Friday, July 11, 2008

How I tour art galleries and art museums

I like visiting art galleries and art museums. But I haven’t always enjoyed them, which is ironic considering that I only started appreciating them after I had visited several in the course of much traveling.

Why was that? Well, because I did the typical kiasu Singaporean thing, which was to say I obsessively walked from painting to sculpture to artifact, all the while obsessively reading the little title plaques next to each item, and listening to the audio tour if I had one. I made sure to cover most the entire gallery or museum.

I ended up with ‘museum fatigue’, glancing at a lot of stuff, having very little impression of anything, getting very tired (those gallery and museum wings are huge) and on hindsight, wasting a lot of time and money (vacation time and admissions fees).

I still visit art galleries and museums when traveling. But after reflecting on my experiences, I have a different way of approaching them now.

For starters, I pick only the most promising one, or at most two, to go to in any city for one trip. There are more interesting things to do in the city, like walking its streets (I have flaneurose after all).

When I’m in the gallery or museum, I walk from room to room, but not from exhibit to exhibit. Instead, I walk to the center of each room and I take a long look around me, carefully taking each exhibit in for a few seconds each. If nothing catches my fancy, I move on to the next room. Only if something catches my eye and I want to take a closer look will I step forward to that exhibit.

[Incidentally, this is a good screen for works of ‘art’ I have never been able to ‘get’. I’m referring to paintings that are literally just a straight line across the canvas, or some such variety. Some of these are by modern artists as renowned as Joan Miró, but I can’t say that I actually understand them.]

Once I’m in front of an exhibit of interest, I’ll ignore the title plaque. Then I’ll carefully examine the painting or sculpture or artifact. Concentrate first on the details of the exhibit. Art is not reflective or introspective only, but is also sensual, in particular some art forms like sculpture. [Sculpture is meant to be touched, but all too often this is forbidden by museum curators.]

Only after you have observed and appreciated the finer details of the artwork will you be able to understand the intention of the artist.

Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker is a good example. Some people have a mistaken perception that The Thinker is in a pensive, contemplative mood.

But if you are perceptive, you will note the tension in The Thinker’s calf muscles, and the way his toes are clenched and how they grip the base of his seat. This is not the pose of a relaxed, contemplative thinker. It is the posture of someone in deep, intense, almost agitated concentration. The Thinker is, in a word, creating.

Once I have finished observing all the details, I think about what the artist was trying to portray. I think about the references or allusions he was trying to make (common in ancient or old art). In trying to come up with my own interpretation, I engage the artwork and the artist. I also try to guess what the title of the work is.

When I’m finished thinking about the work, I look at the title plaque for the first time and I read the title. This is also the point when I turn on the audio tour.

I’ve found that by following this process, I enjoy my visits to art galleries and museums a lot more. And even though I spend much less time on the premises, I feel each visit is more ‘complete’ and enriching, even though I probably see only a handful of exhibits. The difference is that each exhibit I see leaves a lasting impression on me.

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