I haven’t always been a sucker for art, although, surprisingly, when I was a kid, I used to paint and draw a lot. Something happened in between (still trying to figure out what), and I left this interest aside. But it revived in me some time ago, stronger than ever. These are my thoughts on how to analyze a painting, as seen through curious rookie eyes.
Perhaps the word “analyze” is too much said. Seeking to understand, rather than a mere “I like it”, “I don’t”. Of course, this can be applied in a multitude of aspects in our lives, but in visual art … it’s a lot more thrilling, as it makes a direct connection with the eye and ultimately, with the brain, while being so interestingly mysterious. The feeling of sailing in the boat of time in waters we couldn’t even think of … it’s worth going beyond, I reckon.
Leo Tolstoy puts it like this:
“A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist.” It destroys the time wall as well.
In my very short experience in museums and art galleries (a lot of potential to tap there), I noticed there are two types of reactions: the fresh one, on the spot, maybe a superficial one, and then the one that still haunts you for a while. The one where you start to read and study more about the painter, the context of a certain painting, effort put into it and so on. I don’t know why we humans tend to regard so highly of the effort and time someone spends on their work, but we do. Probably this is a reason why I prefer 19th-20th (and before) century pieces to the 21st century ones.
Here I confront myself with the question: which reaction gives a painting a higher appreciation? Which is more genuine? The one that speaks to you immediately, or the one that you get only after you understand it from another view? In my case, I’ve always found my answer after aiming to go deeper than the canvas, to look at the painter’s life and surrounding environment. I find it particularly captivating how an artist’s life impacts his/hers work of art. Was the artist poor, did he/she become famous post-mortem, was the artist mentally ill, deeply in love, traumatic etc.? What did it mean for that period of time? Was it a nude — how was it portrayed in the medieval ages? Considering how many nudes are there, actually, and how famous most of them are, I think we are way more prude than we (maybe) should be.
A message conveyed when knowing this information sheds another light than when simply looking at it. It’s just not enough. However, there are situations in which this simply doesn’t matter. Gauguin, for example, was criticized for its whorish life spent in Haiti. Yep, you Gauguin, sinner, how could you? Nevertheless, his paintings are unique. And you can’t argue with that. The sweet brightness and contrast of colours used is exceptional, as well as the theme. It’s incredible how someone with a questionable morality can produce such fine pieces of art, isn’t it? And that’s when it’s necessary not to punish the art for the artist’s sins.
Apart from the artist’s personal touch and life embedded into it, each painting is a mirror. It asks a question: What do you see of yourself in me? What do you feel when you’re looking at me? A painting is not selfish, it gives so much of itself, almost everything. But then … that piece of mystery, the question you can’t answer.. it is priceless. I love both certainties and uncertainties, they create a balancing magic in this world. So as much as I enjoy adventure, I find comfort and delight in getting lost through the paintings of a museum and build self-awareness and knowledge by trying other people’s shoes.
Someone once said that there was a person who everyday used to go to a museum and was always looking at a piece of art. And he questioned the art, and the art questioned him.
I would say Art is not a monologue, it is lively, speaks across centuries, creates conversations. It sparks the mind and the heart. Very beautiful indeed. And while I started appreciating it later in my life, I believe it is never too late to learn how to talk with a painting.