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Monday, July 19, 2010

In the eyes of the beholding the camera

Recently a dear friend returned from an excursion to MoMA, taking in the fabulous Matisse exhibit. She shared an astute observation and suggested that I write about it, so permit me to put it in context --

One of the great disappointments an artist comes to terms with, whether they use paint or pen, is that the world is not waiting for their work. An appreciation, and I might go so far as to suggest, an understanding of the artist's message, narrative, perspective, or balance and composition may be important, original, and even sublime, but don't expect the world to beat a path to your doorstep. Talent is no guarantee of success or interest in what you have to say.

In February of 1971, when I was still in High School, my art class took a field trip to the Brooklyn Museum for a Van Gogh exhibit. I had up to then, visited the masters at the Met, some modern work at MoMA, a bit of Pop and Op Art, as well as a sensational Toulouse Lautrec exhibit at the Huntington Hartford , a museum that is tragically gone. These works and all I knew and understood about Art came through slides and reproductions, which seemed to my uninformed sensibilities, sufficient for appreciating the work and understanding its significance.

My dear friend is a superb, dare I say, magical visual artist. I'm not the only one who thinks so. Her work hangs in Museums and is sought after by collectors of note. To spend time studying her work, as I have, is to appreciate the lyrical colors, the rich textures, the majestic sensibility and most importantly the brave and singular reflection of her life that she dares to conjure up on her canvases. I believe a great artist is one who is not afraid of revealing what lies beneath, who risks exposure and leaves their heart unprotected, sharing images or words to make life understandable and bearable.

It wasn't until I stood before A Starry Night, my breath literally taken away, that it struck me square in the face, that up until that moment, I had not really understood the need for authenticity in the experience of Art.

My collection of books, the slides I had seen in the classroom; the primary sources of my Art History education up to that point, were both totally inadequate for conveying what was felt in the presence of what was intended by the artist -- and of course, that was for the work to be seen in the flesh. The colors were skewed, no strokes were discernable and most importantly, the intimate emotional connection between the hand of the artist and the impact on canvas was absent.

So my forlorn friend at the MoMA stood shell-shocked as she watched the bustling visitors stand in front of the delicate dancing work of Matisse, with their Iphones and various electronic transmission devices; snapping pictures. They were transforming them into multitudes of pixels, through tiny lenses on a pocket-sized screen; again once removed, from the authentic experience of Art, diminishing the experience to Art-lite.

How different was this from looking at the distorted slides of her childhood or the muddy images in my picture books? My friend, like myself, had been educated with the same constraints in the Midwest, until she, ironically, stood in front of Van Gogh’s, The Potato Eaters, at an exhibit at the Cincinnati Art Museum and said she could feel the truth in the painting. These humble farmers, like the modest farmers, and perhaps at one-time slaves, on her family tree, had brought her to tears.

Why, she lamented, did these visitors not understand where they were, what they were witnessing, how incredibly lucky they were? What did any of this have to do with the transformative power of Art, or why they had come to the Museum in the first place?

Perhaps it was the appeal of sharing with their friends, what they had seen, where they had been -- were these merely stolen souvenirs of a visit, caught while she noted, the guards were distracted, busy texting one another?

What might the Impressionists think of the irony of this instantaneous electronic impression made of their work? Instead of a dream within a dream, like Christopher Nolan suggests in Inception, would these not be an impression within an Impression?

What would Mark Rothko, the brilliant painter who said,

.. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them. And if you say you are moved only by their color relationships then you miss the point.”

What would he think of his work missing it’s stroke, distorted in color, and diminished in monumental splendor? Surely he would weep -- as we should, when we witness how easy it is to succumb to a fascination with technology and gadgets that interfere with authentic learning, from those who have the most to teach.


  1. Wow Carol!!! Thanks for sharing the link to your blog. Very poignant observation I might add. I did not know you were writing. Bravo!

    I will begin to follow it as "Paper Girl". You can also click my name "Paper Girl" to see my art blog if you have not visited. I have been using Blogger for two years now, and have learned somethings about the system that might be helpful. Let me know if I can help you enrich your blog... (you may just prefer to stumble through as I did learning about the features as you go, something I am yet doing. Just found a new feature 2 days ago, I was not aware of...And that's how it goes if you don't know what to look for). It's a fun process either way.

    Enjoy the rest of your summer!
    Many Blessings,
    Rosalind Nichol

  2. Post Script --
    The Newark Museum today was filled with teenagers roaming the galleries, texting away -- not looking, just looking away.

    The guards were socializing in the galleries and were making so much noise, that I was unable to listen to a prerecorded interactive installation that I very much wanted to hear.

    This saddens me. Why can an audience be quiet and still for a movie, a product only when we are very very lucky, of miraculous creative collaboration; but not in front of a painting, culled from millions, of -- as awe inspiring and a miracle-when-it-happens, product of one? Perhaps we should show some sort of reverence required here video at the entrance?

  3. So true, so true...observing so many people live behind the lens/screen at museums (and in some of the most beautiful locations around the world) never ceases to perplex me. Enjoy the moment people...absorb the beauty. Build memories...capture the images in your minds eye. Great Blog Carol!