Pictures of Pictures
"Stand back. Take in the whole picture. A bit further."
"Don’t worry about the caption; the title, the date, the painter; just soak in the image. Create a critical distance to allow the surface of the painting to dissolve. Have a seat, spend some time with the painting.."
As sound as this orthodox advice may be, it misses something deep and meaningful inside a canvas. Within every painting are scores of smaller, carefully constructed paintings to explore. The artist sees these ‘interior paintings’ in the process of painting; as such they represent a critically important view of artwork...the painter’s perspective. Ironically, we are usually prohibited from approaching most paintings as close as the artist stood when creating them.
Simulating the point of view of the painter is to become so deeply involved in artwork, especially modern artwork, as to be entirely within the picture. Like sitting up close in a movie theater, one’s field of vision is filled with the painting allowing the work to reveal its own making in ways never clear from a distance. This view is not just about the intimate construction of a painting, though it is certainly a stroke by stroke deconstruction of art. When you become intimate with its assembly you can almost reverse engineer a painting. The close study of a larger work reveals it’s timing, layering, composition and texture. Swallowing the whole canvas becomes simply overwhelming.
These pictures of pictures, paintings within paintings, were taken at MoMA while revisiting the permanent collection. Some could only be from one work of art, but others conceal their identity and the artist even though they are the most intimate work of the painter.
Museum-goers are now permitted to take photographs of paintings as long as they use available light and avoid the flash. As light degrades fugitive colors, the flash is like putting the painting in sunlight for a very brief period of time. Color degradation is cumulative; a few minutes of sun is like years of controlled lighting, but each has the same final effect. In an effort to keep our works of art visible for eternity (a laudable effort) we view them with very little light.
In order to keep our paintings visible we keep them in the dark.
Normally sedate museum guards get nervous when visitors approach a painting as close as the artist did. But how close is too close? Is it your body’s proximity, or just your hand or the camera that matters? What is a painting’s secure perimeter?
And which painting are we talking about? Paintings may be like politicians, whose importance is expressed in inaccessibility. It’s one thing to shake your councilwoman’s hand, quite another to meet your senator, and a once-in-a-lifetime event to shake a president’s hand.
One pleasure of museum quality art hanging in a private home is the intimacy of distance. In a home you can practically (or, when the
host turns her back, actually) touch the art without offending or causing harm. It’s not just the domestic scale of the home museum but the implied proximity that is so thrilling.
Move closer, and see what the artist saw..
The Google Art Project
Leave it to Google to make a great idea frightening.
Eric Schmidt once said, referring to Google’s goal to scan every written scrap of mankind, that making all world knowledge available would make it impossible to sustain a lie. This ludicrous notion might better describe Google’s latest project; virtual tours of every museum, and detailed scans of every work of art ever made.
Go to www.googleartproject.com and you are, on the home page, confronted with extreme close-ups of some very famous works of art. Staggeringly close in some cases. The landscape of Van Gogh’s brushstrokes. Cezanne with prize-winning sized fruit. Chris Ofili with dung so large you can practically smell it.
The effect, astonishing for so many reasons, is nothing like the act of moving in close to artwork in person. You are looking through a window, not diving into a pool. More like pictures from Mars than travel snapshots. But the level of detail now available allows an almost pornographic inspection of celebrity art. Our new ability to move in shockingly close is as much fun as Google Earth and as overwhelming as nature films on Imax. It’s voyeurism from the safe distance of your computer.
Examining art in person, especially up close, is an act of intimacy with people we will never meet engaged in a process we will never see. And while the Google Art Project does shorten the distance between you and the canvas, the experience it creates is more fleeting, less personal and ‘interesting’ rather than meaningful.
But perhaps Eric Schmidt is half right. The idea that every minute detail of every important work of art is available in excruciating detail is a challenge to forgers. If the truth of every stroke is known to all, how can anyone fake a piece of art? Maybe all world (art) knowledge can prevent a copy, or at least give us all the ‘CSI’ illusion of real understanding.
The Google Art Project may not increase our understanding of art. And it will almost certainly not increase our love of art. But in an antiseptic way it is almost like finding the pictures inside pictures, if only by accident.
Each of these images is from the permanent collection in MoMA’s fourth and fifth floor, and from the foundational periods of modern art from the late 19th century to the mid twentieth. How many can you identify?