My recent trip to London allowed me to visit the National Gallery, and to start my visit I explored the free exhibition spaces. Here I saw the plethora of art dating from the Renascence to the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movement. While I was looking at the work of the 1700s, I came across a collection of William Hogarth paintings; among these was The Shrimp Girl (1740-45). A piece that was very different to his usual harsh criticizing style that was shown in his other works there, as this was of a young innocent girl cheerfully going about her work as a fish monger. A stark contrast to Hogarth’s usual images of ugly rich bourgeoisie businessman. What also intrigued me about this piece was its light colors and loose brush strokes that were reminiscent of the later artists and were almost expressive in nature. Out of all the paintings in the room this one stood out to me, as the historical tradition around its time of conception was to describe things far more finely; with smooth edges and intricate detail. With Hogarth being English, it makes this contrast all the more unruly, as the English were fairly conservative when it came to art.
It’s this striking quality of art via the unexpected encounter that I think has been lost for some time now. The discovery of a hidden gem. Most art today has already been seen numerous times thanks to advertisements exploitation of there fame and the collections online. For example, one of the reasons that the Mona Lisa (1503-04) is so famous and renown is simply because it’s the Mona Lisa, the painting, the one that the great Italian inventor made, everybody knows about it (and that’s why I’m not showing it here). We visit it at the Louver in Paris to ravel in its percents without truly understanding why.
I’m not implying that there is not value in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, as you can wonder about her enigmatic smile and observe his use of his sfumato technique. But I don’t believe it to be these qualities that make for the most famous painting in the world, I think this comes from more recent developments in the paintings’ existence. One being of an essay by Walter Pater in 1867 when writing about da Vinci, another is the informas theft of the work in 1911 by Vincenzo Peruggiaand, and most recently Dan Brown’s book The Da Vicici Code. While Pater’s essay is perhaps more compelling argument towards the Mona Lisa‘s importance, it was only the catalyst for a chain of events that brought further into the public sphere. All this history, recent history, made the work so attractive, and with it’s fame reaching celebrity status, it became an icon for art (which I frankly find as a very blunt description of arts potential).
The Mona Lisa is not the only piece of work that bares the burden of fame, only known due to recent events. Impressionist paintings are generalized as warm summery pictures on biscuit tins rather than a major development in painting, while Vincent van Gogh is seen more as a Hollywood figure with an entertaining backstory about how he cut his own ear off, generally ignoring the art itself. I realize that I’m being a little dramatic here, but I hope that you get my meaning, that thanks to the Internet circulation of these images and their usage in graphic design to incorporate some false artistic or creative precedence, we find ourselves almost constantly in the presents of art in some way or another. This is what I think has lessened the impact of art, its frequent presents has ultimately diminished our appreciation for it.
Consider those who lived during the Renascence era. There was little to no way of seeing a painting other than by visiting it where it was, usually in a Catholic building like a church. So when someone went to view a particular piece of work, it was far more substantial, both because of the visual presents of God on the mortal plane, and that of peculiarity because of the human figure’s non-corporeal existence, as a flat image that appears lifelike (especially during the late Renascence). As you can imagine, viewing theses illusions of the human form fascinated people, and the more realistic the illusion the more impressive they seemed. Which was very much what dictated good art in these times. Michelangelo’s mural paintings at the Sistine Chapel, and others like it, are a surviving example of how those who lived in this era might have experienced the paintings of people and holy figures. The ceiling paintings (that are know as quadratura murals) extend the architecture of a buildings’ ceiling by creating the illusion of depth, that is made all the more real by the actual distance of the images, thus removing the distinction of whether it is a painting or not. The work at the Sistine Chapel details human forms in a manner that exaggerates the ceiling’s real surface with distortions to produce three dimensional human impressions that sit and pose with graceful gesturing. To us, even now, they almost seem real because of how unusual they seem compared to a framed painting, and indistinguishable from painted images thanks to their distance. We can imagine that this was a similar experience to what those living in the Renascence may have felt when looking at the depiction of flesh in paint on a more personal scale.
All this is perhaps the opposite to our current conundrum. Because Renascence art was appreciated as an uncommon and restrictive indulgence, in contrast to today’s overpowering reproduction of works. If you were to visit a gallery to see a specific piece of work, you would almost certainly have already experienced it somewhere before, thus afforded you the knowledge of it. Like the Mona Lisa, this may damage your
appreciation of it.
Dadaism and Surrealism were a brake away from this problem in the early 1900s, when you could very much experience works in print form. These movements were something new that hadn’t been considered before and did not attribute many aspects to pre-existing artwork. Rather than portraiture, landscape or still life; these new incongruous works explored untapped wells of potential concepts and subject matter. They intrigued and disturbed the public with their lack of the usual formality of art and carved out new territory for artistic and philosophical exploration. Around the time of these new developments, the moments of the unexpected encounter would have appeared more frequently, providing viewers with an unusual experiences, much like my own experience when I encountered The Shrimp Girl in the National Gallery and how I hadn’t expected it t to be. However, as times moved one, the initial reaction to Dada and Surrealism became less prominent, still curious, but no longer striking or shocking (you sometimes get Surrealist works used in Graphic Design). After the Surrealists left their mark, highlighting how the peculiar and at times distasteful could grant artwork meaning, such as conceptual art and ready-mades. Of which has allowed for further penetrating art that cuts into more complicated subject matter. But unfortunately I feel as though some, but not all, of these ideas are becoming so complected that they exclude the less artistic viewer from appreciating work, and becoming almost expectedly confusing and less striking. For many pieces you would need an art critic to help you decide what’s good and bad. Although it’s not that I feel that all art is running low on steam. I don’t mean to say that in order for art to be interesting it needs to be completely original or more superficial. I’m only describing work that does not strike me in the same way that work like The Shrimp Girl did, and hoping that I’m adequately explaining the powerful impact of looking at a certain piece within certain conditions provides.
You could walk away from this ‘blog post’ thinking that I’m sympathetic towards the idea of restricted art forms, containing only a certain collection of elements to elicit a superior response, to be striking. But no, I firmly believe that everybody will bring something of themselves to a piece of art, regardless of what the piece actually contains, something that will resonates from within them that relates to the subject, agrees with it or are surprised at what it achieves. Depending on who you are, different things will ignite with important aspects of the viewer. These aspects may even result in you disliking a work because of how it treats material or subjects. Perhaps it might be your knowledge of a time period that makes a certain work seem so outlandish. My knowledge of Victorian art put me in a position that allowed for The Shrimp Girl to appear so unusual.