Friday, 17 March 2017

The Slow Museum

A lovely article in the New York Times advocates 'slow' museum visits rather than the pressured "must-see" approach.

I particularly like the idea of a thirty second look at a work of art as equivalent to looking at a book jacket and claiming that you've read it. Actually *looking* at art or architecture rather than simply *seeing* it takes time, and it requires you to be actively engaged.

So regard a museum visit not as a snakes and ladders like race from the entrance to the exit, picking up a handful of renowned masterpieces en route, but as a more sophisticated game. In art galleries for instance you can play quite a few games besides those suggested in the article.
  • Spot the truly bad pictures. This is a silly game, but once you start thinking about just why those pictures are so bad, it's quite enlightening. It's particularly interesting when you can put together a pair of 'great' and 'pants' paintings - it's wha your smartphone's for.
  • Follow the pointing finger. So much art works on the basis of gestures - but what's really going on? What are the people in paintings pointing at and looking at? The answers are sometimes intriguing.
  • Find a massive picture with a lot going on, and start looking for the details. The cat hiding under the table. The man looking through a door in the background. The half-eaten apple on the table. The detailed painting of a lace ruff or a brocaded skirt. The cracks in the plaster on the wall. The way the light hits the edge of a cup.
  • The eyes have it. Find portraits whose eyes really challenge you or inspire interest. Look at how the eyes are painted - the highlights, the hollows, the eyelashes, the colours, how they relate to the rest of the painting. Think about how the treatment of eyes has changed through art history. Take a photo of just the eyes. Would you recognise the painting from it?
 In the museum:
  • Explore the small rooms with not many people in. Get acquainted with the intimate side of life - ancient Egyptian toys in the British Museum, a whole case full of medieval locks and keys in the Musee de Cluny. Sometimes you get closer to a culture this way than looking at the grandiose statues of Pharoahs or huge altarpieces.
  • All the angles - look at the big artefacts from different perspectives. A worm's eye view, a sideways view, close up or from further off. Each different view will give you a different appreciation of what you're looking at.
  • The mechanics - how was a thing made? how did it work? thinking about these questions can deepen your knowledge. For instance, how was a Roman mosaic laid? what colour did the mosaicist start with? how fast could he work? (I found out recently that some mosaics came ready-made, laid out on a substrate, ready to be installed.) Just taking the time to look hard at an early clock and work out how the gearing of the time train operates gives you an understanding of the subject you can't get from books.

Above all, give a great museum its time. It's so easy to think if you're in Paris, you have to visit all the museums and pack four or five into a day. All the newspapers and magazines, all the tour operators, all the guide books will tell you to do this. Bugger that. It's like going to a Chinese buffet and simply piling food down your gullet without tasting it at all.

Either spend your first day sampling museums, then go back to the one you found most interesting - or simply decide you will see two that you have a particular interest in. Like medieval art? Never mind the Louvre - head for the Musee de Cluny and spend all day in the middle ages, then spend a day looking at Notre Dame, the Sainte Chapelle and a couple of the oldest churches in the city. Into modern art? Then head for the Musee d'Orsay and the Beaubourg, and if you have time add the Branly for an insight into the different art of other societies, which influenced many twentieth century artists and helped them challenge tradition.

Remember, too, that revisiting can be even more of a pleasure than your first visit. I've been visiting the British Museum for ... well, I think it must be more than thirty years now, and there are still whole galleries I haven't visited, as well as a good few exhibits that I now regard as old friends.

No comments:

Post a Comment