2011-05-19

Looking at Art

When I was lately in Stockholm to see an old friend, we went to a favourite place of mine, the National Art Museum. The collections are spectacular, as one would expect, and they have a great shop. I bought three books, one I have already written about here on the blog, and now I have read the remaining two. They are similar in that they are about how to look at a painting.

The Crucifixion with de Rynck
First, I read "How to read a painting. Decoding, understanding and Enjoying the Old Masters" by Patrick de Rynck. He uses one opening per painting, two pages, and explains the different elements of the ikonography. Of course, this is mostly religious art, it being the old masters, but there are also mythological scenes, pastorals, portraits, landscapes and townscapes. It didn´t take long to get through, but a quick calculation tells me that he actually must deal with 179 paintings in there! Thing is, he does not go particularly deep with each picture. I´m sure there is much, much more to tell. I suppose de Rynck´s intention is to offer an introduction for folks who know absolutely nothing about the ikonography of religion, mythology and literature. And I suppose the book has taught me that I actually do!

The Crucifixion with Barbe-Gall
Feeling not entirely satisfied with having learned very little from de Rynck, I continued with Francoise  Barbe-Gall´s "How to look at a painting" and was immediately rewarded. She has divided her presentation into six chapters with headlines such as "Contemplating the Sublime" and "Getting over the shock of our first impression" and she shows six paintings per chapter. Every painting gets six to eight pages and she writes more, she is more of a narrator, she is like a guide gently talking to her audience so that they can begin to understand such oddities Bacon´s Study of George Dyer in a Mirror or Kandinsky´s With the Black Arch. But she also has a few of the old masters here, like Gr├╝newald´s The Crucifixion (as you can see in the pictures). And some paintings that everybody knows, like that girl with the pearl earring by Vermeer and some water lilies by Monet. Fine by me, but these images feel a bit over-commercialized. A shame, really.

Barbe-Gall engages the reader´s entire brain, she wants you to feel as well as see. I suppose that is why she chooses the word "look" instead of "read" in the book title. And her selection is wider, she prepares you for any kind of art experience, while de Rynck has a very narrow selection and well, he risks loosing the reader at an early stage, simply because he does not have a very personal voice. He just staples facts upon facts. By this I´m not saying I´m sorry to have de Rynck´s book, but I think it will serve more as a kind of dictionary, rather than a book that I go to for inspiration. However, I can be wrong. First impressions aren´t always right and a few years on I might find that de Rynck is a winner in the long run.

If you want an excellent introduction to all kinds of art (and why shouldn´t you?), I would heartily recommend Barbe-Gall. If I may briefly take a stand on the soap box I would like to say that art should be a concern for anyone who aspires to be a Mensch.

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