A painting can hang right in front of our eyes, and yet at the same time can seem so very far away. Just thinking of old master paintings in museums, where you have a composition of tumbling angels or portraits of unrecognisable ladies and gents from a bygone age, how are we meant to connect with artworks like these when at first glance they seem such a long way off, stuck in an immemorial past, unknowable objects as a result of the chasm of time between us and its creators? Is it the case that only viewers well acquainted with the history of art can understand and access these pieces? Do we need to be familiar with the political and social attitudes of the time in order to break that barrier?
I’m here to suggest that although the history of art can certainly shine a light on the contexts of paintings and perhaps help us places them into definable categories, there certainly exists a ‘way of looking’ that doesn’t require background knowledge or experience. And this ‘way’ that I’m about to talk about will I think really help those of us that find it difficult to engage with or are baffled by works of art when walking around museums and galleries.
There is a famous art book from over 40 years ago called ‘Ways of Seeing’ by John Berger, who began with his assertion that a baby learns to see before it learns to talk, read or compute things in the world. A child reacts to its surroundings with electrons and neurons firing off in the brain to form new connections and knowledge centres. This act of visual perception inevitably leads to thoughts and verbal reactions, much in the same way that art stimulates first the eye, then the brain.
Which is why I am proposing that we relieve ourselves of the idea that we need to ‘understand’ an artwork. The simple fact is, that you will never be able to fully comprehend an object of the past. It is impossible to discover exactly how an ancient sculpture was made or ascertain which was the first or last brushstroke to touch a canvas. We can never know precisely what the artist was thinking, or how different factors (political, social or physical conditions) affected his or her hand.
So rather than concerning yourself with the possibility of fully understanding a piece, allow yourself instead to have a purely physical reaction to the art you see, before you turn inward to process its finer qualities. Lead with the eye and body, the mind will fill in the gaps later. Trust me, it will. And if it doesn’t, move on to the next piece of art. When I say ‘lead with the eye’ and physically react, I genuinely mean those words. Let your eye scan the picture or object from left to right, up to down, background to foreground, and then all around. Believe you me, as you allow yourself to look, your brain will instinctively start to ask questions, make observations and begin a process of analysis. Pay attention to things like the size of the people/object in the picture, if there is a background and what is in it, the texture of the paint, pick out individual colours. Walk around the picture, to and fro, or come up close and intimate with it (but try not to set off any alarms..). If you find yourself getting distracted or your focus waning, take 3 deep breaths while looking again at the picture.
I would advise doing this first before reading any labels or texts. Come to these later because although the labels can enhance our knowledge, they can also make us lazy onlookers. So I challenge you to try first to rely on your wit – I promise you will surprise yourself. Labels or audioguides can certainly provide knowledge, history and context, but at the end of the day the object in front of us is in the here and now, and we shouldn’t be afraid to teach it as such, using our faculties as contemporary person with contemporary faculties.
Feel free to try it out on the picture I have attached below, a dramatic moment captured in oil by the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. Of course looking at this on a computer or phone screen won’t provide the same intimacy as seeing the painting in person, but give it a go anyway. Notice every little detail – the open window, her reflection in the window, the caught curtain, the expression on her face, the way her fingers clutch the letter, the tumbling fruit, I can go on and on. Let your eyes wander and feel yourself slowly moving further and further into the picture, until you are standing in the same room as the young girl. Enjoy the meditative process.