17 January 2014

Explaining the art

What can we learn from the way other people look at paintings? Tate Modern has an interesting project called The Bigger Picture, asking people outside its curatorial staff to comment on some of the displays. What can we "learn" from these commentaries - something about the painting itself, something about the experience of looking at paintings, or something that will revise our conceptions about the work? Or maybe, none of these...

Here's the first painting to consider, Picasso's Seated Nude 1909-10
and here are two descriptions of the painting (please excuse the spots, and click to enlarge if you can't read the text; the official text is given on the Tate site, to which each picture is linked) -
We learn something about the painting from the description by the Volunteer Visitor Host - in cubism, all areas of the canvas become as important as the subject matter - the colours and shapes extend to the edges of the canvas and behind the figure. Also, the view of the image as a stage set makes us reconsider what we're seeing.

We went round the gallery looking for the extra label, and had considerable discussion about this one, Mondrian's Composition 8 (No II) With Red (1935) -

The Spoken Word Poet writing her commentary gives us no further "information" about the painting, but rather gives her reaction to it (she used to pass works like this and think a child could do it) and how that reaction has been changed by what she's learned about painting thanks to a friend who explained the background, and how her experience of having a child has made her re-evaluate the glib comment: "Seeing the world through a baby's eyes and understanding more about this artist's ideas, I can appreciate works like this now. I really like looking at it."
The image of Donald Judd's Untitled (1972) on the Tate website belies its actual presence; the copper box, with a bottom painted hot orange, glows like a minimalist vision of the mouth of hell (perhaps) - or a warming fire -
... and the artist-commentator picks up on this (or did I think of it because of reading what he said?) - "a non-representational version of a bonfire ... as charming as a check-in desk [it] holds a promise of something peculiar". The work is not supposed to be more than the sum of its single parts ... yet the viewer insists on making some sort of story about it. To the commentator, it represents a cenotaph: "a metaphor for an open grave" and "a monument to the idea of beauty".
The Tate's website seems to have nothing on "The Bigger Picture" - it's a fascinating project, and I hope we'll see more of it.

1 comment:

Vicki Miller said...

I have been doing a lot of art history study lately and am amazed by the different interpretations of artist's work and lives by different hitorians. I think what it all comes down to is what the art makes you feel. it is a very personal thing