photographs-art-galleries

3 http://www.artnews.com/2013/05/13/photography-in-art-museums/

4 http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/dec/13/death-of-photography-camera-phones

5 A “Present” for the Future: The Unexpected Value of Rediscovery Psychological Science, August 29, 2014. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/08/28/0956797614542274.full

6 http://www.everywhereist.com/ten-reasons-why-you-shouldnt-take-photos-in-museums/

7 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/15/unthinkable-no-photographs-art-galleries

8 http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/flash-and-selfies–the-art-gallery-dilemma-20140823-107esq.html

9 Dewey, John. Art as experience. New York, New York: Penguin group 1934.

l’autre dans la peinture

As you make your way among the light and ethereal Bouguereaus with delightful elegance and grace, you can see peeking around a tight corridor a bloody severed head with anguished expression. Making your way up some small steps and around the corner, you can find “Execution sans jugement sous les rois maures de Grenade” by Henri Regnault. Regnault was a French painter, who studied at Ecole des Beaux Arts and won the Prix de Rome, but traveled to Spain and was fascinated with Velasquez and soon thereafter with the visual displays brought on by the Revolution of 1868 and afterwards, with Andalusia. He became enamored with the Alhambra and spent months painting there. He then settled in Morocco, where he “proposed to paint a picture which […] amid the splendours of the Alhambra should symbolize the magnificence of Moorish civilization” 1. He abandoned all artistic endeavor to join the Franco-Prussian war on the homefront and was killed at age twenty-seven in one of the last battles to occur therein.

Execution

Taking inspiration from local legends2, the painting exhibits the crumpled lifeless body of the victim laying directly in your eye’s view, with the tall and imposing executioner towering above. The location, somewhat based on Alhambra exudes Moorish architectural grandeur with grand shining patterned walls and grand arches, and from a distance you feel the presence of this place however it is not painted in particular detail. The closer you get to this painting, the more obvious the lack of background detail is and considering the room the painting is housed in is probably only ten feet deep, it’s difficult to stand too far back. The lack of detail in the background allows for even more attention to be drawn to the foreground, specifically to the victim whose dark, lush and ornate clothing stands out in strong contrast.

Executionb

The figures are back-lit by the golden haze entering the building, yet it is hinted by the scale of the background that they are far within the depths of the room, the warm light fading away between the executioner and the victim, allowing for a cold and subdued shadow to enshroud the crime. “The executioner’s detached attitude and commonplace gesture contrast with the foreground in which the blood drips down the steps along the severed head to the body. The colors […] take opposition because the executioner’s caftan, which picks up the orange tones of the background, contrasts with the victim’s green and black clothing”3. There are some hints in this painting to give us clues as to the timing of events: the coagulating pool of blood indicates the body has not just hit the floor, but has remained there, motionless, for some moments. The sword is not on the upswing, nor is the executioner in a kinetic motion, but he is calmly standing with no need to act further but only to calmly clean his blade. These are all indications that the moment of death has passed, and we are experiencing the quiet aftermath of the event.

The executioner stands with erect posture, his face slightly turned away but eying the victim with a slight grimace of disgust though it’s not clear if the disgust is directed at the victim and what he represents, or terrible reality of the events that just transpired. “The low angle and vigorous rising composition give [an] imposing presence” 4. The reduced perspective of the audience allows for more attention to be given to the victim; the vantage point is not where a person would be, of average height, standing on said steps but instead is equal with the bodily heap, so low on the step that we cannot meet the executioner on any equal ground but instead peer up from below in horror. The darkness and weight of the crumpled victim fallen on the heavy stone stairs and shaded by the shadows is in great contrast with the executioner whose illuminated garb draws our attention as he uses it to clean the freshly drawn blood from his blade. He does not carry armour or even a sheath, giving some indication that this is not his usual profession or something he is prepared for, and we are not given any clues as to the identity of the characters with the exception of the context given by the setting, costume, and title of the work.

Executiona

I will not claim to know much at all about Moorish or Arabic history and culture, but there is fascination that is developed in a European perspective at “exotic” style artwork, exemplified in this work, and many others. “In his groundbreaking study Orientalism, [Edward] Said argued that nineteenth-century Europe fostered a derogatory and univocal impression of the Orient in order to justify the imposition of colonial governance on its lands and peoples. The significance of his study was to suggest that stereotypes of Arab men and women—as violent, lazy, sexually promiscuous or irrational—were only the most patent examples of a broader cultural attitude that constituted the Orient as a subject of knowledge. Although Said did not deal with paintings or other visual media, historians soon recognized the significance of his thesis and adapted its insights to the study of pictorial materials.” 5. Was Regnault just in his sensationalizing the subject matter, or was he innocently drawing on cultural artifacts that he was experiencing first hand? There is no doubt that in the course of art history there is much fascination with exhibiting that which is intriguing, emotionally charged, or sensationalized in many different cultural contexts. It is quite possible, especially from a curated, European perspective, that this work is popular for it’s sensational display of the “other”, but what responsibility do the most popular artists (read: often white European males of some privilege) have in their depiction of that which is different than themselves?

What obligation do you have to truth and accuracy? What can the authenticity of your opinion and more importantly, your interpretation of something to which you do not belong? Is it enough for you to exhibit your personal interaction with the “other” and your personal representation of it? For any token element of a work it can be said that the context will be applied to the whole of that which it represents. So the token Moor, the token madman, the token bourgeois gentleman, the token intellect, the token addict, the token noble. How does one transcend that which they are burdened by; the mold of their classification.

Jeune

Farther on down the corridor, amid the stoic and classic Greek figures, we find ‘Jeunes Grecs faisant battre des coqs’ by Jean-Léon Gérome. Now, the alternative title to this work is “Un combat de coqs” simply, a cockfight. But what’s lost is the intention of the original title.. Young Greeks making roosters fight. The young girl recoils slightly at the flying feathers and violent pecking but keeps her interested gaze fixed on the action, while her accomplice fervently eggs them on, pushing the fighting rivals closer together. A great number of paintings which display Greek culture are often idolized stoic victors or demure women lounging and displaying the ever-present nip-slip. However it’s not obvious that this “Greek Revival” painting isn’t tongue-in-cheek with it’s unusual and somewhat condemning depiction.

“Few commentators noticed the disillusioned meditation of the artist in the concert of praise that greeted the work” 6. The fountain that hides their mischievous activities is in some state of ruins, the carvings crumbled and fading, the white stone stained and unkempt, as if to symbolize the erosion of character and humility. “Contrast is found between the lush vegetation and dead branches on the ground, in the clash of the two birds, one of which will soon perish. […] The young artist made the history painting, but by focusing on daily life and not, like David (1748-1825), the great episodes of antiquity. […] It’s hard to go to talk about subversion of these paintings, but it’s new compared to traditional academic subjects” 7.

1 https://archive.org/stream/gri_33125007732312/gri_33125007732312_djvu.txt
2, 3, 4 http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections/works-in-focus/search/commentaire/commentaire_id/execution-sans-jugement-381.html?no_cache=1
5 http://imagesanalyses.univ-paris1.fr/analysis.php?analysis=44
6 http://www.musee-orsay.fr/fr/collections/oeuvres-commentees/peinture/commentaire_id/jeunes-grecs-faisant-battre-des-coqs-272.html?tx_commentaire_pi1%5BpidLi%5D=509&tx_commentaire_pi1%5Bfrom%5D=841&cHash=84752054fa
7 http://www.lintermede.com/exposition-jean-leon-gerome-musee-d-orsay-l-histoire-en-spectacle.php