The ideas introduced in Part One of this post dealt with my recent visits to the Tate Modern and Courtauld Gallery in London and the observations I made seeing works of art up close that are typically part of the canon of art history. From these first examples, I am once again struck by how easy it is to miss the nuances of materials, composition, and any other special features that often fall flat on the page, the screen, or the projected digital image. Moving along to my next two museums, London’s National Gallery—the granddaddy of art museums in England—and Tate Britain, I had occasion to experience many more instances of surprise and delight when encountering well known works.
Visiting the National Gallery is far closer to the experience of visiting the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the Louvre in Paris. Large scale monumental buildings housing the art of nation. Even midweek on a dreary February afternoon, the place is packed with spectators. Seeing Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed—The Great Western Railway (1844), I note the intimate scale of the piece as it hangs at eye level on the wall. The flurry and destabilizing swirl of tones and the visible texture in the paint almost abstract the image of a train barreling through an industrial landscape. The painting is even more dynamic than I imagined, and seeing the painting this close I can make out so many of the formal and thematic elements that would come to typify Impressionist treatments of the “terrible beauty” of industry. The picture is carefully lit to accentuate the contrast of light and dark, and the way clouds merge with steam.
A few rooms over, I am greeted with themes of industry again with another Seurat (I had already encountered many of them at the Courtauld), but this time it is the Seurat so many people who have studied modern art history think of when conjuring paintings of labour and class. Bathiers at Asnières (1884) is created forty years after Turner and is far less enthusiastic about the promise of the railway and all that it represents. Representing young workmen taking a break by the river in an industrial suburb of Paris, the large scale composition is both a manifesto of post-impressionist form and content—the divisionist brushwork that separates colour and creates disjuncture in the composition is directly related to the subject of alienated and even exhausted workers trying to find a moment of ritual leisure against the backdrop of a less than pretty industrial landscape. Seeing the painting up close in its overwhelming dimensions (that of a large scale history painting), I wonder how alien yet familiar this subject would have appeared to shocked audiences in the late nineteenth century.
As I continue to wander through the modern section of the National Gallery, I swoon seeing Cezanne’s Bathers (1884-1905)—another take on the leisure activity alluded to in the Seurat painting I left behind. Here, all I can see when immediately encountering the image is its form—the contours of the bodies, the many complex shades of blue and green, and its size, which is far larger than I imagined. I get up close and think about how Matisse carried a picture postcard of this work throughout his early career, encountering the original painting in a museum just as I was in this moment. I make visual connections to the Fauves and think of the blues and greens of Chagall’s paintings in particular. The lines of influence and inspiration travel far and wide from just this one declarative work.
Turning the corner into one especially noisy room, I prepare myself for the “Mona Lisa” moment I normally dread in art museums—the spectacle of the one work of art everyone has come to see. In this case, it is Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888) and I decide to patiently wait my turn and get up close for a look. It is undeniable how captivating and energetic Van Gogh’s paintings are in person (see image at top of this post). You see the vibrant colours, the thick impasto style, and the clearly written “Vincent” on the canvas. For most people, however, it is the momentary communion with the cult of artistic genius that is the draw. People snap their selfies and take care to examine every inch of the painting in some vain attempt to take in a hidden message. Meanwhile, many perfectly lovely works of art remain ignored all around the room. I find this especially ironic as sunflowers were considered a lowly crop in Van Gogh’s day. But in this room, and through the kind of semiotic shifts made possible by art history, the sunflower joins the ranks of an heirloom rose by virtue of its status and perceived value.
In my final museum visit, I get a very quick walk through the Tate Britain. The elegance of the space while still maintaining a large scale and vast collection strikes a wonderful balance and I get caught up in photographing the architecture of the building as much as any of the art works I encounter. I am immediately delighted to encounter a room with paintings hung Salon style—the way that art works would have been experienced by most audiences prior to the early twentieth century. Notably many contemporary museums and galleries have more recently experimented with curating shows using this style of hanging and it is easy to see why. Audiences spend time engaging and looking, making connections. It is in this room that I spot a number of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, most notably Millais’ famous Ophelia (1851), and I marvel at both the photographic realism of the figure but also the incredible detail of the plants. The work is both clinical and beautiful—an evocative combination.
As this is a museum dedicated to British art, I see many more Turners, including two that I routinely teach, Shipwreck (1805) and Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812). Keeping in mind that Turner was working to perfect his representation of the sublime force of nature as a way to counter the power of any one military power (here, he alluded to Napoleon’s diminished strength in the French campaigns against the British), it is remarkable to see just how tiny, irrational, and erratic the men in these pictures appear. Once again, I see narrative elements in the bottom register of these works that are normally obscured in copies. By the end of this particular visit, I have to admit to myself that I will not be able to get through the whole museum this time around—I make a mental note to return here first on my next trip to London—but just before leaving, I make sure to go see Tracey Emin’s installation My Bed (1998).
There are some works of art that just have to be seen up close to be truly appreciated, and this is one of them. As I examine all of the everyday objects littered around the unmade bed in the middle of the room, I recall many heated discussions in grad school about the transgression and representation of feminist thinking and theory evoked in the piece. My mind then turns to the more mundane questions of how this work was installed, how each piece of debris is placed on the floor around the bed (the tampons seem a little too artfully arranged, while the bedding is also quite crisp, but it does all smell, lending another sensorial dimension to the piece…) and I snap many photos knowing that when I next go to lecture about this work, I will have something more, something new to add to my discussion, having seen the art up close and, in this case, very personal.