Wednesday, October 31, 2007
I have a small "complaint" about museums: there's too much art.
When Keith and I were up at DIA:Beacon last week, I was ambling though the three rooms (about 20 paintings) devoted to Agnes Martin's last works, thinking, "I'd love to spend several hours with just one of these paintings." Being confronted with 20 or so is too overwhelming, making it difficult to really concentrate deeply on one piece. Similarly the next day in Philadelphia, in rooms like the one housing the two Newman's, the Rothko, the Klein and the Motherwell--too much information in too small a space! I realize there's no way around it, but I think appreciation of the work suffers.
And it's not just large abstractions by any means. Walking through gallery after gallery of pre-20th century European painting, I'm entirely conscious of missing most of what's there. The Van Eyck above, which is maybe 5" x 6", is an astonishing work but easily passed by if you're not looking. And even if you find it, how long can you stay and give it the viewing it deserves? On occasion, I've gone the the Metropolitan, marched directly to one painting (the Velazquez "Juan de Pereja" or the Vermeer "Girl with a Pitcher", usually), looked at it for over an hour, then left. It's the only way you can come close to doing the pieces justice, imho.
I was spoiled early on when I attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1974-75. One of the courses I took involved the purely technical aspects of classic painting--the preparation of the canvas, making rabbit skin glue, making your own gesso, glazing, etc. As the main project of the course, we were allowed to select a painting from the stacks, take it to a studio atop the museum and do a copy. I chose a Tintoretto study for his well-known Last Supper. It's a work that, were it hung in a room with other Late Renaissance or Mannerist paintings, would probably not attract much attention. But having the opportunity to sit with the thing for a couple of months, for ten or so hours a week, you inevitably come to realize how incredible this "minor" work really is, how gorgeously painted (and I'm not even a huge fan of Tintoretto!), how masterfully the paint is worked, etc. The experience had a huge effect on me and my appreciation for how truly amazing many "minor" artworks actually are.
I'm sure the same would occur with virtually any randomly selected piece. Some obscure Dutch landscape by a follower of Ruysdael, a Sebastiano del Piombo, a tiny portrait by Corneille de Lyon, a sketch of a French soldier by Edouard Detaille--all things that would likely be passed over on your way to the "masterpieces", all deserving of far greater attention. There was a small Rubens portrait tucked away in a corner in Philadelphia, a sketch that probably took an hour or two--incisive and perfectly rendered; I'm lucky to have noticed it.
Like I said, on occasion I exercise the single-view option at the Met because I can go there fairly often; I used to do it at the Boston Museum as well when I had unlimited free access. But it's, practically speaking, impossible to do on a regular basis and that's too bad, because the paintings deserve better.