I often schedule my travel around art. I prepare for travel with a monograph or at least a few art-related articles. At the risk of looking like my favorite New Yorker cartoon, I like to engage with my fellow museumgoers. My Google history before any excursion is heavily populated by queries such as “best small galleries in [location],” “exhibitions in [location],” “[museum] late nights,” and “price of beer at [museum] late nights.”
Seeing an artwork up close is similar to seeing a monument in person. You don’t quite get it until you go. You can share facts about an artwork without having confronted it in person, but it’s much harder to share how an artwork makes you feel. This is natural; reproductions distort colors and textures. They do no justice to the scale of grander works. At best, they can serve as a reminder of a place or a sensation. It’s hard to experience an artwork’s full effect without seeing it in front of you.
The idea of “experiencing” a painting is a tenuous one, no doubt. What about an image can inspire emotion in a viewer? We often cry when we encounter great works of literature, film or music; we’re less inclined to do so in front of visual art. Perhaps this has something to do with scale; a film has millions of frames in which to display a message, whereas painting has only one. (Artists like Picasso, Hockney and others have challenged this conception, but the fact of general one-dimensionality remains – in painting, at least.) It also calls into question whether our experiences with art change as our viewing of the single perspective continues. You may be able to put a book down after the first fifty pages, but can you ever “put down” a work of art?
The confines of painting do not frustrate me so much as they fascinate me. The limits of space and size, the importance of first impression – it makes me value the impact of a painting even more.
I want to talk about a few of the impactful experiences that I’ve had so far. I’m putting my thoughts to words in an effort to meditate on what I’ve seen, but also to highlight why these artworks mean so much to me.
I do not need to travel far for one of my favorite examples of impactful art: the Rothko room in the Tate Modern. (The Tate building itself is a work of art – it’s a rare example of a secular building that is capable of inspiring religious awe.) It’s easy to understand why Rothko is arguably the most cried-over artist of the twentieth century. His paintings – often rough black squares on red backgrounds – are massive in scale, almost placing the viewer within the artwork. The canvases are gritty and abrasive. The lack of definition in the borders of the inner rectangle implies some kind of motion – but motion in which direction? Is one of the squares expanding or contracting? Does it threaten to swallow the whole, or shrink into nonexistence? This ambiguity is part of the appeal of Rothko’s work. Rothko’s work is difficult and tragic, yet they are unarguably sublime in person.
Skeptics of modern art may be more inclined to see the appeal of my favorite piece from the Scottish National Gallery: a work by David Roberts called Sunset from the Convent of Sant' Onofrio on the Janiculum (1856). Like Rothko, Roberts paints on a grand scale. Even though the painting hangs high, the scale forces you to incorporate yourself into the artwork. You are looking at the cityscape of Rome, but you are also looking back in time, into a romantic conception of antiquity. Roberts demonstrates both remarkable draughtsmanship and intellectual curiosity. Is this romantic Rome attainable in our modern world? Are we doomed to the constraints of our new society? Roberts incorporates human figures into his canvas; they dance and flirt and gaze at the expansive city. I think that it is a comment on the value of community. If the grandeur of Rome may no longer be accessible, at least we have each other.
I was met with more depictions of the human form in Berlin – a place where I did spend time in museums, contrary to my 6:00am Snapchats. One of the most impactful exhibits I found all year was about at the Berlinische Gallery. It was a retrospective of an artist named Cornelia Schleime – who, despite her accomplishments and general brilliance, does not have an English Wikipedia page. Her portraiture is captivating: each piece explodes with color and contrast, and you cannot help but get lost in the gaze of her subjects. She keeps figural painting relevant in the twenty-first century – a sort of German expressionist response to Lucien Freud. Best of all, she chooses to have fun with her work. Images like Blind Date (2007), which depicts a coquettish girl in a brilliant red dress with a rabbit’s head, demonstrates technical skill, strong emotion and a great sense of humor. The exhibit had me at once laughing and crying. It’s one I’ll remember for years to come.
Life is good when I leave a great exhibit. I am full of life: sharp and content, armed with a set of questions for how I want to approach life. I love the way that art can help me learn about history, politics and social justice. I love that art teaches me to step into the shoes of somebody different from me. And I love that I can sit in front of a painting for hours either alone or with people whom I care deeply for, thinking and arguing until that euphoric that’s it! moment.
I’ll be traveling again next week during spring break. My adventures will continue to expose me to new art and new ideas. I’m excited for the emotional and intellectual growth that is sure to happen, and I’m even more excited to continue cultivating community through art.