Adam in Barca

“At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus “
August 4, 2009, 1:09 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Yesterday I noticed a New York Times story that touched on something I mentioned in my last post — about how too often, museum-going is a rushed, quantity-over-quality affair. I’ve been mulling over the story since I read it, and in the meantime, it looks like it caught Masha’s attention as well!

Before I jump into my thoughts, here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the story:

“Spending an idle morning watching people look at art is hardly a scientific experiment, but it rekindles a perennial question: What exactly are we looking for when we roam as tourists around museums?”

And here’s another excerpt, later in the story:

“Cameras replaced sketching by the last century; convenience trumped engagement, the viewfinder afforded emotional distance and many people no longer felt the same urgency to look. It became possible to imagine that because a reproduction of an image was safely squirreled away in a camera or cell phone, or because it was eternally available on the Web, dawdling before an original was a waste of time, especially with so much ground to cover.”

Since so much of my summer has been devoted to “seeing art,” I think it’s valid to consider what exactly the goal of it is. Why is it worth it to see Guernica in person when you can just Google the photo, anyway?

Since I just wrote about Guernica in an essay about Valente, it seems an appropriate example to start with. Most people have seen—or at least know of—Picasso’s famous painting, and in the Reina Sofia, it was easily the star attraction. (From my photo of it in a previous post, you can see the tourists crowded around it.)

For starters, the sensation of seeing the painting in person is very different than simply viewing a reproduction or image. It’s gigantic, nearly covering an entire wall, and each of the separate images (such as the horse head or human body parts) becomes all the more startling. Because of its size and complexity, the painting is difficult to absorb as a whole—instead, the eye moves from figure to figure; the human or animal aspects, depicted in geometric style, blur with the indistinct shapes behind them. The NYTimes story talked about taking the time for “contemplation,” and this is a perfect example of a famous painting that demands your time and attention. The longer you view it, the more you notice new elements, and how those particular aspects interact to create the sensation and emotion of the larger painting.


For me, seeing the painting in person illuminated some of the ways Valente used it in his poem, “Guernica-Picasso-Guernica: 1973.” In the poem, Valente conflates the reality of death with the physical imagery of the painting: “el frío / horror que hizo nacer / en gris coagulado de Guernica” (the cold / horror that forced the birth / of Guernica’s coagulated gray). The poem, like the painting, is deliberately dehumanizing in the sense that it compresses the separate “agonía” (death struggle) of many people into “una sola agonía,” reflecting the anonymity of violence. (There is plenty more to say about Valente’s take on the painting, but I’ll leave it at that.)

The NYTimes story didn’t focus on this, but I also think going to a modern art museum like Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA)—as opposed to a more classical collection like the Lourve—has its own unique benefits and surprises. The MACBA, much like the MOMA in New York, has a permanent collection, but a majority of its galleries are dedicated to rotating or new exhibitions. In this way, wandering from room to room is a surprise. You never know who, or what, is coming next — and it allows you discover and be inspired by artists you had never before considered, or current artists who are experimenting with brand new styles.

I even had a similar experience in a museum filled with well-known classics, like El Prado in Madrid. When people think of Diego Velazquez, for instance, the first painting that jumps to mind is usually “Las Meninas.” But when I visited that particular painting, I discovered lesser known paintings by Velazquez that drew my intention even more — like “La Fragua de Vulcano.”

And then — and this will end my ramble! — there is the benefit of seeing a selection of art in the context of its time period. As I’m attempting to familiarize myself with modern Spanish art, for instance, I can learn more about a particular painting by Antoni Tapies, as an example, by seeing it placed adjacent to the work of his contemporaries like Antonio Saura and Manolo Millares, who shared a similar style. By doing so, it’s easier to notice aspects that the three painters share—as well as elements that may be unique to Tapies.

imgAntoni Tàpies2

Ok, enough ranting from me. Back to translating. And next time I promise to include more photos.


1 Comment so far
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I’m so drawn to words, I read labels before looking at the art.

Comment by world

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