Learning to look

24 Hours, August 1994, pp. 52-55 and 124.

On sale at the entrance desk of the National Gallery of Australia is a booklet entitled Sixty Minutes in the Gallery. Suppose you looked at only the 48 works illustrated in this guide and ignored the dozen more mentioned in the text. That decision would allow 75 seconds to find and then examine each object. The length of time spent with Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles” or the 200 poles of the Aboriginal memorial, therefore, would be half a minute. Similarly, in Madrid, a brochure for the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection suggests that entrants allow at least 90 minutes to see 500 items – nine seconds for each painting or sculpture.

A recent world-wide survey of art museum audiences found that nine seconds was the average time which visitors spent before each piece, down from 30 seconds a few years ago. What can be absorbed in nine seconds of glancing? Enough, perhaps, if you have not earned how to look. Once those skills are acquired, however, nine minutes will seem too short for work such as Poussin’s “The Crossing of the Red Sea” in the National Gallery of Victoria.

Since almost all of us can see, why do we need to learn how to look? None of us expects to read poetry in a language we have never learned. Nor do we suppose we can follow a musical score without first studying its system of notation. Such modesty is not automatic among gallery-goers. One reason for this reluctance is that we can talk about most images without needing to acquire a new vocabulary or technical competence. Yet, without those skills, judgements about paintings are, as Margaret Preston put it, limited to approving of a picture because a tree in it looks like the one under which grandma died.

One barrier to understanding the visual arts is the supposition that what we see is the result of an untutored ability possessed by everyone who does not have defective vision. This assumption that sight is natural makes gallery-goers suspect they are being put down when they do not apprehend what curators claim to see in a painting. But the difference is one of learning, not of innate sensibility. Powers of concentration and observation are enhanced by training. Kipling has the boy hero of Kim practice recall to speed up his identification of objects. Gallery-going calls for comparable preparation.

Being taught how to see is not the same as being told what to enjoy. Experts retain their preferences and so should we all. Scholars who rave about Titian may shake their heads at the mention of Tintoretto, just as lovers of chamber music can abominate opera.

However, learning to look will increase the range of pictures we can enjoy. For example, some viewers still see landscape paintings by Fred Williams (1927-1982) as instances of abstract minimalism. Those lucky enough to have attended the 1988 retrospective for Williams did not need anyone to explain that that judgement is far from the whole truth. Walking through an exhibition of 300 canvases produced across 30 years, viewers traveled with Williams as he refined his vision of Australian scenery. His 1950s paintings were obviously of trees. Within a decade he had focussed on a few key elements from the countryside on the outskirts of Melbourne, such as dirt roads, stumps, logs, fences and electricity poles. His art was never abstract, but often abstracted. To encounter a late Williams by itself can be puzzling because it has a few bolts of colour riveted to a horizonless background. Once those marks are recognised as the residue of European occupation, a Williams painting is as representational as a Streeton. Indeed, many are literal in their portrayals of how we have despoiled the bush.

What to do after passing through the gallery entrance way? Tour parties have two opposed strategies for exploring museums.

The popular option is to patter through all the galleries without pausing, except to take photographs. Gallery-goes seem to use cameras as defensive weapons. Taking snaps becomes the preferred way of seeing when one does not know how to perceive. The camera does the looking and the long life of the photograph replaces the need to ponder the original, with the machine supposedly achieving osmosis between the object and the brain without the effort of perception. If tourists want high-quality reminders, they would be better served buying slides or postcards from the museum shop.

The more rewarding approach, however, is to march past most of the pictures on the way to a nine-minute lecture in front of a key image such as Titian’s “Assumption” in the Frari in Venice. The lecture can come from a paid guide, a hired audio cassette or a printed brochure.

No matter how much time one has, some degree of selection will always be necessary. At one extreme, one can follow the arrows in the Louvre to the “Mona Lisa” and then follow the arrows to the Exit. A different approach would be to start with a 90-minute stroll the North-European wing before taking tea and deciding exactly where to pass the hours available. (In museums as huge as the Louvre, time will permit such a preliminary survey of the paintings in only one wing.) Next comes a 90-minute session of slow looking in the chosen rooms. Never underestimate how tiring it can be to look at art. Half-hour tea breaks every couple of hours are essential to maintain concentration. One sidelight in the refurbished Louvre is that cafes (and lavatories) have been located on most floors in each wing, so that treks back to main foyer are not necessary, as at the Prado.

Stage two is to decide which paintings warrant more time. None of us is so blasé about hype that we do not want to see the most famous works in each collection – whether Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937) or the Barberini “Faun” (2250BP) in Munich. After those devotions, it helps to pursue a few themes so as not to become lost among the thousands of images. For instance, you might keep note of how painters depicted the sun and snow; or attend to certain legends such as Judith’s decapitation of Holofernes. Concentration on two or three topics will help to break through the surface of each work. Each line of inquiry will, during the years, spill on to others, such as the discovery of a favourite sculptor, Giambologna perhaps.

Stage three concerns how to look into the pictures selected. Some device is necessary to penetrate beyond the subject matter. Before anyone told me better, I used to investigate pictures by latching onto a prominent feature and working outwards from it before leaping across to another highlight. The result was to encounter the canvas as a patchwork, a hit-or-miss process which allowed the study of some aspects in detail, while others remained blurred.

Just how difficult it is to see all the imagery in a painting came back to me recently when I was giving a lunchtime talk about Tom Roberts’s “Bourke Street” (1885-91), a painting I thought I knew thoroughly. While lecturing in front of the picture, I recognised for the first time that the cart in the middle of the intersection had the word ICE painted on it. Was this Roberts’s joke against the dry heat of the scene? After the audience had left I returned with paper and pen to make a new list of its contents.

It was actually David Jaffe who taught me this annotation process. (David was later appointed curator of European paintings at the Getty in Los Angeles and then at the National Gallery in London.) David’s tuition began in 1979 when we were both teaching Fine Art at the University of Queensland and continued after he moved to Canberra to work at the National Gallery. When we met, he was intrigued by Raphael’s portrait of Pope Julius II (c 1511), and I remember hi showing me how to look at that image. Of course, because we were in Brisbane, we had to work from a colour slide to make my mind go beyond he picture’s obvious subject, which meant breaking his first rule of art appreciation: to look at the picture itself. When a student at the Courtauld, he had been perplexed that many scholars spent their time in the library poring over black-and-white photographs of canvases which were on display a few hundred metres down Charing Cross Road.

With “Julius II”, the task was to discern the portrait’s pictorial and iconographical content, and David suggested that I would identify more of the elements Raphael had incorporated if I move my line of vision across the surface from left to right, before going from top to bottom; I should then repeat the process in the opposite directions. Some canvases are too big to scan in one go and need to be divided into four or six segments, before moving our eyes up and down and from side to side across those areas.

Such close attention to the Raphael raised questions – what, for example, was the significance of the Pope’s beard, handkerchief and ring? Answers lay outside the picture’s frame, since those accessories were elements of the propaganda that His Holiness used to make himself appear as a second Julius Caesar.

So, a further stage of art appreciation requires library research. How important this can be is exemplified by the scholarship that David applied to the Rubens self-portrait he secured for the National Gallery in Canberra. Working through Latin manuscripts in the Bibliotheque Nationale and at the Vatican, he proved that the version he had bought was the commissioned original, while the one at Windsor Castle was Rubens’s own copy. When the Getty Museum employed David Jaffe for his “eye”, they were acquiring his well-stocked mind and visual memory.

Few gallery-goers need to pursue research at such a level. Yet no one can see Western art without some basic knowledge of Christianity. To tour the major European galleries is to encounter hectares of paintings inspired by Christianity, mostly out of Roman Catholic theologies. Protestants were less tempted to idolatry. Time was when it was the exceptional child who knew of Christmas only as the day before the races out at Tanmalangmaloo. Nowadays, the Bible is a closed book to many people. A young woman asking bout a Rembrandt portrait of Christ exclaimed “How weird!” on having the crown of thorns explained to her.

Appreciation of art history is important too. For example, David was still in Brisbane when I returned a few weeks in 1981. By then, I was researching Tom Roberts for a television drama series which the ABC produced in 1984 as One Summer Again. When David looked over my shoulder at a reproduction of Roberts’s Shearing the Rams, he pointed to the youth carrying away the fleece and remarked, “He’s from Ghiberti’s ‘Gates of Paradise’.” (1420s) After I replied that the experts claimed his stance derived from the boy in Courbet’s “The Stonebreaker” (1849), David demonstrated why a knowledge of Renaissance art is invaluable for historians of Australian painting. His published researches on that flame-like figure has challenged art historians to think again, not only about “Shearing the Rams” but also about whether Roberts was more Classicist than Realist throughout his career.

Looking leads to note-taking. Just as it is rewarding to read with a pen in hand, so it is helpful to look at pictures similarly equipped. A notepad computer would be ideal – except that it cannot take in drawings and even the roughest sketches help to divine the structure of a painting, as well as to recall its patterning and tones. An A4 exercise book with a spiral spine is a good option, as it allows pages to be removed easily (some institutions will not allow visitors to take in clip-boards). Each painting gets its own page, headed with the name of the artist, title of the work, location and dates of composition and viewing. Then you make inventories of its staffage (the “accessory items” in a picture – the figures in a landscape, for example), its brushstrokes or its chromaticism. During each rest break, these notes can be scanned to determine to which paintings you want to return. The notes will also be the keys to unlocking patterns; for example, while collating the pages about Jose Ribera (1591-1652), I realised how he had used elongated arms to create Mannerist effects.

The pleasures of looking are not limited to the interpretation of imagery. Practising painters complain that scholars know a lot about art but not much about painting. Yet the two cannot be separated. The way a scene is painted is as much a part of its meaning as is any heraldic of mythological attribute. Consider how the significance of a Rembrandt self-portrait would be altered if he had laid down paint as thickly as van Gogh did in his last year.

The methods outlined above for studying images can be applied to examining passages of paint, whether for textures or colours. Notes about these aspects also include rough sketches showing the direction of the drag marks of the brush. This can be crucial in a Monet, whose pictures of the coast at Belle-Ile, for example, are divided into four of five large areas of sea, cliffs and sky. Not only are the colours of these elements different but within each block he set the paint at varying angles. If the direction of one set of strokes were to change, the picture would fall apart.

No traveler has enough time or the stamina to study every detail in every painting in every museum. One solution is to track a handful of characters who turn up repeatedly, such as St Anne or St Joseph. And the manner of depicting Balthazar, the blackest of the Magi, can give some measure of the intensities of colour prejudice in European cultures – is he, for example, the only Magus kneeling?

Watching out for representations of these legends can revive your attention while moving from room to room. More importantly, the presence in a picture of one of your chosen figures provides a point of entry into the rest of its iconology. Having studied the treatment of St Anne in a score of paintings, for example, it becomes possible to use the way she is handled on an unfamiliar canvas to make sense of the hierarchy of relations between the accompanying figures; the colours of her garments will offer additional clues.

Tracing the depictions of St Sebastian can also demonstrate how a variety of issues can be gathered along a single thread. The prevalence of images of a near-naked young man with arrows sticking out of him has been interpreted as a homoerotic statement form Renaissance artists expressing the Classical idea of male love. Because the man is tied up he cannot resist the viewers’ desire, which is represented by the arrow as penis. One surprise is that none of the paintings shows Sebastian dead; he is rarely even unconscious. Nor do his eyes look at the viewer, but are either turned up to heaven or cast down to the ground. Thus, St Sebastian offers a case study in the possessive gaze – a notion that has been advanced by feminists in criticising a voyeuristic possession by male viewers of female nudes.

If that interpretation holds more than a gay fantasy, it is also much less than the complete story. For a start, in Mediaeval altar pieces, St Sebastian remained garbed. Also, those pre-Renaissance depictions of his martyrdom came at the end of a sequence of panels illustrating his defiance of pagan authorities. By the Renaissance, the method of martyrdom provided a reason to paint flesh, an opportunity otherwise available only from  the crucified Christ, whose body had to be treated with circumspection. Artists who wanted to balance their composition of the naked Christ with a second passage of skin tones could include St Sebastian around the foot of the cross. The nakedness of St Lawrence was less useful because his being roasted alive meant that he had to be horizontal, whereas Sebastian came more or less upright.

Then there are the innumerable images of the Holy Family. In order not to glaze over at the sight of yet another rendition, museum visitors might consider testing Leo Steinberg’s thesis about the representation of the doctrines of the Incarnation and Resurrection. Steinberg argues that a painter’s revealing the genitals of the infant Jesus, sometimes with the Virgin Mary pointing at them or even touching them, was a confirmation of Christ’s human nature – that God indeed had become man. In contrast, the Resurrection from the dead was indicated by depicting Christ with an erect member, perhaps covered by cloth yet nonetheless recognisable from the folds in that garment. Since many of these theological affirmations were  covered up during the Counter-Revolution, one’s powers of observation are sharpened by spotting the over-paint.

Caution is advisable, however, before sharing one’s thoughts about a painting. In front of Jacques-Louis David’s “Death of Socrates” (1787) in the New York Metropolitan, a teenage black pointed to Socrates and asked “Who dat?” Here was my chance to spread enlightenment. “That’s a famous Greek philosopher, called Socrates”, went my pedagogical correctness. “:Socrates was a black man”, came the reaction of this agent provocateur from Malcolm X.